LEXINGTON, Ky.—All wins and losses are not created equal. Some wins, to use the current SEC slogan, Just Mean More. Some losses are so debilitating that they can negatively impact a team for an entire season.
Exhibit A: Kentucky’s game with Florida on Sept. 23, 2017 in Lexington. The Wildcats entered the game 3-0 and were looking to snap a historic 30-game losing streak to the Gators. A win would also be another big milestone in the building process of Coach Mark Stoops. Kroger Field was packed and for three quarters Kentucky dominated, taking a 27-14 lead into the final period.
What happened next just defies description. Not once, but twice, Kentucky’s defense inexplicably left a Florida receiver completely uncovered. Both resulted in pitch-and-catch touchdowns. The second came with 43 seconds left giving the Gators a 28-27 victory in a game in which they were completely outplayed.
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Devastated does not begin to describe the mood in Lexington after that loss.
“Brutal,” one assistant coach me. “Just brutal.”
Had Kentucky won that game it would have likely started 6-0 (instead of 5-1) and very likely have finished better than 7-6. So I asked Stoops if he still thinks about what might have been if his team had beaten Florida.
To his credit, Stoops didn’t give me a load of coach-speak.
“Every coach says that you have to put those things behind you and we try to do that,” said Stoops as we sat in his office. “But when you look back it’s hard not to hold on to a play here or a play there. You kick yourself as a coach. What could I have done to make our team better or to help them overcome the one or two plays that could have helped up win a game?
“That’s the truth. That is the most honest answer I can give you.”
The fact is that for the mid-level teams in the SEC like Kentucky, the margin between winning and losing games is incredibly small. An assistant coach once told me that in the SEC, the difference between 7-5 and 10-2, especially for the mid-level teams, “is a handful of plays in a handful of games.”
“That’s exactly right,” said Stoops.
Kentucky, for example, started the 2017 season without two difference makers who left with eligibility remaining. Jeff Badet, Kentucky’s leading receiver in 2016, received his degree and left to play his final college season at Oklahoma. Kentucky’s lack of a big-play wide receiver was glaring in 2017.
Running back Stanley “Boom” Williams ran for over 1,000 yards as a junior in 2016 and elected to leave school and enter his name into the NFL Draft. He was not drafted. Two NFL teams gave him a shot as a free agent. He was waived by both.
Kentucky also lost its starting left tackle, Cole Mosier, to a torn ACL in August. He did not return.
Three of Kentucky’s losses (Florida 28-27, Ole Miss 37-34, and Northwestern 24-23) were by a grand total of five points. Think those three guys could have made a difference?
“Yeah, but you have to get over the ‘What Ifs,’ and we’ve talked to our players a lot about that,” said Stoops. “You do it through the work you put in between now and the start of the season.”
Kentucky has now been to two straight bowl games under Stoops and the signs this spring point to another bowl 2018. And that’s significant when you consider Stoops inherited a team that went 0-8 in the SEC in his first season (2013).
“We’re not in the upper echelon but we are working to get there. We are a solid SEC football team that can compete with most of the teams in this league,” said Stoops. “That has not always been the case here.”
The good news is that Benny Snell, one of only 19 running backs in SEC history to gain over 2,000 yards in his first two seasons, is back and looking to repeat as an all-conference player. With Boom Williams gone, Snell got 262 carries last season, which was the second-highest total in the SEC. That’s too many.
“We have to get Benny some help. No doubt,” said offensive coordinator Eddie Gran. Siheim King (364 yards on 79 carries) and A.J. Rose are now ready to assume a bigger role on the offense.
Stephen Johnson was a warrior at quarterback making play after play to keep the Wildcats in games last season. Johnson is gone and will be replaced by JUCO transfer Terry Williams (who started at Oregon) or redshirt sophomore Gunnar Hoak, who has yet to play in a game for the Wildcats.
Ten starters return from a defense that was just woeful against the pass, giving up 251 yards per game in the air. Stoops said he and defensive coordinator Matt House have been re-thinking ways to make the defense simpler and hopefully more effective.
“We are going to trim down some of the things we’re doing do that our guys play a little more freely,” said Stoops.
After an opener with Central Michigan, Kentucky goes to Florida on Sept. 8. You can bet last year’s nightmare against the Gators will be a major story line leading up to that game.
No sense trying to duck it, said Stoops. There is only one way to make that bad memory with Florida go away. You win.
“You look back at that game (last season with) Florida and say ‘hey, we have to win that game’ because we played well enough to win it,” said Stoops. “And it starts with me.”