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Why the Southern Miss game is the most important game of Mark Stoops’ career


On Saturday, year four of the Mark Stoops Era will officially be underway. Over three years in Lexington, Stoops has a 12-24 record, including back-to-back 5-7 seasons defined by late season collapses. Although a $12 million buyout probably ensures he’ll get a fifth season, most fans view this as the “Make or Break” year for Stoops and the program. Coaches always say that the next game is the most important, but of the twelve games on Kentucky’s schedule this season, no game is more important than Saturday’s opener vs. Southern Miss; in fact, it’s the most important game Mark Stoops has ever coached.

Here’s why.

Kentucky could actually lose

We’ve been over this a lot, but unlike other non-conference cupcakes, Southern Miss is actually good; according to CBS and USA Today’s rankings, they’re better than Kentucky. USA Today’s Paul Myerburg released his preseason rankings for all 128 teams in the FBS this morning and has Southern Miss at #45 and Kentucky at #74. Other SEC teams ranked lower than the Golden Eagles: Texas A&M (#46), Mississippi State (#55), Vanderbilt (#79), South Carolina (#84), and Missouri (#87). Why such a high ranking? Quarterback Nick Mullens, considered by many to be the best pro-style quarterback in college football. Add in star running back Ito Smith and a center that rivals Jon Toth in Cameron Tom and you better hope Kentucky’s secondary plays well enough to compensate for a vulnerable front seven.

Shannon Dawson now serves as offensive coordinator after a rough year in Lexington, but even he can’t mess up a talented trio like Mullens, Smith, and Tom, right?

Speaking of…

The Shannon Dawson factor

Both Stoops and Dawson shrugged off the emotional implications of Dawson’s return to Lexington in their press conferences yesterday, each claiming it’s “just another game.” Well, I don’t buy it. There’s no doubt in my mind that Shannon Dawson is coming to Commonwealth Stadium with something to prove and it just so happens he has the tools to do it. Dawson even stoked the fire a little bit a few weeks ago by taking a shot at his former quarterbacks Patrick Towles and Drew Barker when speaking about his current quarterback, Nick Mullens.

“You know, I’ve been around a lot of quarterbacks,” Dawson said. “Typically, if I have a good one, I’m a pretty good coach. Typically, if I don’t, I’m not a very good coach.”

Yep, sounds like Dawson.

On Stoops’ side, could you imagine anything more embarrassing than not only losing to Southern Miss in your season opener at home, but losing to the offensive coordinator you just fired? Coach speak all you want, but this is personal.

A win doesn’t get you much respect, but a loss is humiliating

Here’s the thing about college football: unless you’re someone who really studies it or your team is playing them, you probably have no clue that Southern Miss is a legit program. So, when 99% of fans scroll through the scores on Sunday morning, one of two things will happen: if Kentucky wins, no one will think anything of it; if Kentucky loses, everyone will have an excuse to make another joke about basketball season. Whereas Freddie Maggard has hammered it into our heads that Southern Miss is a program with a future NFL quarterback that should not to be taken lightly, to most of the nation, they’re a directional school from the Conference USA that even Kentucky should be able to handle. (If that sounds familiar, it’s because you probably still have “They supposed to be SEC” stuck in your head from the Western Kentucky loss three years ago.)

For a program striving for relevancy, a loss to Southern Miss is one PR hit we’d like to avoid, especially with recruits.

Momentum heading into Florida is critical

The first game of the season is always big for momentum, but that’s especially true with a trip to Gainesville on the horizon. There are already enough emotional demons surrounding the Florida series; the last thing Kentucky needs is the distraction of a loss to Southern Miss. Win the first game and confidence blooms; win big and you can talk yourself into upsetting the Gators; lose, and well, getting clobbered in the Swamp might seem inevitable.

