Just like Rich Brooks did back in the 2000s, Mark Stoops has brought Kentucky Football out of the SEC cellar and made it a nationally-respected program again.
And just like Brooks, it didn’t come easy, and at several points, many wondered if a new coach needed to be brought it. But just when things got bad enough to the point of seemingly no return, Stoops pulled off a 2006-like resurrection and shocked everyone be getting UK to a bowl game this past season.
Will that prove to be the first step towards a long, successful tenure in Lexington for Stoops, or will it be nothing more than a flash in the pan?
Let’s take a look at what the next five years may hold for Kentucky Football:
This is going to be another huge year for UK. With most of the 2016 roster back in the fold, there’s reason to think UK could actually improve off that seven-win season and get in the eight-plus win range.
Stoops’ seat won’t be remotely as hot as it was last season, but he’ll still have a lot of pressure on him to get UK back into the postseason. And because UK scored a signature win over Louisville, they’ll probably need another big win to keep the program moving in a positive direction.
Something along the line of beating Florida, Tennessee or even Louisville again would do that and more this year. With all three of those teams coming to Lexington this year, I expect UK to win at least one of them, and this may very well be the year the Cats take down the Gators.
However, another diffcult SEC schedule helps lead to UK finishing with another 7-5 record and makes it to a quality bowl game. Stoops continues to push this program in a positive directions. Expect this team to essentially be the same one we saw in 2016.
This will be a bit of a transition year for the Cats. They’ll have most of the offense graduating, though Benny Snell will return and be an All-SEC-caliber running back. That will help make up for the passing game losses, including Blake Bone, Dorian Baker, Garrett Johnson, Stephen Johnson and Greg Hart graduating. Don’t rule out CJ Conrad leaving early for the NFL either.
On the opposite side, the defense will be the strength of this team with as many as eight projected starters from 2017 returning, and that’s not accounting for promising blue-chippers in Joshua Paschal, Jordan Wright and Yusuf Corker stepping into bigger roles.
Jordan Jones should also be back and among the best SEC defenders. This team will be more along the lines of those 2008-09 teams that relied more on defense, but got just enough offense to keep making bowl games. Look for a six-win season here that, while a regression in record, is a positive season all things considered.
This will be another transition year, though the script will be flipped as most of the starting defense will be gone, but the offense will have a large number of returnees, among which will hopefully be Snell.
By now, I expect Gunnar Hoak to have won the starting quarterback job. He’s shown a ton of promise thus far, and it won’t be a surprise if he’s starting by the 2018 season.
UK has recruited well enough on both sides of the ball to think they’ll have enough firepower to remain competitive in the SEC and score some big wins. The offense should carry this team to another seven-win season and a solid bowl game.
Most of the current roster will be gone by now, but if UK’s recruiting success is any indicator, Stoops should have this program in good shape for 6-7 wins. UK currently has a top-30 class in the 247 Sports composite team rankings for the 2018 class, one year after finishing 29th in the 2017 class.
UK also finished 34th in 2016, 38th in 2015, 22nd in 2014 and 34th in 2013. Stoops and his staff have consistently recruited at a top 30-40 level, and there’s no reason to think that won’t continue into the 2020s, paving the way for more bowl seasons.
As mentioned for 2020, UK’s consistent recruiting success should keep the program in bowl contention for the foreseeable future. If UK can string together some consecutive top-25 classes, it’s not crazy to think Stoops may have an SEC Championship Game contender by now.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither is a football program that can make it to Atlanta to fight for the conference title, but the current trajectory of Kentucky Football makes this a realistic goal.
This season’s schedule will include home games vs Louisville, Florida, Missouri, Tennessee and LSU. The road games include Georgia, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State. Three more games for this season have not been set yet.
While it’s hard to truly project what UK will be like over the next five years, I do expect this five-year stretch to be very similar to the last five years of the Rich Brooks era.
2006 was the breakout year, which was essentially what the 2016 season was for Stoops. With most of the roster returning, I expect 2017 to mirror that 2007 season that saw UK pull off some big upsets and crack the top 25.
2018 will be that 2008-like transition year in which UK begins relying more on defense to win games than offense, and so on and so on. Stoops has recruited well enough that Kentucky should be in bowl contention every year going forward, and I expect him to make 3-4 more bowl games in the same way Brooks took Kentucky to four-straight bowls before retiring.