Mark Stoops didn't win an SEC game in his first season at Kentucky, but a strong recruiting haul helped get him a raise and an extension. What's in store for the Wildcats in Year 2?
By Cory McCartneyFOX Sports South
The on-field results didn't look much better as Mark Stoops went 2-10 and winless in the SEC -- or exactly what Kentucky did before he showed up. But the Wildcats are seeing a jump in their talent level, pulling down Scout.com's 21st-ranked haul in the Class of 2014, which comes after the program averaged a 36.6 under the previous regime.
That was enough to get the coach an extension and a raise after one season, but will it change the Wildcats' fortunes in Year 2 of the Stoops era?
Kentucky may have one of the SEC's more underrated defensive lines behind ends Alvin "Bud" Dupree and Za'Darius Smith. Dupree is the top returning tackler with 61 a year ago, with 9 1/2 for loss and seven sacks, while Smith totaled 53 tackles and six sacks. There are emerging playmakers with receivers Javess Blue (43 receptions for 586 yards and four TDs) and Ryan Timmons (32 catches for 338 and two scores) and running back JoJo Kemp (482 yards; three TDs), but the strength of the team lies with that defensive front, which bodes well as the Wildcats attempt to play catch-up in a league that's typically defined by its D-lines.
Stoops lost just four players from the starting 22, with the departure of linebacker Avery Williamson, who was selected by the Titans in the fifth round of last month's draft, hurting the most. In 48 games, he totaled 296 tackles -- leading the team in 2012 and '130 -- with four sacks, two interceptions and three forced fumbles. The job of replacing him looks to be one by committee right now, with Kentucky returning five LBs who registered a tackle last year in seniors TraVaugh Paschal, Miles Simpson and Tyler Brause (a special-teams contributor last year) and juniors Tre' Dunn, Josh Forrest and Khalid Henderson. Then there's the four LBs from the 2014 recruiting class, led by early enrollee Dorian Hendrix. Who emerges figures to be one of the more intriguing battles in camp in Lexington.
Who, exactly, is going to be the Wildcats QB? We know it wont' be Jalen Whitlow, who after throwing for 1,033 yards, five TDs and five interceptions, opted to transfer to Eastern Illinois. With junior Maxwell Smith, the starter for four games last season, out in the spring following shoulder surgery, sophomore Patrick Towles got the start in the spring game. But don't automatically pencil him in for the opener as redshirt freshman Reese Phillips and early enrollee Drew Barker each saw equal time. The battle will rage into fall camp and its unknown where Smith, who has had trouble staying healthy (he had a season-ending ankle injury in '12) fits in. Best guess? Towles starts but Barker, a four-star recruit, gets plenty of chances to take over should the offense struggle early on.
SEASON IS A SUCCESS IF ...
They can get through September with a winning record. The October/November schedule doesn't include one team that finished below .500 last season and features a trip to LSU and Mississippi State out of the West, along with Louisville in the regular-season finale. Sprinkle in East foes South Carolina, Georgia and Missouri and Tennessee on the road, and getting bowl eligible may simply be out of the question. It's imperative Kentucky try to take advantage of a first four weeks that, outside of a trip to Florida, features games against Tennessee-Martin, Ohio and new-look Vanderbilt.
GAME TO CIRCLE ON SCHEDULE
Sept. 27 date vs. the Commodores. If the Wildcats are going to climb out of the SEC's cellar, they'll need to take down one of the teams in the rung just above them, and getting Vanderbilt at Commonwealth Stadium fits the mold. The Commodores are coming off three consecutive bowl appearances, but coach James Franklin is gone, along with the conference's all-time leading receiver in Jordan Matthews, the starting quarterback and, most importantly, all four starters in the secondary. That's a matchup the Wildcats will need Blue and Timmons to exploit.
PREDICTION: 3-9, 0-8 in SEC
After winning just two games last year -- vs. Miami of Ohio, which went 0-12 and FCS school Alabama State -- and going 0-8 in the SEC for the second straight season, Kentucky is looking for signs of life. Outside of Vanderbilt, the SEC schedule is daunting, but an Oct. 11 home game with Louisiana-Monroe (102nd in scoring offense last season), could be the difference in getting past '13's win total. The Wildcats have a ways to go, but this year should at least provide tangible progress.