Hoping to build a winning program at Kentucky, first-year coach Mark Stoops will get an up-close look at what one looks like Saturday night against South Carolina.
USC hosts UK in what will likely be its easiest SEC game of the season, as it is almost every season. The Gamecocks have beaten the Wildcats by at least one touchdown six times under coach Steve Spurrier. Nothing indicates the outcome will be any different when USC hosts Kentucky at 7:30 p.m. Saturday inside Williams-Brice Stadium.
(USC is a 21-point favorite against Kentucky. Stoops bluntly said this week a three-touchdown point spread is not enough.)
There are bigger fish to fry — figuratively speaking — as the fall grows older. But Spurrier believes Stoops can make Kentucky competitive someday, even if that day doesn’t come this weekend. To learn more about Kentucky’s first season under Stoops, and what to expect from the Wildcats on Saturday night, read our Q&A with Louisville Courier-Journal beat writer Kyle Tucker.
1) How has the program and fan base embraced new coach Mark Stoops?
Fans are fired up about Stoops. They haven’t all come back yet – still no sellouts this season – but season-ticket sales were up about 8,000 from last season and attendance is way up. I think the segment of the fan base that was a little unrealistic about how quickly Stoops could turn this thing around, perhaps unaware of just how bad a situation Joker Phillips left behind, are getting antsy. But most seem to realize that he inherited a 2-10 team that went 2-14 in SEC games the last two seasons (losing by an average of almost four touchdowns). They see that many of the best players on this team are the new ones Stoops brought in, and they see a great recruiting class coming. They’re still excited.
2) What have been the biggest differences between Stoops and former coach Joker Phillips?
An obvious one is a big one: he’s a defensive guy. He turned around the defenses at Arizona and Florida State (dramatically so in the Seminoles’ case), and UK desperately needs the same. You need a stout defense to hang in the SEC, and the Cats haven’t had one in some time. Another difference: he’s fiery. I think fans like that this week, when he got fed up with unacceptable results, he went off. You’ve surely seen it by now, Stoops steaming, saying his team would “get rolled” at USC and the 21-point spread “ain’t enough” and guys are “looking for a rock to hide under.” Never saw Joker do that. It was always, “We’re just one or two plays away,” even after a 38-point loss. And finally (this is the biggie): recruiting. Stoops is a good recruiter, but more importantly he went out and hired a hungry staff of recruiters, many of them young guys trying to make their name. UK managed to sign the No. 29 class nationally just six weeks after Stoops was hired and its 2014 class was ranked No. 1 for a time this summer – a stunning thing to see – and is currently No. 7. That’s a huge, huge difference. Phillips’ last two classes ranked in the 60s.
3) How much time will Stoops be given to turn Kentucky around? How long should it take?
I think he’s gonna get some time. AD Mitch Barnhart believes in this guy, is already seeing some baby-step progress and wants to see what Stoops can do if he stacks up two or three of these crazy recruiting classes. The talent level was very low when he took over, so I don’t think you can really even start evaluating Stoops’ coaching until Year 3. I think that’s the first time it’s realistic to expect a winning record.
4) Kentucky is in the midst of a brutal four-week schedule, with games against Louisville, Florida, USC and Alabama. Other than survival, what positives is the team hoping to pull from this stretch?
Not getting run out of the stadium. So far, so good in that regard. In both the Louisville and Florida games, Kentucky looked at least competitive for most of the first half. They lost by 14 and 17. Respectable. That’s what I think they’d like to get out of these next two. Survive, stay healthy, don’t get demolished. Because there are some winnable games on the back end of this schedule. Also: figure out how to convert a third down. UK has failed on 20 of 21 third downs the last two games. That’s problematic. And, ideally, find a quarterback.
5) How does Kentucky like to use its two quarterbacks, and what differences do Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow bring to the game?
Funny you should mention that. This is the week UK wanted to stop rotating and pick one guy and go with him. Whitlow is easily the superior runner (169 yards, 2 TD rushing this season) and Smith is supposed to be the better passer, but it hasn’t looked that way lately. Smith, after an apparently awesome week of practice, really struggled against Florida. He’s completed 57.9 percent of his passes compared to 66 percent for Whitlow. There’s also the issue of Smith’s throwing shoulder, which has been injured repeatedly. Never mind his surgically repaired ankle, which was shredded early in last year’s game against USC. So the Cats tried to pick one – I’m hearing it was Whitlow – and let him get the bulk of the reps this week. But then he came out and struggled, causing Stoops to say he was frustrated, unhappy and anxious to get this thing settled.
Bonus: Who wins Saturday, and why?
I’m gonna go out on a limb and say South Carolina. Why? Because the Gamecocks are significantly better at just about every position. But if you want specifics: I think Mike Davis will run wild and the Cats’ offense will continue to struggle against Clowney and Co.