HOOVER, Ala. — You know what’s even crazier than SEC Media Days kicking off nearly two months before anyone in this league actually plays a football game?
It’s what I’m about to tell you: Kentucky coach Mark Stoops is best positioned to win SEC Coach of the Year in 2017.
Yes, really, the same Mark Stoops who has a career 19-30 record.
Sometimes crazy things make sense, such as college football’s preeminent conference moving up its annual circus to this absurdly early date to capitalize on the withdrawal of sports fans — the day after the MLB All-Star Game has come to be known as the deadest sports day of the year — and Stoops being poised to collect some hardware because we so often vote based on expectations.
So let’s start there: We expect Alabama and Nick Saban to win another SEC championship this fall, but we demand perfection of him to claim the league’s Coach of the Year award. He has deserved it almost every season since 2008 but won it three times — each after going undefeated in conference play.
We expect Florida and Jim McElwain to contend for an SEC East title and probably get wrecked by the West champion in Atlanta, considering the Gators have done that the last two years. So who will be impressed if they do it again?
But what do we expect from Kentucky football? Historically, not much. The Wildcats haven’t won eight or more regular-season games in 33 years. Thirty-three. Now, though, that’s exactly what Stoops and Co. are poised to do.
Kentucky is coming off a breakthrough, seven-win season in Year 4 under Stoops, which the Wildcats punctuated with a stunning upset at rival Louisville — and the Cats return 17 starters. One of those is calm, cool, clutch quarterback Stephen Johnson, who improbably outplayed Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson to beat the Cardinals in the 2016 regular-season finale.
Johnson will be protected by a veteran offensive line that is among the best in the SEC, and he’ll hand off to battering ram Benny Snell, who rushed for almost 1,100 yards as a true freshman last fall. Stoops, the former Florida State defensive coordinator, also has — finally — retooled that side of the ball and should have a secondary and linebackers corps that rank in the upper half of the conference.
Moreover, and maybe more important, Stoops and the Cats got the best possible schedule draw from the SEC West — Mississippi State and Ole Miss, which went a combined 11-14 last season — and should be able to count on at least three nonconference wins.
Now, getting to 8-4 likely means beating either Tennessee or Florida, against which Kentucky has one total win in the last 30 years, but both come to Lexington this fall and both lost some serious defensive firepower from 2016. Seven players from the Florida defense were selected in the NFL draft, as were Tennessee’s three defensive stars and quarterback Josh Dobbs.
It seems sort of now or never for the Cats against those two. In other words, the table is set for Stoops and Kentucky to do more than we’ve come to expect from them. And that’s the stuff of which coaches of the year often are made.
Since 2000, we’ve seen eight coaches win or share The Associated Press SEC Coach of the Year award without even winning their division. Five finished third or worse — and three went 4-4 in league play: Houston Nutt (2001 Arkansas), Sylvester Croom (2007 Mississippi State) and Bobby Johnson (2008 Vanderbilt). Why? Because we thought they overachieved.
The same was true of Lou Holtz (2000) and Steve Spurrier (2005), who won SEC Coach of the Year with six- and seven-win regular seasons, respectively, at South Carolina. That’s because back then, the Gamecocks’ history was meager and their expectations modest.
That is Kentucky today. If Stoops, whose recruiting success in Lexington has been unprecedented, can shuffle one more step forward this fall, SEC Coach of the Year is there for the taking.
Hugh Freeze is awaiting the NCAA hammer at Ole Miss, and Butch Jones’ brick-by-brick building project at Tennessee seems to be missing the mortar, so those two former hot shots seem unlikely to take the award in 2017.
The most serious contenders: Auburn’s Gus Malzahn (2013 winner) or anyone else in the West who can knock Alabama from its perch; Georgia’s Kirby Smart (Saban 2.0), if he can deliver the Bulldogs’ first East title since 2012; and maybe Arkansas’ Bret Bielema breaking through with, say, a 9-3 season.
But if we get another Alabama-Florida SEC title game (yawn), it is Mark Stoops’ award to lose.