It's been years since Kentucky Wildcats football has been looked at as anything more than a doormat in the SEC. But with the hiring of Mark Stoops, hope and change were on the horizon. The first season was a disappointing but expected two-win finish. Last season, the Cats won five games and were four points away from going to a bowl game.
Progress, ladies and gentlemen. Progress.
Stoops year 3 was always looked upon as the season when the changes started to happen. Change is occurring structurally as Commonwealth Stadium is being revamped, and new football facilities are going up around campus. These are all positive signs, but it's winning time, baby.
Big Blue Nation is hopeful that the winning ways will begin this season. Most of the guys on the team are Stoops recruits and have been here for the High-Intensity training under Eric Korem. The talent of these young men is on a level that Kentucky fans haven't seen in a long time.
The 2015 Wildcats return major contributors in just about every position on offense and defense. And then there is Patrick Towles. The redshirt junior had a pretty impressive year for his first as the Wildcats full-time starting quarterback. He passed for 2, 951 yards, threw for 15 touchdowns, threw 10 interceptions, rushed for 392 yards, and rushed for six touchdowns. It's expected that Towles take a major step forward this season with even more firepower on offense and a new offensive coordinator in Shannon Dawson.
All of these factors are leading many national pundits to do some things they haven't done in a long time: a). Win six games or more; b). Go to a bowl game; c). Win an SEC road game; d). Beat Louisville; and e). Beat Florida.
If Stoops can accomplish half of those things, then I will be doing a happy dance when the season ends the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
Take as an example the talking heads over at the SEC Network. They broke down the season game by game for the Wildcats and came up with an 8-4 record. Yes. 8-4. Here is what it looked like:
vs. Louisiana Lafayette- Win
at. South Carolina- Win
vs. Florida- Win
vs. Missouri- Loss
vs. Eastern Kentucky- Win
vs. Auburn- Loss
at. Mississippi State- Win
vs. Tennessee- Loss
at. Georgia- Loss
at. Vanderbilt- Win
vs. Charlotte- Win
vs. Louisville- Win
That would be a humdinger of a season. There would be contract extensions all around for the coaching staff. Hell, there might be a push to build a statue of Stoops in front of Commonwealth Stadium.
While I don't share the optimism of the gents at the SEC Network, I appreciate the enthusiasm. I am not as certain as they are that the Cats can win three SEC road games. I think two is possible, with wins at South Carolina and Vanderbilt, but winning at Mississippi State will be a tall order to fill.
I also looked at the 2015 college football bowl predictions. Multiple college football publications and local media members, including Athlon Sports, Prediction Machine, and Bleacher Report, have Kentucky playing in a bowl game.
We aren't used to this around these parts. We haven't been since Mike Hartline was taking snaps. But confidence is building that Mark Stoops has this team's trajectory going up.
There is a wave of positive feeling heading into this season, and the schedule does indeed set up nicely for the Wildcats. I think we will have a pretty good idea of where this team will end up after the first three games of the season. If Kentucky is 2-1 or 3-3, then I think we can feel good about going forward. But 1-2 or 0-3 to start could be big trouble for this team.
Unlike last season's schedule being light in the front and heavy in the middle and end, this season has a nicely balanced schedule with challenges and gimmes inter-dispersed throughout.
Soon enough there won't be a need for projections or predictions. Soon enough all the questions will be answered on the field.
And then we will know just how sexy the Wildcats are.