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A Recap and a Look Ahead for Kentucky Football

We recap how UK performed (or did not) in 2015 with a look ahead to 2016.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Kentucky football fans are very special people.

There seems to be a fraternity of sports fans that continually get their hearts torn apart by their favorite teams' tragic defeats in the most indescribable way.s  Chicago Cubs fans, Cleveland Browns fans, Kentucky Wildcats football fans, and New York Knicks fans all seem to get punched in the gut at some point in the season.

For Kentucky football fans, it's the year in and year out saga of perpetual heartbreak due to a lack of playmaking and incessant defeat in the SEC.

I wrote in August that a 5-7 season would not be a bad season and I still stand by the sentiment.  However, the way it happened has left a bad taste in Big Blue Nation's mouth.  The roller coaster ride that is Kentucky football seems to continually break our hearts and leave us in utter disgust with the coaching staff and the program.  Think about it, UK was one yard from defeating SEC East Champion Florida, two dropped passes from beating Auburn, and a missed field goal from beating Vanderbilt.  But as it stands UK did not defeat any of those three, and if they had we'd be celebrating Stoops and UK going to their first bowl game since 2010.

It's not the 5-7 that bothers me, it's how we got to 5-7 that bothers me.  There seems to be key components of UK football that are consistently the reason that we're losing ballgames.

First, UK's defense cannot and has never stopped a mobile quarterback.  No matter how many times a team runs the read-option, UK's defense cannot consistently stop it.  It feels like every team UK plays can successfully run the read-option, but UK never has the ability to do that, ever.  This goes back to the Hal Mumme days.  It feels like every team UK plays has a big, strong quarterback that rushes for 4 to 5 yards on end every play.

Second, UK's receivers have untimely drops and costly penalties.  It felt like every time UK had some momentum on offense, one of their stalwarts would drop a pass that was easily catch-able or  would hold a defender on the outside during a big run.  All summer and early fall the UK receivers were played up to their speed and playmaking, yet they were very inconsistent.

Third, UK's play-calling at times was nauseating and predictable.  This is perhaps the biggest qualm when UK had the ball that somehow, someway we would ineffectively choose a play that set us up in a difficult situation.  Most of the time the play-calling was confusing.  At the 50-yard line, the staff would call conservative plays such as a draw or a quick throw, but at the 25-yard line the staff would get aggressive and only throw to the endzone.  There was never a happy median.  There were also times that I could predict the play-calling before the series started.  On first down, medium-to-deep pass,. Second down, it's a draw play. Third down, a screen to the running back or Dorian Baker.  I know most of you felt this way.

Lastly, the disorganization at times was baffling.  Specifically in the Auburn and Vanderbilt games there seemed to be a lack of organization on the Kentucky sideline.  In the Auburn game, Kentucky only had 8 guys on the field to receive a punt late in the game.  In the Vanderbilt game, Kentucky had a missed assignment on a punt that led to a Vanderbilt touchdown as well as a timeout on a 4th down but not on a field goal attempt that later caused them the game.  After the Louisville game, Josh Forrest said that they prepared Kyle Bolin and not Lamar Jackson.

Now, for all of the negatives I posted there are still positives that came out of this season.

For one, UK won a road game AND defeated a team ranked in the top 25.  Granted, South Carolina and Missouri each finished under .500 for the season, but that is irrelevant.  What matters is this program taking steps forward.  A win on the road and a win over a top 25 team (and 2x defending SEC East Champ) is important.  The next step will be to end the streak against Florida and to get to a bowl game.

Second, UK is moving forward with their guy.  Drew Barker was very important in the 2014 recruiting class and now gets his turn to be the guy.  In the spring, he will get all first team reps and will have the ability to build chemistry with his receivers.  Barker is only two starts into his career, and has shown some promise (when he's had time to throw AND receivers catch).

Third, UK has a lot of young and unproven talent waiting in the wings.  Say what you want about this past team, but the last of Joker's guys are finally gone.  Now Stoops has all of his guys playing and growing in his program.  Kentucky fans should be excited about the secondary and linebackers going forward.

Going forward what can we expect in 2016? I think we should pay attention to several different things:

  • Coaching staff changes - Who stays? Who goes?
  • The 2016 signing class - Does it stay together? Who else signs?
  • Spring development - How do transfers and early enrollees play into the line-up?
  • 2016 schedule - How will the first-year coaches at UGA, Mizzou, and USC affect UK?
  • "Hot seat" pressure - Stoops has pressure to get to a bowl in 2016, how does he react?
There are things to consider in the five bullet points above.

The coaching staff will go through changes.  In fact, every staff does (to some degree) in the off-season.  There has been and will be clamoring for a new offensive coordinator, a change on defense, and a special teams coach.  I am not sure that UK fans will get an answer to any of the three.  However, there will be a change of some kind, and when there is Stoops needs to evaluate the right coach when it comes to experience and ability.

The 2016 signing class has, for the most part, been shored up since the summer.  There are about one or two more scholarships left to allocate to the 2016 class.  As of now there are four early enrollees for the spring semester; Kash Daniel, Gunnar Hoak, Drake Jackson, and Tate Leavitt.  The 2016 class includes 3 Army All-Americans (Daniel, Jackson, and Landon Young) as well as two of the top players in Georgia (Jordan Griffin and Kobe Smith).  The rule of thumb in recruiting is one to three decommitments, so it will be interesting to see who does and who replaces the decommitments.

Spring practice will be very important to this team.  Drew Barker will get the first team reps and will allow him time to gel with his receivers.  The transfers who redshirted this fall, Courtney Love, De'Niro Laster, and Greg Hart, will get a chance to play their way up on the depth chart.  This spring could define the fall.

The 2016 schedule looks tough on paper now.  It includes non-conference opponents Southern Miss, New Mexico State, Austin Peay, and at Louisville.  The SEC home games include South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, and Georgia.  The SEC road games include Florida, Alabama, Missouri, and Tennessee.  UK fans should break it down as such...

Definite losses: @ Alabama, @ Tennessee, @ Florida
Probable losses: @ Louisville, Georgia
50/50: @ Missouri, Mississippi State
Probable wins: South Carolina, Vanderbilt
Definite wins: Southern Miss, New Mexico State, Austin Peay

UK is not going to win at Alabama, at Florida, or at Tennessee.  Just get those out of your head now.  Georgia and at Louisville will be very tough games to win so I'll consider them losses for now.  Missouri on the road is winnable with a stagnant offense and a brand new coach.  Mississippi State is winnable at home with no Dak Prescott and losing 10 starters.  South Carolina and Vanderbilt both should be wins considering South Carolina will have a new coach and Vanderbilt is not better than UK.  Then there are three gimme non-conference games which UK will win.  This team could easily be 5-7 again or 8-4.  We'll see how the season falls.

The most important thing to consider is the hot seat pressure that Coach Stoops may face next season.  I am not saying he is on the hot seat, but if UK struggles at any point next season the detractors will get louder, and louder.  I have faith in Stoops. Let's just hope he does well.