LEXINGTON, Ky. — Mark Stoops knows exactly what is at stake Saturday night when Kentucky hosts Tennessee, and that is why he spent more time than usual preparing his remarks for the Monday team meeting.
Stoops senses the gravity of this moment, after a 45-7 embarrassment at Mississippi State cast doubt on the legitimacy of the Wildcats’ 5-1 start, and that is why he didn’t take a teed-up opportunity in his Monday news conference to tell everyone to R-E-L-A-X.
Stoops, whose second and third seasons at Kentucky teased the faithful with hot starts and tormented them with epic collapses, understands the simple reality: Win this weekend or lose the fan base. In other words, beat the Vols or welcome to basketball season.
“I’ve certainly spent a lot of time in the last day and a half getting prepared [to speak to the team],” Stoops said Monday morning. “More than usual. I admit probably more than usual.”
Because with what is stake Saturday, on the heels of a no-show in Starkville, Stoops is on high alert. He was as surprised as anyone by the beatdown against the Bulldogs and wondered aloud Monday whether the staff hadn’t fed players too much information and rest during the midseason bye week.
Maybe they should’ve scaled back the game plan and cranked up the intensity in practice — although several key players needed that time to recover from nagging injuries.
“We’re always trying to find the right balance,” Stoops said.
But the Wildcats tipped way too far in the wrong direction against Mississippi State. They looked lost at times, physically manhandled at others. They matched neither the Bulldogs’ scheme nor intensity.
“We did take a dip in football IQ this past week,” Stoops said, “and I think that comes from that midseason mental strain that you have to be clued into. There’s a physical part of it, coming off the bye and all that, but then mentally you have to be really, really sharp or you’re going to make a lot of mistakes — and I think our football IQ wasn’t where it needed to be this past week.”
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Stoops was quick to point out that only a handful of truly elite teams can play well all 12 weeks of the season or be good enough to overcome it when they play poorly, but he did not bite on a chance to tell his fans everything is going to be OK. He knows the only thing that matters now is showing them.
Kentucky started the 2014 season 5-1 before losing six straight to miss a bowl game. The Wildcats started the 2015 season 4-1 before losing six of seven to miss a bowl game. Stoops knows that some fans believe — in part because of close calls against Southern Miss, Eastern Kentucky, Eastern Michigan and 2-5 Missouri — that they are now watching the third installment of a trilogy.
So when a reporter asked how long it took him after the blowout defeat Saturday to step back and say everything is fine and this is still a good football team, Stoops didn’t play along.
“I haven’t gotten to that point,” he said. “That’s not really going to happen until we get out there and play a game, as far as me sitting back thinking it’s OK, because I never think it’s going to be OK.”
Thing is, beat Tennessee and it’s going to be OK. The Wildcats would secure a second consecutive bowl berth, have just their second win against the Vols since 1984 and have a very real shot to be 8-2 by the time they head to SEC East-leading Georgia.
Tennessee has lost three straight and is 3-4 overall, winless in the conference, and hasn’t scored an offensive touchdown in a month. That should be good news for Kentucky, but it’s bad news if the Cats can’t capitalize.
Stoops knows all of that, and it’s the reason he is choosing words carefully this week, “but that doesn’t mean you hit the panic button,” he said. “You’re always trying to get better and making sure you had the pieces in place to be successful. Sometimes strategically there are things that we can do better. You need to own those, accept that and try to get better.
“There’s parts of it — psychologically or whatever it is — you gotta get them right. So I’m excited, to be honest with you, about today and this week. I embrace it and I’m ready for it.”