If Kentucky loses, they lose the casual fan

Fans are already apprehensive about this season; losing the season opener would just give the most casual of them reason to turn their backs until basketball starts. Like it or not, the history of Kentucky football is defined by heartbreak, which has bred a tendency to expect the worst in its fans. We can tell ourselves that Southern Miss is a great team and steel ourselves for their offense all we want, but admit it, if the Golden Eagles jump ahead by 14 points in the first half, there will be an uncomfortable rumbling in Commonwealth Stadium (and not just from the new offerings at the concession stands). Win and the casual fans stay on board until at least October.

Without a win, Kentucky’s path to a bowl becomes very difficult

This is, by far, the most important reason Saturday’s game is the most important of the Stoops era. After two straight years of close calls, for this program to turn the corner, Kentucky must go bowling. Without a win over Southern Miss, the path to a bowl becomes much more difficult. The Cats would have to avoid slip ups in the games they’ll likely be favored in (New Mexico State, South Carolina, Austin Peay) and then win the three games that will likely be toss-ups (Vanderbilt at home, Missouri on the road, Mississippi State at home). That’s not a lot of room for error. Beat Southern Miss and you not only get momentum, you give yourself the tiniest of crash cushions should things start to head south later on.

For the players and fans, Saturday’s game is the start of another season; for Mark Stoops, it could be the turning point of his career.

So, let’s win.

Article written by Mrs. Tyler Thompson

No, I will not make you a sandwich, but you can follow me on Twitter @MrsTylerKSR or email me.

23 Comments for Why the Southern Miss game is the most important game of Mark Stoops’ career

  1. runningunnin.454
    8:18 pm August 30, 2016 Permalink

    You nailed it with your analogies under “A Win Doesn’t Get You Much”. That’s why Rupp would not schedule WKU or Louisville; you win, big deal; you lose, the world ends.
    Also, when Gene Keady was at Purdue, he lost to teams like, I forget exactly, Arkansas-Little Rock and SE Missouri State in consecutive tournaments. When asked who he wanted to play in the next tourny, he said anybody as long as they’re not hyphenated or directional schools.

  2. KevinM
    9:32 pm August 30, 2016 Permalink

    Someone please tell me we have more depth than Boom and Baker? In Year 3, we have to.

    Barker is still very much the unknown, and its almost time to answer these questions…finally!

    Defense, please be formidable.

    • macsauce13
      10:04 am August 31, 2016 Permalink

      Yes, we have a ton of depth at receiver, but it doesn’t change that Baker is supposed to be one of the best.

  3. Billy Hill
    9:54 pm August 30, 2016 Permalink

    STILL waiting on ‘cats paw’s’ score prediction…………………………

    11:33 pm August 30, 2016 Permalink

    Have to agree with Mrs. Tyler T, she’s 100% on target. Should Stoops lose this game, the stadium will be virtually empty the rest of the season, so the ‘sit anywhere you want’ scene would kill the program and naturally, the recruiting. If DJ Eliot has not learned how to effectively coach the defense, then Mitch will be forced to clean house. Yes, Stoops (UK) MUST win this game, period.

    • Sentient Third Eye
      8:37 am August 31, 2016 Permalink

      Losing this game would not kill the season, but it would require something like winning at Florida to undo the harm (which is, as Mrs. T says, harder to do without beating Southern Miss).

  5. deltasig41
    11:42 pm August 30, 2016 Permalink

    Maybe it is, but only because it is the next one. Let’s be real…If Kentucky were able to find a way to beat Florida/Auburn/Louisville last season, the complexion of the program and the significance of this game totally change. Any of those three games (or all of them collectively) was the most important game of the Stoops Era, and he failed all three tests. Because of that, Saturday’s significance is magnified. If the status quo remains, the Southern Miss game won’t be the one I remember from the Stoops Era. It’ll be the triumvirate of Florida/Auburn/UofL in 2015 and what might have been.

    Hopefully Stoops is able to exercise those demons this season, beginning Saturday night.

