It used to be that merely making a bowl game at Kentucky was cause for a parade. It certainly wasn’t something the program could take for granted.
Matt Zemek, 14Powers.com
One central indicator and measurement of Mark Stoops’ success in Lexington is that at this point in time, merely making a bowl game is no longer a good season. Stoops, the fans, the players – they all expect more, and frankly, they should. Stoops and Kentucky have built a program where their defenses are regularly good to great. They’re never below-average anymore.
Even in last year’s bumpy, rocky season – which ended at 7-6 after a brutal performance against Iowa in the Music City Bowl – Kentucky showed what kind of defense it had. It thoroughly contained and frustrated the national champion Georgia Bulldogs’ offense. UK held the Dawgs to just 16 points and had lots of chances to make that game a thriller heading into the final few minutes of regulation. However, time and time again, the Wildcats failed to score. They would make a crushing mistake. They would find ways to not hit the key play in a hinge-point moment. The 2022 season was a constant series of those kinds of failures, but even then, the defense still showed it could play.
This all sets up a 2023 season in which the Wildcats have gone back to a familiar face and a winning formula: They re-hired Liam Coen as offensive coordinator after he went to the Los Angeles Rams for the 2022 NFL season. Coen is the one coordinator who has truly transformed Kentucky’s offense into a scoring machine in the Stoops era in Lexington. Whereas the 2018 Kentucky team which won 10 games under Stoops did nearly all of its work on the defensive side of the ball, the 2021 team which won 10 games in the Commonwealth was able to average 32.3 points per game. It was a legitimate scoring force, with Coen calling the shots. Kentucky developed a passing game which had to be respected. Coen teaches the passing game well and gets both quarterbacks and receivers to play at a higher level. Coen’s past work with Jared Goff during the Rams’ Super Bowl run (in the 2018 NFL season) is a testament to his player-development skills on the offensive side of the ball.
Stoops saw how ugly his Kentucky offense was last season, in a year marked by step-on-a-rake failures such as a home-field loss to Vanderbilt and a no-show against Tennessee, and he knew exactly what he had to do: Bring Liam Coen back. Big Blue will try to regain the formula it found two seasons ago. The thought process certainly is sound.
The next big question: Can Devin Leary stay healthy enough to make a difference as Kentucky’s quarterback under Coen’s guidance?
Leary, when healthy, shows the signs of being a special quarterback. North Carolina State is one of four Power Five programs which has never made a New Year’s Six (formerly BCS) bowl game. The others are Rutgers, Vanderbilt, and South Carolina. Leary guided N.C. State within striking distance of a BCS bowl under coach Dave Doeren. That alone speaks volumes about his ability; he helped get Doeren off the hot seat by emerging as one of the more talented QBs the Wolfpack have had since Russell Wilson left for Wisconsin over a decade ago. Leary’s tenure in Raleigh was marked by a number of injuries, however. That threw a monkey wrench into his and Doeren’s plans for January bowl game glory. Now wearing Kentucky blue instead of Wolfpack red, Leary has a fresh start and a chance to do something special under his new offensive coordinator in Bluegrass Country.
If we’re being realistic about Kentucky’s outlook for the 2023 season, the Wildcats are not going to beat Georgia Between the Hedges in Athens. That’s just not going to happen. How Kentucky can try to make a run at 10 wins starts with the home game against Joe Milton – not Hendon Hooker – and Josh Heupel’s turbocharged Tennessee offense in Lexington. As much as Kentucky does need its offense to grow by leaps and bounds this year, the fact remains that Heupel has had Stoops’ number the past few seasons. The Heupel offense has had the answers for Stoops’ defense. That’s a game in which Stoops must come up with a good plan. He has contained Georgia’s offense in recent seasons, but he hasn’t figured out the Heupel puzzle against the Vols. Kentucky will need to slow down Tennessee enough to put Leary and the offense in position to win in the fourth quarter.
If Kentucky can beat the Vols, then their path to a 10-win season opens up. The Cats lost to South Carolina last year when Will Levis was hurt. A healthy Leary can certainly hold his own against the Gamecocks’ offense in 2023. Crucially, South Carolina’s brilliant finish to the 2022 season could be seen as a revealer of Tennessee’s and Clemson’s weaknesses as much as (if not more than) the Gamecocks’ strengths. If South Carolina’s football quality is oversold, Kentucky could definitely bring Leary into Columbia and knock off the Gamecocks. That would be a second big poker-chip win in the SEC East. If UK can handle the Vols and South Carolina, the rest of the East is much more manageable by comparison.
Let’s also keep in mind that Kentucky lost to Vanderbilt last year. The Wildcats could gain one game relative to their 2022 ledger sheet simply by reversing the outcome against the Commodores. They beat Florida on the road last year and stand a good chance of being able to take care of the Gators in Lexington this year. It all boils down to those two games against Tennessee and South Carolina. If Kentucky can flip those two results, the Wildcats could very realistically get to nine wins. If they can pull a surprise somewhere else, they might somehow be able to win 10.
It would be an imperfectly perfect 10 for Mark Stoops, given what happened one year ago in Kentucky.