The old saying goes ‘Fool me once, shame on you... fool me twice, shame on me... fool me eleventy eighty eight times, shame on my UK Football Fandom.'
I get it, I really do. For two years in a row UK football fans went through a cycle of offseason hype and reason for hope, then a beginning to a regular season that justified it all and even went beyond the hype and onto the verge of frenzy.
However, in both seasons, something happened along the way; we ran up to the football only to see Lucy pull it away...THUD. The 2nd half of both seasons looked less like a speed bump and more like the business end of Negan's favorite weapon, ‘Lucille'.
Before I get too deep into this topic, I want to clarify my stance. I am NOT drinking blue kool-aid while wearing blue tinted blinders. I am not trying to blow sunshine and rainbows up readers' hind-parts in an effort to be positive for positivity's sake.
Two years ago, I predicted 7 wins and UK to shock the world... false. Last year I again predicted 7 wins thinking we would actually win 8 and shock the world... false. This year there will be no prediction from me. I am strictly of the mindset that I want to see the progress manifest itself on the field, not in the articles written by others like me.
So, back to my point: while the last two seasons have epitomized frustration, they are not correlated, nor are they an indicator of the coming season. Before we get into the differences and rationale, let's look at what happened to cause those last two season 'meltdowns.'
There is a pretty simple explanation for the 2014 collapse. The schedule caught up to the young ‘Cats and the horrendous lack of depth only exacerbated it.
Starting the season with the slate of opponents below unfortunately was a fool's gold scenario if there ever was one:
Five of the first six games were at home, Florida was about to embark on their worst season in years and South Carolina was, in retrospect, a program on a significant downward trajectory. Combine that with a program with no depth and a brutal second-half schedule and you have the perfect storm.
The depth issues plus playing at LSU, Mississippi State, at SEC East champ Missouri, Georgia, at Tennessee, at Louisville and you can see the ‘collapse' was not a collapse at all... it was the norm.
The ‘Cats started 4-1 last season and they were marching for the winning drive against Auburn before petering out around midfield amid some curious coaching decisions. While the back half of the schedule was tougher than the front, it certainly was not the reason for last season's regression from a 4-1 start to a 1-6 finish.
The reason last season turned sour, in my opinion, was 100% personnel...on the field and on the sidelines. The offense clearly was not a unit playing together, and some would even say they were playing against each other.
There were contradictions within the coaching staff on philosophy and execution. There was also likely a divide in the locker room; while Coach Stoops will not admit it, numerous other indicators suggest otherwise.
I do not know the exact moment or series of moments that lead up to it... but at some point, last year's team (with exceptions of course) simply did not have the requisite buy-in for each other and certainly not for the name on the front of the jersey.
You can argue it is a player maturity issue and they need to grow up or you can say it is a coaching issue all you want. However, the bottom line is we did not have a team of players down the stretch that were collectively playing for each other.
When you are a collection of big boy football talented (but not top-tier SEC talented) players; not pulling from the same end of the rope is a death sentence...and it manifested on the field every week they played someone not named Charlotte.
Having said all that, it is over, it is in the past, and there is no point continuing to pore over the reasons why last season was a disappointment.
REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
At the risk of sounding like the aforementioned kool-aid drinker, there is A LOT to be excited about this fall...a lot more than most people seem to want to admit. ASOB brethren Will Marshall hit the nail on the head with his piece here titled 'Expectations Should be Higher, for Once.'
My #1 and #1a reasons for optimism are Eddie Gran and Darren Hinshaw. We eventually found out that Shannon Dawson was not among Mark Stoops' first few choices, and it showed. The two never really connected and apparently fundamentally disagreed on offensive philosophies.
Gran and Hinshaw bring a balanced (NON-Air Raid, thankfully) offense that is more pro-style, which is what UK ran the last time they had any real success in the SEC. More importantly, they bring MUCH needed big boy football experience to a staff that lacked it. Gran is essentially a co-head coach for Mark Stoops and that is going to be invaluable for the program going forward.
The duo also do not tolerate anything less than excellence, and they have made it crystal clear from the onset that they are not above benching ANYONE that does not step up and perform. The selective accountability is hopefully a thing of the past.
