Managing expectations is something that every Kentucky fan has a ton of experience with, but rarely when it comes to football. As UK fans, we almost always have to discuss managing expectations with basketball, and for good reason. Basketball is a way of life here in the Bluegrass State, and every year in August, fans begin talking about the next installment of the Dream Game, how likely Kentucky or Louisville is to get to the Final Four, and who the next big recruiting commitment will be for next year's hardwood team.
We are used to those things, those basketball expectations. They are like comfortable old shoes we put on every year about this time in preparation for another campaign. It wouldn't be the cusp of fall if we didn't start talking about basketball's expectations.
Except this year is different. This year, the expectations talk is about football. Consider this piece by John Clay in the Herald-Leader yesterday:
Give Mitch Barnhart a back pat. Roasted by hardcore football fanatics for the program's decline under previous head coach Joker Phillips, UK's athletics director flipped the script by tabbing a Florida State defensive coordinator who had never been a head coach. So far, it has proved to be an inspired choice.
Mark Stoops hit the ground attacking. He's recruited beyond expectations. He's pumped oxygen beyond expectations into a deflated fan base. He's provided hope beyond expectations.
If John Calipari was what UK basketball needed after Billy G., then Stoops has been just what UK football needed.
Clay couldn't be more right. Stoops is exactly what Kentucky needed, and what he's done in the short interregnum since his hiring is inspiring, and even a little awesome. The underside of that are expectations, which are on the rise in the Commonwealth.
Fortunately, unlike basketball where irrational exuberance often rules the day, Kentucky fans' experience with football would hardly inspire any sane person to other than jaded pessimism. Despite some middling success in the mid-to-late part of the last decade, the Wildcats have recently returned to the basement of the SEC, dropped there with the resounding "thump!" of a 2-10 season last year, and expectations by most outsiders for another sub 5-win season this year.
Talk about your sports dichotomies.
Pessimism about football is as prominent a feature of the modern Kentucky fan as optimism about basketball. That this takes place in the SEC, a league that treats basketball as only slightly above intramural sports in the context of fan interest, only acts to exacerbate the disconnect between Kentucky and the rest of the SEC when it comes to the Sport of the South. It is an uncomfortable and awkward relationship.
But this year, UK fans have some hope that, even if we can't tell for sure yet, the flicker of light at the end of the long tunnel of despair may not, in fact, be an oncoming locomotive. It might just be that we have found the right combination of experience and youthful effervescence to take a program that has its picture as the illustration of the word "moribund" in the dictionary and turn it into a program worthy of respect, even in the football-mad SEC.
Our own Hank Rippetoe has told us, mostly to a response of "Yes, but...", that Kentucky was once a school with a solid football tradition. The success of Adolph Rupp in basketball ultimately doomed that tradition on many levels, and it has been dead and gone for decades. As a program, UK is now in the place that the eye does not see, not because of blindness, but because nobody wants to look there. We sit now, in some ways, in an even deeper pit of despair than back during the post-Hal Mumme probation. In fact, before hiring Stoops, this program had achieved Bill Curry levels of futility, and a fan rebellion.
But no more. Today, hope springs anew for the first time since Andre' Woodson & Co. roamed the field. This time though, it is not due so much to Kentucky's players, but to an energetic and talented new coaching staff, along with a demonstrated commitment by the UK Athletics Administration to make football competitive again. That new energy and commitment has showed up in recruiting, and in a spring game attendance of over 50,000 fans, but will it show up on the field?
The consensus is, "not this year," which comes to they point of this article — expectations. Outside observers almost universally expect Kentucky to be loathsome again this year, and UK is placed at the bottom of the SEC by pundits near and far. This is rational based on the fact that UK didn't have much talent last yearas well as the fact that football is notoriously hard to turn around in only one year, particularly by a head coach who has only six months more collegiate head coaching experience than your humble correspondent.
So what should our expectations be? Should we join the punditry in expecting three or less wins on the year? Should we join our SEC blog brethren who see Kentucky in pretty much the same light as a game against Directional State University? This is the burning question, and the answer isn't simple.
There are several things that impinge upon this debate that we should consider, even if any given school in the SEC might poo-poo them:
- The SEC middle-to-lower tier isn't that great at football. The top of the SEC is deep and strong, but below that are six or seven teams that are usually somewhat overrated. That's happening mainly on the strength of the panache of the top tier, which tends to filter down when a lower-level team gives the top tier a tough game or upsets them;
- Every year, there are teams in the SEC that disappoint, just like in every other conference, and lose unexpectedly and/or often to teams they should beat;
- The road is desperately tough in the SEC. Just ask South Carolina, Georgia, and LSU, all of whom have lost to inferior Kentucky teams on the road since 2006;
- There have been several coaching changes in the SEC, and those don't always work out for the best.
I'm not predicting wins against Alabama or even Florida this year, although Kentucky is overdue to pick off the Gators and the stars are somewhat aligned for a surprise; but I'd bet against it. On the other hand, Missouri is not expected to be world-beaters this year, and the Wildcats get them in Lexington. Tennessee also has to travel to Commonwealth Stadium this season and they are rebuilding with a new coach just like Kentucky.
Also, Mississippi St. and Vanderbilt represent upset opportunities by virtue of the fact that neither team is considered top 25 caliber, although MSU in Starkville is a pretty tall order for UK this year. So if we consider:
- Missouri and Tennessee prime upset opportunities because they are in Lexington and not top teams;
- Mississippi St. and Vanderbilt as lesser but still possible opportunities because they are not top teams.
- Western Kentucky is a game that Kentucky should win, if not convincingly;
- Miami (OH) and Alabama St. are two teams that Kentucky should win with relative ease, or if not ease, at least convincingly.
So to me, a reasonable expectation would be to win at least four games, and perhaps as many as many as seven, if the stars all align and the injury bug bypasses Lexington.
With that said, the worst-case scenario is also possible -- another 2-10 season. Western did beat Kentucky last year and they have potentially (although not certainly) upgraded their coaching. It's not at all ridiculous to think they might reprise that with a win in Nashville this year, which, while technically a home game for UK, will be very well attended by Hilltopper faithful. All the other scenarios could easily go south, although to me it seems very unlikely that Kentucky does not pull at least one surprise in the SEC.
So by my reckoning, our expectations should be optimistic, and moderate optimism would place the Wildcats at 5-7. Even a fairly neutral point of view can see Kentucky at 4-8, and irrational exuberance could envision 6-6 or even 7-5 if every bounce goes to the Blue and White.
So, dear reader, how optimistic are you?