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3 takeaways from Kentucky’s trip to SEC Media Days

Kentucky can reassume their “underdog” mentality.

2023 SEC Media Days Photo by Johnnie Izquierdo/Getty Images

College football season is just around the corner. This week, national and regional media outlets traveled to SEC Media Days in Nashville to learn about and talk more with each team’s coach and players.

A Sea of Blue was present on Wednesday as Mark Stoops and the Kentucky Wildcats took the stage. Entering his 11th season as the head coach of Kentucky, Stoops is now the second-most tenured coach in the conference behind Nick Saban.

In that span, he has coached the Wildcats from one of the worst Power Five teams in the country to a contender in the SEC East.

Outside of learning that Nick Saban’s favorite cake is carrot cake and Arkansas’ Sam Pittman is not a fan of Hamm’s beer, here are three takeaways for Kentucky Football.

Getting Back to “Blue Collar” Roots

The Wildcats have never been the most talented team in the SEC under Stoops, but they have consistently been one of the most physical and fundamentally sound in the conference. That has been echoed by conference opponents for years, but last season, that was not the case.

Stoops knows that “without physicality, you’re not going to win at the highest level.” That is why he emphasized that the staff’s focus is, and has been through the offseason, getting Kentucky Football back to their “blue-collar roots.” That starts at the line of scrimmage, where the Wildcats need to once again be “physical” and “consistent.”

“It takes a lot of things to put it together at the highest level, but to me, we can control the physical part of it,’ Stoops said. “So we have to at least be that, and at times last year, it felt like we weren’t successful enough at being who we are.”

Bringing in five offensive linemen from the portal, Kentucky’s priority of playing with more physicality starts up front with the Big Blue Wall.

Adapting and Embracing

With the addition of the transfer portal and NIL, the collegiate landscape has been “chaotic” thanks to very little regulation, but as Mark Stoops said at SEC Media Days, “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”

Kentucky Football has been no stranger to change in the last 2-3 seasons. Of course, much of that change is due to NIL and the transfer portal.

In the portal, Kentucky has been a real winner, bringing in considerably more talent than they have lost, including Devin Leary (N.C. State) and Ray Davis (Vanderbilt) for this coming season. As for NIL, the program has ventured through and put itself in better standing with organizations such as The 15 Club and Commonwealth Causes.

The change doesn’t stop there at NIL and the portal. As a program, there have been multiple staff changes, especially on offense. Through all the change, it has been about “adapting” and “embracing,” according to Mark Stoops.

Last season, the highlight of the offense was the play of freshmen Barion Brown and Dane Key, but their play was overshadowed by the overall downfalls. When talking to several of the players, they criticized the complexity of Rich Scangarello’s playstyle.

Returning Liam Coen as Offensive Coordinator, that offense has already become more simple, as told by the players in the Spring, which is a positive given the amount of new roster personnel.

Flying Under the Radar

Last year, Kentucky appeared in the preseason Top 25 for the first time since 1978. On paper, it was justifiable. The Wildcats returned a top-five quarterback prospect, one of the best running backs in program history, and a stout defense. However, things did not come together, and the team didn’t meet the high expectations as injuries occurred, the lack of experience on the offensive line showed, etc.

This season, things are different. The Wildcats are bringing in a new quarterback, running back, and offensive line. While there is an improved standard of expectations, Mark Stoops and Co. will be in a more comfortable “underdog” role.

At SEC Media Days, Kentucky wasn’t thought of too highly. Following the preseason media voting, the Wildcats were picked to finish fourth in the SEC East, behind Georgia, Tennessee, and South Carolina. Also, only one player of the eight candidates was selected to a preseason All-SEC Second Team or higher (Deone Walker, DL).

In the past, Stoops’ best teams have been those that are motivated by the doubt of others, and that is certainly there again.

The goal of the Kentucky Football program has been to take the “next step” and win the SEC East. With one of the toughest schedules in the country, which features games against Alabama and Georgia, it will be difficult to do that.

Yet, it is a schedule of opportunity. It is unlikely the Wildcats reach Atlanta, but if they can pull an upset, they can make a statement and prove they are closer to reaching that step.