In some ways Saturday at Papa John’s Stadium epitomized the 2014 Kentucky Football Season. The game started out with such promise, as Kentucky not only took the early lead, but was dominating the proceedings in all three facets of the game. The defense was holding UL’s offense stagnant, the offense was moving the ball and the special teams was controlling field position. It was like the early part of the UK Football season, when things seemed almost too good to be true…two SEC wins at home and a road game in the Swamp that not only nearly broke a national-record streak, but also could have put UK in the lead in the SEC East. UK fans would have been forgiven if at the end of the First Quarter, they dreamed of not only a UL win, but a Bobby Petrino squash, with the Cards limping to a massive defeat and the Cats dancing to a Bowl game. It felt like a new era was once again upon us.
But, as with the regular season as a whole, reality crashed down soon after. The Cards showcased themselves to be the better team and while UK did not give up, they were playing as the decided underdog throughout the rest of the game. Just as in the regular season, when UK played with #1 Mississippi State, scored consistently against Georgia and put forth a strong defensive effort at Missouri, the Cats made plays and had stretches where Louisville was completely beatable. But then there were other stretches, where UK looked overwhelmed (as in the Tennessee/LSU games and on Defense vs Georgia), unable to stop the UL Wide Receivers and with an offense that was unable to even get minimal yardage. Just as the season could have swung with one play (the 4th Down at Florida, the onside kick vs Mississippi State), the Louisville game gave UK its painful individual plays (I will think about the Marcus McWilson drop for a long time), but in the end the result was the same….a loss to our rival and another year without a Bowl.
So how do we grade this season as a whole? Overall, I do believe that this was a positive season for UK Football and Mark Stoops. Going into the year, I thought UK would win 5 games and they were the exact five that they won. The schedule was the “hard” one of the two-year rotation (I prefer the “toss-up” games in Commonwealth next year when UT/UL/Florida/Missouri are in Lexington and Georgia/Miss State/South Carolina are on the road) and Kentucky handled itself well. They got the one underdog win (versus South Carolina), had a legitimate shot to pull off two upsets over ranked teams (Miss State and Louisville), were competitive in another (Missouri) and had three clunkers (LSU/Tennessee/Georgia on defense). I firmly believe if UK had simply made it a game in Knoxville, we would all have positive vibes on the year, but that performance against the Vols stung a bit. Still, the offense was improved, the defense handled itself well for the most part and we saw young guys get better. The season was by no means perfect…the Air Raid really wasn’t as “Air Raidy” as we had hoped, the Secondary was exposed big time in the second half of the season and the Offensive Line is still a major concern in the years to come. But, I believed the trajectory for Mark Stoops at UK was this….survive year one and recruit…get better in year two and recruit…bowl game in year three. This season was still a step in that direction and followed the plan, thusI do consider it a success.
So now what is next? Going into the Offseason, I think there are Four Major Questions that Have to Be Answered Before Next Season:
1. Who is the New Offensive Coordinator?
This one is the most immediate, possibly the most telling and almost certainly the most important. I liked Neal Brown and still think he did a good job here. He took over an offense with no playmakers and made it respectable and through recruiting and development, ready to potentially make a leap forward next year. Now there will be a clean start (which might not be a bad thing from a fan perspective) and the question is who Mark Stoops is going to get to replace him. Will he go with another “Air Raid” guy to continue the offensive system that has been in place? Or does he go in a different direction all together and put in a system with which he is more comfortable. I have heard four names associated with the job at this point:
Lincoln Riley: ECU Offensive Coordinator
Chris Hatcher: Murray St Head Coach
Eddie Gran: Cincinnati Offensive Coordinator
Tim Beck: Former Nebraska Offensive Coordinator
The first three guys are clearly “Air Raid” guys and all will run systems similar to Neal Brown. Riley is the hottest name and from my perspective, would be the best get. He can light up the scoreboard and fans will love his offense. Hatcher is a UK guy who is very intelligent and has a bright future. He is very young and could step in and not miss a beat. I know less about Gran, just heard his name this afternoon for the first time, but know he worked with Stoops at Florida State. And Beck is a Youngstown guy who hired Vince Marrow at Nebraska, but also runs a different type of offense. We shall see who he picks, but more importantly is this question….is Stoops an Air-Raid guy or not? We will know for sure when this hire is made and the offense (and recruiting) will derive from whatever is that decision.
2. Can Year Three Recruiting Stay Strong?
Stoops has been golden in recruiting and there is no reason to suspect it won’t continue. He has a great base of a class already in place and has some elite guys waiting to make their final decisions. His goal is just to finalize everyone and then hope to bring in the final pieces and maybe one superstar (Damien Harris). The one worry is that some of the lack of competitive games might have an impact on the final part of this class (and maybe more importantly) the development of the 2016 class. I am not particularly worried as Stoops has sold others with less than what he has now, but it will be important to keep the momentum going. If he gets a Top 30 class (which looks likely still), it will be a tremendous accomplishment and can finally give the depth this program needs to begin its upward march.
3. Is Patrick Towles the Guy Going Forward?
This would not have even seemed to be a debate a few weeks ago, but Towles struggled in three of the last four games and may have had his worst performance of the year versus Louisville. I still think Patrick has NFL potential and has everything you could possibly want from a Quarterback (big arm, mobility, large stature)…but his decision-making has to get better in the offseason. As the year went on, he got “happy feet” and rarely went through his progressions without first taking off and scrambling. Part of that was due to the so-so Offensive Line play, but part was also just an unwillingness to stay put in the pocket and make the right decisions. Patrick can make all the throws but he has to get better on the short timing routes that are the key to Air Raid success. If not, Reese Phillips and Drew Barker are waiting to try and make this a competition. Again, the decision as to the offensive philosophy will play a key role in who the Quarterback will be, but I believe that a competition, whether truly completely “open” or not, will exist in Spring practice.
4. Can the Players Individually Get Better?
This seems like a simple question but it is extremely important. The level of athleticism in the Freshman/Sophomore classes at UK is tremendous and unparalleled in the last decade. But now these guys have to get bigger/stronger/faster and most importantly, better. The young receivers have to learn to run and finish routes, the Offensive Lineman have to get bigger, the Defensive backs have to be good enough to get on the field. Stoops has brought int he talent, now they have to become good enough to play and excel. We see flashes of brilliance from many but there hasn’t been a complete package of a year from any of the Stoops young recruits (with the possible exception of Boom Williams). This is the most important offseason of the Stoops era.
I believe Mark Stoops and this program are headed in the right direction. I think Kentucky has made great strides and has upped the talent level/facilities/coaching to where it needs to compete. But next season will be the most important of the Stoops era. If the Cats improve, make a Bowl Game, and rise farther, the sky could be the limit. If they don’t improve, or worse digress, don’t go to a Bowl Game and waste the favorable home schedule and the opening of the renovated Commonwealth, then one starts to get worried. Recruiting, fan interest and player belief hinges on what happens next season. I think they will get it done, but this offseason will be huge in making it happen.