Kentucky has achieved richly, but have the Wildcats reached their ceiling?

Will Levis
ORLANDO, FL - JANUARY 01: Kentucky Wildcats quarterback Will Levis (7) throws a pass during the Vrbo Citrus Bowl game between the Iowa Hawkeyes and the Kentucky Wildcats on January 1, 2022 at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fl. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire)

Kentucky football faces a first-world problem. The Wildcats can have a successful season without winning the SEC East, without playing in a New Year’s Six bowl game, without beating the Georgia juggernaut. Kentucky basketball needs to make the Final Four, but Kentucky football does not live under the same big burden of expectations.

By Matt Zemek

In 2021, Kentucky won 10 games. For the second time in recent years, Mark Stoops guided his team to a Citrus (formerly Capital One) Bowl appearance and victory. Kentucky beat Penn State a few years ago. Last season, Iowa was the Citrus Bowl opponent the Cats managed to solve. Playing in and winning January bowl games, even if not part of the New Year’s Six, is a phenomenal achievement for Kentucky. The program is getting more out of its resources than it has at any point since the great UK teams of the mid-1970s. Before that, a man named Bear Bryant managed to squeeze the most results out of a Kentucky football program.

This is clearly a special time in Kentucky football history. If you enjoy betting Kentucky is a team that shouldn’t be taken lightly by any opponent.

Mark Stoops is doing better than most people ever imagined he would, especially given that he was on the hot seat at an earlier point in his Kentucky tenure. Stoops rode out the storm, benefiting from an appropriate display of patience given the Wildcats’ place in the SEC football hierarchy, and has maximized his opportunity ever since. Stoops has been able to consistently field tough, resilient, high-level defenses. Getting stronger on the offensive line has enabled Kentucky to work around limitations at quarterback and cultivate a serviceable, reasonably competent offense which can take advantage of mediocre defenses. This formula is precisely what Stoops used in 2021 to vault the Cats to a 10-3 campaign and a thrilling bowl win to carry into the offseason.

The 2021 Wildcats averaged 32 points per game and allowed under 22. The 32-points-per-game scoring average was fattened by big numbers against weak opponents: 45 against Louisiana-Monroe, 56 against New Mexico State. The offense, however, did hit some high notes against opponents which could not be written off as tomato cans: 52 against Louisville, 42 against Tennessee, 42 against LSU.

Kentucky could best be described as opportunistic in 2021. Its offense wasn’t a roaring Ferrari, but it maxed out on several occasions, and when the offense wasn’t at its best – as was the case against Florida – the defense was there to save the day.

The offense had only one bad game in which the Wildcats lost, a 17-point showing at Mississippi State. No, a low-output game against Georgia isn’t a bad game; Georgia dominated every non-Alabama offense it faced last year. The MSU game was the one time Kentucky’s offense didn’t deliver the goods against a beatable opponent. The balance between defense and offense was well-calibrated by the Cats for the vast majority of the year.

It’s amazing to contemplate the journey Kentucky made last year: A 10-win season is a huge feat for UK football, and yet two of the team’s three losses were surprising in one way or another. The MSU loss has already been noted. The other non-Georgia loss was a game in which Kentucky scored 42 points. Imagine that: Kentucky scored 42 and yet lost. At home. That game, of course, was the shootout against Tennessee on a night when UK’s defense was torched.

Kentucky football playersRare were the times when Kentucky’s offense and defense did not complement each other, but when those rare occurrences emerged, UK paid a price. It leads us to that first-world problem we mentioned at the beginning of this overview of the Kentucky program: In a terrific season – with the kind of results UK football fans would almost universally regard as well above average and highly satisfactory – the Wildcats nevertheless left some money on the table. They easily could have qualified for a New Year’s Six bowl had they not let the MSU and Tennessee games slip away.

It doesn’t mean Kentucky underachieved, only that there was still room for growth and improvement even in a 10-win year.

Yes, Kentucky would love to have another 10-3 season. Doing that on a regular basis represents overachievement for Big Blue on the gridiron. Yet, Mark Stoops can look at 2021 and see that for all the times when his team lived on the right side of the margins, there was still a small but real sense of “what if?” in the air.

There is pain associated with that realization, but also excitement. Kentucky might seem to have hit its ceiling. Skeptics would certainly say that Florida’s collapse in 2021 had a lot to do with Kentucky’s rise to second place in the SEC East. However, the near-misses UK endured last year, which prevented the program from winning 11 or even 12 games, suggest that the ceiling has not yet been reached. There is still room to grow and develop for a program which continues to find ways to outfox the non-Georgia competition in the SEC East.

Mark Stoops has managed to recruit well. More specifically, he has been able to go into Ohio and get the players Ohio State doesn’t focus on. This is akin to Texas Tech and Baylor scooping up the players in the state of Texas which the Longhorns and the Oklahoma Sooners pass up. Stoops has had a recruiting philosophy which has worked for Kentucky. It’s not a formula which would be appropriate for a superpower in a talent-rich state, but in Lexington, it has been a shrewd and well-executed approach which has enabled Kentucky to be a step ahead of its non-Georgia competitors.

Will everything Stoops is doing continue to bear rich fruit? Or, have these recent seasons ending with Citrus Bowl victories run their course, not to be replicated again? Kentucky has every reason to think that its run has not come to an end, that time is not an enemy for the Wildcats. What happens in 2022 will have a lot to do with how this conversation continues.

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