The 2015 football season ended bitterly. We hold that truth to be self-evident, but since that time a prevailing theme has emerged online: the team won't make a bowl in 2016. Most years the negative feelings have usually thawed by March, and optimism reclaims lost territory. Not this off-season. The gloomy groupthink is on the verge of lasting into April.
The reasons for this negativity typically revolve around schedule and team depth with a healthy sprinkling of recency bias. Just whip up some lemon glaze and you've got a defeatist Bundt cake just in time for spring.
Since Glenn plucked me from obscurity, I've written as a football realist. I can't help but blog like Spock when BBN netizens, but most sports fans in general, are largely Kirk's. In other words, the emotions-based groupthink is understandable, but begins to fall apart under scrutiny.
And while I will pick my spots for optimism (and be proven wrong), I've had the team pretty well pegged in 2013, 2014, and 2015. I bring up my track record to support the following: expectations should be raised for 2016. Last offseason, they were a bit too high, but now they are too low. The repercussions for not meeting expectations should rise as well.
Mark Stoops players now comprise the entire roster. These four classes are the best UK has signed in the advent of recruiting services, according to the 247 composite rankings:
Those rankings won't strike fear in the heart of most teams, but that's somewhat besides the point. UK has closed the talent gap with the non-elite SEC teams, and conveniently, the non-elite teams are the ones UK most often plays. What was once a difference of 20-30 slots in the rankings to match middle-of-the-pack SEC East teams, and Mississippi State, has been squeezed to 10 or fewer slots. There's been a rising tide of talent, and it's almost been enough.
A roster of Joker-acquired players, and young Stoops' signees, proved sufficient for UK to win four SEC East games the previous two seasons. The average margin of loss against SEC East teams has fallen from 23 points to 16 points. That's not nearly enough, but the team is increasingly competitive in a chaotic SEC East, and "chaos is a ladder" for opportunity.
A breeding ground for success is when talent meets experience. Mark Stoops first and second classes both have multiple years in the program. The sophomore class claims one year of multi-game experience at cornerback, outside linebacker, and tight end. Timely transfers inject needed experience at the inside and outside linebacker positions. There's been one more off-season for across the board maturation.
There is a drop-off of experience in the second string. Most notably at: nose tackle, offensive tackle, quarterback, cornerback, and inside linebacker positions. Injuries could still severely limit the team. Ideally, the roster would have upperclassmen backing-up other upperclassmen, but UK isn't there yet. Players that were recruited over, or gave up football, have transferred leaving holes now being plugged by newcomers.
The roster remains a work in progress, but the holes have shrunk noticeably. The linebacker corps is no longer comprised of former high school quarterbacks and receivers. The projected started secondary is comprised of former four stars, and high three stars with all boasting major offers. The exact same goes for each offensive skill position.
Roster vs. Competition
The team doesn't exist in a vacuum, and it's not worth projecting without considering the competition. UK's team had talent on par with at least three SEC East teams last season. That's a good starting point for off-season development to build upon.
Moving forward, the 2016 offense has more natural talent and experienced than the 2014 team that averaged 29 points per game. That's not a guarantor for offensive fireworks, but it's pretty damn comforting. A 2015 defense, with fewer play-makers than 2014, still allowed four fewer points per game than the Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith-led side. There's precedent for the defense getting mildly better when common sense said it should get worse. Finally, and ultimately, there was more quality in last season's five wins than the five wins in 2014 despite a consecutive collapse.
Perhaps most haunting: a litany of freak plays prevented UK from beating Vanderbilt to reach bowl eligibility. That game featured a fumble within the 10-yard line, a pick-six, a red zone interception, a separate inability to score with 1st-and-goal, and a trick play that went for a touchdown. If just one of those freak plays doesn't happen, UK probably wins, goes to a bowl, and large swaths of BBN would likely be more optimistic today (but then again, Shannon Dawson and Tommy Mainord might both still be on staff, too).
This isn't meant as a scorching hot take that UK will compete for the SEC East in 2016, let alone win eight games. The roster is unproven at too many positions to seriously consider those feats; however, the program is certainly better positioned than some seem to think. Fan expectations should be higher, but modestly so.
And expectations should be higher! Let's be honest: it would actually be a huge disappointment if this team finishes with another 5-7 record given its talent, schedule, and competition. Doing so would suggest extremely troubling issues with the current regime.
There are four new assistant coaches, a new S&C assistant coach, and three new film analysts. UK football has been given a lot of tools. If the team fails it won't be because of lack of funding, administrative support, team talent, or experience (barring an extremely bad injury streak - a caveat that could be applied to 90% of teams).
Expectations should be raised, and the consequences for not meeting them should as well. Unlike previous seasons, the postseason has never been more achievable.