LEXINGTON, Ky. — Starting the season 0-2 wasn’t the route Mitch Barnhart expected the Kentucky football program to take toward SEC East relevance in November, but here the Wildcats are.
Their athletic director, sitting in his office underneath the concrete stands of Commonwealth Stadium on Wednesday morning, could finally see the picture of a program he envisioned upon hiring coach Mark Stoops 47 months ago.
“Our football program is finally gaining personality, and I like that, you know? That’s the progress I was hoping we’d see,” Barnhart told SEC Country in an exclusive interview. “The last couple years, it’s always been sort of, ‘We hope. We hope.’ We never quite could get to that. Now you circle stats and you say, ‘That defines us, that defines us and that defines us.’ OK, now we see who we want to be.”
The Wildcats are in second place in the SEC East. Two league losses for Florida coupled with two wins for Kentucky would send the Wildcats to Atlanta to play for the conference championship. That has never happened in the program’s history.
Kentucky could clinch its fifth SEC win Saturday against Georgia — a conference milestone the Wildcats haven’t reached since 1977. The calendar is about to flip to basketball season in Lexington, but in a rarity, it’s not yet closed on football.
“You want to be in this spot,” Barnhart said. “Win or lose, you want to be in this spot where you’re in the conversation. It’s fun to be in the conversation for our program.”
The path to this spot looked unnavigable in early September. Kentucky’s 0-2 start included a game the Wildcats should’ve won (Southern Miss) and another where they weren’t even close to contending.
Barnhart sat in the press box at The Swamp in Week 2 as Florida was well on its way to a 45-7 victory over Kentucky. By the third quarter, with the game in hand, he started doing a side-by-side comparison of the two teams’ depth charts.
“How many seniors, how many juniors, how many starters, how many off the bench?” Barnhart said. “And it was a staggering difference.”
By the fourth quarter, the Wildcats had a true freshman left tackle trying to protect a backup quarterback who’d transferred in January from College of the Desert. Both were making their SEC debut against one of the nation’s most ferocious defenses.
“And that’s what got my attention and I began to look at it,” Barnhart said. “So how do we build off of that?”
Kentucky was in a hole after the Florida game. The fan base had questions and the Wildcats had no answers in the way of wins.
Pressure was on Stoops and the program, but Barnhart had an encouraging message to his head coach.
“‘Hey, man, don’t forget,’” Barnhart told Stoops. “ ‘You’re the face of what we’re doing in here in this locker room. These kids are watching you and they’re going to want to know, ‘Where’s your head? Are you still in it?’ And he never blinked. To his credit, he never blinked.’”
The last thing he told Stoops might’ve been the most important.
“Don’t worry about what the fans are saying,” Barnhart said. “Don’t worry about what the media’s saying. Don’t worry about me. Just go win some games and it’ll take care of itself.”
Kentucky has won five of its last six games since the 38-point loss in The Swamp — and the only loss in that stretch came against No. 1 Alabama. The identity Barnhart alluded to has been a run-heavy attack led by Boom Williams and Benny Snell. The two combined for 374 rushing yards in their last game.
The rush of winning has reignited the program.
“I’ll tell you, it changes practice — they bounce,” Barnhart said. “There’s energy. Guys get well quicker from injuries. ‘Hey, hey, I’m ready to go again. Not missing this one. I’m in.’ And it’s amazing how that works.”
The wins have also rejuvenated the man in whom Barnhart put his trust.
“I think people want to feel good about the product they’re doing in their job life,” Barnhart said. “Mark’s no different than that. You want to look up and say gosh, what I did was worthwhile.”
It’s been a transformation of the most unlikely sorts.
“There’s no mystery we didn’t get off to the start we wanted to get off to, but I think this has proven to be a really resilient group,” Barnhart said. “The locker room, they threw the fence up around the players and coaches themselves and said ‘this is our group and we’re going to fight together.’”