  6. stoopstroops
    11:50 pm August 30, 2016 Permalink

    It absolutely is the most important game of his tenure coming in. But that’s to this point. If we do somehow lose this game, the stadium would be near empty and it would hurt recruiting. But if we could still make a bowl without this game and win the bowl, fans will be back and so will recruits. Bottom line- the next game is always the most important

  7. BiasedBigfoot
    12:10 am August 31, 2016 Permalink

    Uggghhh! Now I only feel even more pressure to get this win.

  8. Luether
    1:17 am August 31, 2016 Permalink

    Excellent post, Mrs TT! I couldn’t agree more. This could be one of your greatest works…

  9. jr1122
    7:48 am August 31, 2016 Permalink

    You hit the nail on the head Tyler. Great article. Everyone is saying “Stoops needs time”. This is year 4 and we are discussing the possible loss to a Conference USA school. No disrespect to Southern Miss. If we were not in the SEC this would not be an issue. Been in the bottom cellar for years. Im tired of losing to Florida 29 years in a row. Im tired of hearing about losing to WKU. I was in the stand when the entire crowd almost lost their mind against EKU. Its do or die time in year 4. Id rather not look forward to Big Blue Madness once October rolls around. Lets win.

    • TheDon
      8:53 am August 31, 2016 Permalink

      I generally agree about losing to C USA schools, but I think this is an unusual opponent. As a whole, SEC > USA, but Southern Miss is ranked above 6/14 SEC schools. We should win, and a loss will get us flack, but this isn’t your standard C USA cupcake.

      I guess what Im saying is that a loss would be crushing, but wouldnt be as bad as a loss to other cupcakes we play like ULM.

  10. shelby
    8:13 am August 31, 2016 Permalink

    No matter what happens against so miss, it will take a miracle to win in the swamp; the gators have ten times the talent, depth, experience, speed, skill, everything.

  11. bosshogg24
    8:35 am August 31, 2016 Permalink

    UK can always count on Shannon Dawson to call a “Draw Play” on 3rd and 20!

    • Sentient Third Eye
      8:39 am August 31, 2016 Permalink

      To be fair, Mumme used draws on third-and-long, and he made them work. Of course, it helped that we were almost always going for it on fourth down back then. Good times.

  12. ribin48
    9:05 am August 31, 2016 Permalink

    Defense must be better — Offense can help (and must) be able to run the football, throw the football and ‘eat up clock’. Must have good drives – allow defense to rest and not give up ‘short fields’.

  13. kycats13
    9:20 am August 31, 2016 Permalink

    Well written, you captured exactly what I’m thinking.

  14. Time_4_Nine
    9:23 am August 31, 2016 Permalink

    I don’t understand why everyone on this site believes that Dawnson’s comments about having a good qb necessarily means that he was throwing shade at the Kentucky kids? What if he was just commenting on the fact that Mullens is such a good quarterback, and for that reason he will be a good coach there. A tongue in cheek type comment? I mean come on.

  15. secrick
    9:46 am August 31, 2016 Permalink

    Thanks Tyler, now i am really nervous.

  16. Howdy Doody
    10:04 am August 31, 2016 Permalink

    Lose this one, then get stomped for the 30th time by Florida and it is all over but the sobbing…and yes I will sob when I see UK getting beat by the same school for the 30th time. I hope I am wrong, but at 63 years of age have seen it all before.
    Matt, Drew and KSR cannot pump enough smoke to sway me. I have heard it ALL before.

  17. CapitalBlue
    2:07 pm August 31, 2016 Permalink

    “Kentucky could actually lose”

    Does anyone know of a less shitty UK sports blog I could start reading?

    • nadroj
      4:49 pm August 31, 2016 Permalink

      You mean one that will lie to you?

    • CapitalBlue
      6:26 pm August 31, 2016 Permalink

      It was more a commentary on using the word “actually.” Of course they could “actually” lose on Saturday. They are a bad football program who can “actually” lose to anyone. They could “actually” go 0-12 this year and it wouldn’t surprise me at all.

      That said, my initial comment was prolly a little harsh.