"This isn't about Boom. Gran said, This is not about Jojo (Kemp), (Mikel) Horton, none of them. This about the Kentucky football team. This is about the offense, one of three phases. You've got a job to do, and here's your job.
Do it well, do it the way I'm going to coach it. If he'll buy in to all that - and they all will - they'll be successful. If not, then you know what? There's going to be another guy that will. I'm old school that way. You've got to be able to be accountable and dependable."
"I don't know what they've done in the past, but their footwork wasn't where it needs to me," said Hinshaw.
My 2nd reason for optimism is Lamar Thomas, the new Wide Receivers coach. All indications are that Thomas is a ball of energy in practice and he is also not accepting anything less than excellence.
At one point last season Shannon Dawson rhetorically asked ‘what do you do, bench them for dropping passes' almost as if it were a silly notion.
Dawson: "What's the coaching point when he drops the ball? 'Hey catch the ball?' " Bench them? "You hate to give up on a guy."— Kyle Tucker (@KyleTucker_CJ) November 28, 2015
Thomas has already said that this unit has to understand that dropped passes are flat out unacceptable. The scuttlebutt is that the WR group has seen the biggest jump from last year to this year because of that mindset.
I think that group now has a mentor who is not going to be afraid to put a foot in their behinds, or bench someone.
My 3rd reason for optimism is that Mark Stoops is awfully close to being in a corner, and I think a cornered Mark Stoops is a very scary Mark Stoops. He is going into year 4; thus, virtually every player on the roster was recruited under his watch. He has gotten so much support from the administration and buy-in from the university that he is quickly approaching terminal velocity at a point of no return.
This is the season that we have to see the fruits of his labor. Nobody wants to win for this program more than Mark Stoops and he is no longer going to be able to preach patience as much as production. It is "put up or shut up" time.
If this season were to be a carbon copy of 2015, Stoops knows it could be an end to a just beginning career as a head coach. A quasi-desperate Stoops is a good version of him, in my opinion.
My 4th and final reason for optimism is the players themselves. Drew Barker is Mark Stoops' prized recruit. Barker is a significant factor in the recruiting wins they have been able to secure and sustain, and he has player buy-in. He is the clear leader of this team.
I think part of last season's collapse was a lack of buy-in from Towles' teammates; it was quite clear that everyone on the offense took it up a notch mentally when Barker usurped Towles' starting QB spot.
Is that fair to Towles? No... but it is the truth.
The offensive line is going to be much improved as well. Moving George Asafo-Adjei to his natural position of guard, and bringing in All-American's Tate Leavitt and Drake Jackson should more than bolster the unit into a respectable one that is lead by senior and future NFL center Jon Toth.
The WR unit returns everyone, and with a renewed buy-in from the unit, a rejuvenated and correctly used Ryan Timmons, a year older and properly utilized C.J. Conrad, it has the makings of living up to/surpassing last season's hype.
Not to mention that competition breeds excellence, and WR specimens 6'3" Jabari Greenwood and 6'3" Tavin Richardson are no longer redshirts, so positions are up for grabs.
Finally, the defensive backs unit is primed to be one of the best that Big Blue Nation has witnessed at Kentucky. Quick, when was the last time UK had two future NFL cornerbacks line up beside each other?
Derrick Baity and Chris Westry ended up as the starters as TRUE FRESHMEN last season. Both Baity and Westry possess the speed necessary to line up against anyone, but they are both taller than most receivers they face at 6'3" and 6'4" respectively. The scary part for other teams and fun part for BBN...they are both just sophomores.
J.D. Harmon and Blake McClain will be the senior leaders of the unit and both have had their fair share of success with Harmon turning into the early season big play guy as he was constantly putting UK in positions to win with big interceptions or pass breakups.
Throw in senior (and former 4*) Marcus McWilson, and a guy I think will make a quantum leap in Mike Edwards at the safety spots and you have a formidable group.
In conclusion, I am not saying start putting money away for a bowl trip...I am not saying start counting wins...but I am saying it is okay to be more excited about this coming season than you probably feel comfortable with.
At some point, all of the positive momentum and foundation building that has taken place outside the hash marks...it has to come home to roost...right?