They’re good, these Kentucky Wildcats. You know it, I know it, they know it. And now the nation knows it – as in, USA – not just the Big Blue version.
One herd of pollsters says that right now, only 12 teams are better than Kentucky. Some of these voters, back in the good old summertime, said the Wildcats would sink back to “Thank God for Vandy” status and linger near the bottom of the SEC East much of the season.
It’s been one of the true headline-makers of the college football season, the way the Cats bolted out of the gate with five straight wins, three in the league. And Mark Stoops saw it coming.
Maybe not the zero on the right side of the work sheet. But he knew the quality was there and said as much to anyone who would listen in the weeks leading up to the opener.
“I wasn’t bragging,” he said. No, he wasn’t. But he seemed to be yodeling into a canyon, his words floating beyond the experts who said his team would fall back after consecutive seven-win seasons. Who’s the quarterback? How are they going to stop anybody? Both their kickers are gone, for cryin’ out loud.
Funny how things have worked out. That’s because in the off-season, Stoops saw what none of us really had the opportunity of seeing: Youngsters growing up.
The guys who had been thrown into college football battles perhaps before they were ready were a year older, bigger, stronger, smarter. And so were their backups – meaning, for the first time since he arrived in Lexington, Stoops had quality depth he could count on. He knew that.
And, oh yes – there were his most important “recruits:” Josh Allen and Mike Edwards. After conversations with Stoops, NFL people and their respective families, the two defensive veterans returned to UK for their senior seasons. That’s why the loss of defensive end Denzil Ware in the off-season didn’t sting nearly as much. Two of the top defenders in the SEC would still locker in Lexington.
Stoops also had seen his quarterbacks get better each day. Kentucky beat out other college football powers for transfer Terry Wilson. Gunnar Hoak showed signs in the spring that he could lead this team. Redshirt freshman Danny Clark pushed both of them.
And then there’s Benny Snell.
The guy who played only on special teams during his first two games as a Wildcat in 2016 has ground his way to the top of SEC ball carriers, proving that the guy (Benny Snell) who said the best running back in the league (Benny Snell) was Benny Snell during SEC Media Days, was absolutely right – even if he said it in the third person.
You couldn’t blame Stoops for saying, “See? Mark Stoops was right.” But that’s not his style. Not the third person OR the bragging. But this week he did say, the kind of quality football his team is playing is what he had in mind when he talked about how much he believed in this bunch.
“It was,” he said. “I was very confident in the team, just in what we were doing and our approach and the way we’ve been going about our business. I knew we had some good players that were really working hard and focused, and good leadership.”
He never put a number on success; coaches rarely do.
“My thoughts weren’t on (the team’s) record,” Stoops said. “My thoughts were on the preparation, on where we were at through the summer, and getting ready to go.”
And now you can understand why he couldn’t wait to get started. He knew his team last season left two wins on the turf at Kroger Field and another in Nashville, at the Music City Bowl. He had two of the top defenders in the SEC returning. He had (finally) quality depth on the defensive front and an offensive line that had spent the previous season blasting open holes for Snell.
He wasn’t sure who his quarterback would be but he was confident that whoever won the job could pick up where Stephen Johnson left off.
And now he has a team that, whatever happens in Texas this Saturday, looks as though it can compete with any opponent on its schedule.
Great possibilities await. The guess here is that Mark Stoops feels pretty good about them. We should have listened.