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Keith Taylor: Have Cats reached peak or ready to take the next step under Stoops?

Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops is entering his sixth season at the helm and has guided the Wildcats to seven victories in each of the oast two years. (Kentucky Today/Keith Taylor)

Mark Stoops has only been at Kentucky for more than six years but is already the third-longest tenured coach in the Southeastern Conference behind Dan Mullen and Nick Saban, respectively.

Saban’s success is well-documented, while Mullen was a proven winner at Mississippi State and will attempt to emulate that recipe at Florida. Overall, five schools — Tennessee, Mississippi State, Arkansas, Florida and Texas A&M — have new coaches this season.

Whether or not that matters remains to be seen, but longevity has played a role in any team’s success in the league, especially at Kentucky. Rich Brooks guided the Wildcats to four straight bowl appearances in his last four seasons and that streak reached five before the program struggled in Joker Phillips’ final two seasons and the first year of the Stoops era. Kentucky regained traction and won five games in the each in the second and third year under Stoops before experiencing a breakthrough with seven victories two years ago.

Stoops has guided the Wildcats to back-to-back postseason appearances and will be yearning for more entering his sixth season. Stoops has rebuilt the Wildcats into a contender in the SEC East, but the biggest question is whether or not Kentucky has reached its peak or is prepared to take the next step? Although Kentucky obtained seven wins a year ago, the Wildcats lost four of their last five games, including a close loss to Northwestern in the Music City Bowl.

For the second time in three years, Stoops has called on a junior college transfer to step into the pocket and take charge of an offensive scheme that has relied heavily on a running game to produce the yardage and score the touchdowns. Although Terry Wilson has experience, the biggest unknown is whether or not he can elevate the team’s passing game to complement Benny Snell and the rest of the team’s backfield. Snell is one of the top running backs in the conference but will need help from his backups to prevent from becoming fatigued as the season progresses. During preseason workouts Snell worked more on catching the football in the open field and could give the Wildcats another option and playmaker as a part-time receiver.

The receivers, with the exception of Dorian Baker, who’s coming back from a foot injury, have a lack of game experience and are unproven, while the tight ends have the experience to lean on with the return of C.J. Conrad, one of the top tight ends in the Stoops era. Wilson has plenty of tools in placed to help him feel at ease once the ball is snapped and he becomes more comfortable calling the shots and guiding the offense. Tavin Richardson is one potential target for Wilson in the open field.

Lynn Bowden, who showed flashes of potential last season, will give the Wildcats a possible option as a kick and punt returner and also an option to consider if Stoops and offensive coordinator Eddie Gran elect to keep the “Wildcat “ package in their playbook.

The defense has always been a concern for the Wildcats, but Matt House has seven starters back, including linebacker Josh Allen, one of the top linebackers in the league. Jordan Jones also returns on the defensive front, while defensive backfield figures to be one of the best units Stoops has assembled in his tenure. Back are Derek Baity, Chris Westry, Mike Edwards and Darius West. Lonnie Johnson also will give Kentucky a presence to reckon with in the secondary.

The kicking game is will be the biggest question mark and replacing Austin MacGinnis won’t be an easy task for the Kentucky coaching staff.

Solid recruiting and recognizing future needs on the recruiting front have paid dividends under Stoops, but reaching the next level has proven to be a struggle. The team’s schedule is favorable with seven home games, proving a solid buffer for the Wildcats.

Stoops hasn’t been shy about his team’s talent, but whether that results in more victories on the gridiron remains to be seen. Avoiding a late-season meltdown will be the biggest hurdle for the Wildcats to overcome.

Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at keith.taylor@kentuckytoday.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.

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