On Saturday, the Kentucky Wildcats took on a reeling Georgia team and could not take advantage. Instead, the ‘Cats likely got Georgia some much-needed momentum and may have saved Mark Richt's job in the process.
Kentucky has lost its last four games after starting 4-1. Not only has UK lost its last four games, the last three have been flat out embarrassing, shades of former coaches embarrassing. The program is still in a position to win a few of its remaining games, if not all of them, but it is becoming a tougher task by the week.
Vanderbilt nearly beat the SEC East Champion Florida Gators, and Louisville seems to be getting things right after their horrid start to 2015.
Coach Mark Stoops has backed himself into a corner by allowing this season to reach the precipice of getting out of hand. He is now in a position where anything less than winning two of the next three will equal a very uncomfortable offseason in Lexington. If the unimaginable happened and they lost out, nothing would be off the table in terms of repercussions, in my opinion.
So now we know that we are in a must-win situation in at least two of the next three, if he wins those games and we go 6-6, we will go bowling and a small step forward is taken. If we can somehow win all three remaining games, it will be reasonable to call this a successful season with a bright future. Having said that, let us discuss where we are today.
The talent is much better than it used to be, let us not kid ourselves, but we are still a ways behind the rest of the Conference. The last five seasons our recruiting has finished 13th in the SEC, 10th, 13th, 14th, and 11th (out of 12 at that time).
Talent puts us just ahead of Vanderbilt, we have progressed performance-wise to be better than Vandy, maybe South Carolina and Missouri as well. From a talent standpoint, it is on pace or a bit ahead to be honest.
So, when you look at the Jimmys and Joes we are still far behind but improving. In the game of Football, talent wins out more often than scheme. It is more important to begin passing up SEC teams on the recruiting trail than most anything.
That aspect of improving a program is simple: get better players and you will more often than not beat less talented players. The link between a team that can overachieve and reach heights unexpected is when you add a very talented coaching staff to mold those players.
Missouri Coach Gary Pinkel is a great example of this; he takes recruiting classes that hover around top 25 and elevates their play to a point where special seasons happen on a regular basis. Five of their last eight seasons, he has won 10 or more games. Having said that, he did not win more than eight games including bowl wins in his first six seasons.
Coach Stoops could be a similar type coach at UK over the long haul. What could separate Stoops would be his coaching staff. I have come to the conclusion that Coach Stoops has a few gaping holes in his staff.
It is commonly known in any setting that leans on leadership, it is a best practice to hire those around you who are smarter than you, then let them go to work while you lead the organization.
I am thoroughly convinced that D.J. Eliot is not the right man for the job. This is Eliot's first big boy job as he was the Defensive Ends coach at Florida State before coming to UK. My opinion is that Stoops was being loyal and brought along a guy he thought could grow into the role and of course Stoops would be there step-by-step to correct any missteps.
This is a great theory, but I am of the opinion you should never hire someone because of what you think you could turn them into down the road. You hire someone for their potential, not yours. We have had three years of a defense that gives up thirty points per game and has now shown consecutive seasons of serious regression as the season wore down.
The Kentucky defense under D.J. Eliot has given up 34.1 points per game in SEC play. The counter to that stat would be to not take into account Eliot's first year since he did not have much say in his personnel. If you take out that season, his defenses have still given up 32.9 points per game in SEC play.
It is not just the gashing performances like Georgia with 300 yards rushing, it is the struggle of our players to seem to even know when to line up sometimes. Remember when Dak Prescott sent out five guys wide and we sent our ENTIRE second level of defense to clear out the field for Prescott?
The bottom line is D.J. Eliot needs to be on the hot seat at this moment and he should be coaching for his job the rest of the season.
Coming into last night the Kentucky offense was 96th in America in scoring offense. I can only assume that will drop to triple digits after yielding a lonely field goal. The promise of Air Raid and a downfield passing attack came with Shannon Dawson from Morgantown. The problem is Dawson had only a portion of responsibility for what went on as Dana Holgerson called all the plays.
Shannon Dawson's last stop where he actually controlled the offense and called plays was at Stephen F. Austin. That is quite the difference than against the best defenses in the land.
For the entire season, I have been of the mindset that Dawson is simply learning on the job and we would just have to be patient until he finds his groove. I am increasingly feeling like he is falling more into the bad hire category. I have a problem snap-judging to that after nine games, but I am having a problem finding the silver lining.
If I were to ask you what is the first thing that comes to mind when you think UK offense, what is it? What is the one thing we can be known for and counted on to do well on offense? There is no answer, we have no identity on offense, and we have not improved in any one area.
Our receivers are getting worse at catching the ball consistently, we seem to never ride the hot hand in backfield when we do have one, and the play calling is head scratching at times. I almost think a 16-year old with a Madden playbook could turn this group of talent into an offensive juggernaut.
You may want to jump immediately to the counterpoint that the line just is not giving Towles time to do anything. However, the caveat to that is whose fault is it that we continue to run long developing plays, exponentially exposing the problem?
How many times have we seen Patrick Towles take the snap, half a** fake a handoff, then try to lock onto a man three seconds later before he tries to scramble. We have a quarterback who does simple things really well: run, and throw the ball, so why not highlight those traits?
Under Coach Rich Brooks, we had a rolling pocket that mitigated the deficiencies of the blocking ability. Shannon Dawson's answer to blocking deficiencies is to leave a dynamic tight end in the backfield blocking instead of being the next Jacob Tamme.
Why would we not adapt the play calling to allow Towles to utilize his legs more (rollouts?) and throw quick hitters, posts, screens, and the tight end over the middle, etc.? It just feels like when our guys run a play, they seem to be running it for the first time. Why that is, I cannot put my finger on, but it just feels that way.
I am not ready to say that Dawson is not the right man for the job and that he is on the verge of ‘needs to go,' but I think he needs to do an about-face and get his stuff together or his seat should be scorching very quickly. To return a much better offense than last season, but regress quite a bit is about as big of a red flag as I can think of.
I love that Mark Stoops is our coach; I love the passion he has for the program. I think he wants to turn UK into his version of his brother's program in Norman. I think he genuinely wants to win more than anyone employed at the University.
However, he is also learning on the job. When you hire an up and coming head coach, who then hires "up and coming" coordinators, it is a bad business model. You cannot have the three heads of your trident learning on the job, otherwise you get the maddening ups and down we have seen.
The most concerning aspect I have right now regarding Coach Stoops is the turmoil within the team. He needs to get a hold of his team before they quit on him as they did last year. I think a lot of that turmoil and divide has to do with a lack of accountability. Different rules for different players create a divide, and starts finger pointing and whispers within cliques.
Stoops could learn from the guy within his own university, Coach Calipari. Holding players accountable and not trying to hide them breeds competition, and competition breeds excellence. I know we do not have the level of talent Coach Cal works with, but the concept is the same.
If a WR drops a ball, sit down, next man up. We see this happening on the offensive line, and even in the backfield, but it does not seem to apply at the WR position, QB position, or special teams. I would be willing to bet money that this is where the player divide is centered.
The honeymoon is certainly over for Stoops, but he is far from being on the hot seat. Stoops has some tough decisions coming this offseason, regardless of the next three games' results.