Have you ever seen an idiot? Let me show you one:
The second game of Kentucky football’s fourth season under Stoops laid bare in the harsh light of a humid Florida afternoon this unpleasant truth: The Wildcats look no better off today than when Stoops was hired in December of 2012.
To be fair, it seemed a pretty sturdy limb on which to wander out at the time. Who could have seen this coming? The Wildcats blew a 25-point lead and lost at home to Southern Miss in Week 1. They got blasted, 45-7, at Florida in Week 2. They struggled to put away New Mexico State in Week 3.
But then, after Saturday’s 35-21 win at Missouri, Kentucky’s fifth victory in the last six games, Stoops was suddenly just a Georgia win over Florida later in the day (it didn’t happen) from taking over first place in the SEC East after Week 9. Incredible.
As it stands, the Wildcats (5-3, 4-2 SEC) are still in second place and very much in the mix with the imminently beatable Bulldogs (4-4, 2-4) coming to Commonwealth Stadium next week. Thanks to a remaining date with winless Austin Peay, even if Kentucky doesn’t win another conference game or upset fifth-ranked rival Louisville, it all but clinched the program’s first bowl berth since 2010 on Saturday.
If he was ever on one — and a $12 million buyout suggests not — Stoops is definitely off the hot seat now. More than that, though, he deserves a great deal of praise for Kentucky’s remarkable turnaround.
Stoops, once a revered defensive coordinator, took over control of the Wildcats D after those first two abysmal weeks and it has improved steadily since. He also surrendered any control — is meddling a better word? — of the offense, letting new coordinator Eddie Gran do his thing. Gran rewarded him with the pulverizing, demoralizing ground game of Stoops’ dreams.
Saturday was a culmination of it all. Kentucky built a 35-7 lead by dominating both sides of the ball.
Missouri had one touchdown, one missed field goal and nine punts in its first 11 possessions. The Tigers scored two inconsequential touchdowns late — one set up by a long punt return, the other on a deep heave — but mustered just 288 yards through three quarters.
The Wildcats rushed for more yards than that. Star Boom Williams had 20 total touches for 195 yards and two touchdowns, while true freshman Benny Snell bulldozed his way to 192 yards and two scores on a whopping 38 carries. It’s worth noting that Snell didn’t touch the ball during those opening two losses.
Snell has rushed 118 times for 661 yards and 8 touchdowns during this six-game resurgence.
In its five wins, Kentucky has averaged 299 rushing yards per game. In their last four victories, the Wildcats have surrendered an average of just 324.5 total yards per game — after allowing more than 500 yards in each of their first three games. By any measure, this team has improved dramatically.
Here is where we must provide some context: Kentucky has gotten hot at the expense of some pretty bad opponents. Entering Saturday, the combined record of the five teams the Wildcats beat: 11-24. The combined SEC record of Wildcats victims Missouri, Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Mississippi State: 3-14.
The East is awful this season, and it’s absolutely fair to point that out. But it’s been a bad division many times in recent years and that didn’t stop Kentucky from finishing at or near the bottom of it. Saturday’s victory ensured the Wildcats will finish at least .500 in the league for the first time since 2006 and only the second time since 1999.
In my entire lifetime — 35 years — this is just the fifth time Kentucky has won four SEC games in a season. So weak competition or not, it’s no small feat that the Wildcats are finally winning the games they should. That’s progress.
So, too, is the mentality Stoops is instilling. The one where he demanded six weeks ago that his players stop being fragile and start finishing games, and they delivered. The one where, after what is easily the biggest victory of his head-coaching career, this was his reaction Saturday:
Like, improbably, compete for a division championship. Would anyone predict that, with games against Georgia and Tennessee remaining, the Wildcats actually will win the East and make their first-ever appearance in the SEC championship game? No, not me.
But I’ve been wrong about Stoops and this team before. Haven’t we all?