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Sports Notes: Expectations for Kentucky football program may be a little unrealistic

Despite disappointing losses to Florida and Auburn, UK coach Mark Stoops has the Cats on track for a six- or seven-win season and a bowl appearance (UK Athletics Photo)

Despite disappointing losses to Florida and Auburn, UK coach Mark Stoops has the Cats on track for a six- or seven-win season and a bowl appearance (UK Athletics Photo)


Perhaps it’s just indicative of Mark Stoops’ ability to inspire confidence that expectations for the Kentucky football program have risen so high and so quickly.

When Stoops took over the program from Joker Phillips three years ago, he inherited a two-win team. By the time the 2013 season rolled around, fans were talking about the chances for a .500 season, maybe even a winning campaign. When the 2014 team started out 5-1, it looked like a bowl game was in the immediate future.

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Of course, those seasons ended with two and five wins, respectively, leaving some fans disappointed and disgruntled.

Coming off a five-win season and boasting three straight nationally ranked recruiting classes, this year’s Wildcats were thought by some to be contenders for the SEC East Division title. Quarterback Patrick Towles went on the SEC Network before the year began and declared that he expected to be in the SEC Championship game in Atlanta.

Two early conference wins fueled the expectations flame.

It’s time to look at the program without the rose-colored glasses for a second. What we have here is an improving team, with talent and speed that looks much more like a true SEC representative (and the improved facilities to match). What we don’t have, yet, is the consistency necessary to be a title contender.

It is a young team, one prone to make mistakes at the most inopportune times, the kind of mistakes that prove fatal and cost wins. A dropped interception on defense, an open wide receiver missed in the endzone. An uncovered receiver mishandling a pass. A critical penalty, a blocked field goal.

Those are the kinds of mistakes a young team will make. And those are the type of errors that can be corrected and improved upon with experience.

Kentucky has faced two critical games this season that could have marked its ascension to the next level: Florida and Auburn. The Wildcats lost both, albeit by a total of eight points. Sure, there were nice wins over South Carolina and Missouri, but those are looking a little less impressive in hindsight.

Still, the Cats are 4-2 heading into Saturday night’s matchup with Mississippi State. Games at Vanderbilt and at Commonwealth against Charlotte and Louisville all appear winnable. That would give Kentucky seven wins and a decent bowl game. A Halloween night matchup with Tennessee offers UK a chance to steal another milestone type game.

Barring key injuries and monumental upsets, Kentucky seems assured of at least six wins and isn’t that about where we expected when Stoops came to Lexington from Florida State in 2013 and started generating all the excitement?

Stoops lamented the number of missed plays that cost his team an upset of Auburn on national television last week and in a number of other contests over the past two seasons.

“I can think of a couple games in particular that stick out to me that were missed opportunities,” he said. “Several in the last two years. That’s what I told the team is that is the glass half full or is it half empty? We know we can make those plays, and I don’t fault our team.

“They’re prepared, they believe they can make them, they know they can make them, and it comes down to a few plays here and there. We’ll continue to work to make those plays to make a difference to win some games. We have and as the competition gets better with certain people, we got to step it up as well.”

So, no, the Cats aren’t there yet. They’re getting closer. But at some point the measuring stick for the program has to be higher than simply settling for playing competitive games and “keeping it close.” One of these days the team will have to break through and actually take that next step.

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Against Florida, Towles completed just eight of 24 passes with two interceptions and just 126 yards. He was 27 of 44 for 359 yards (and one pick) against Auburn. The common thread? Kentucky lost both games, 14-9 to the Gators and 30-27 to the Tigers. Which again proves the old adage that the quarterback gets too much credit for wins and too much blame for losses.

A lot more goes into determining whether a game is won or lost that just quarterback play.

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In case you missed it, UK has opened the season with six consecutive games that have been decided by eight points or less. This has never happened in the season’s first six games and Kentucky football dates to 1881.

The last time the Cats experienced such a run of close games was 1975 and that a year that saw Kentucky sink to a 2-8-1 record. That team lost only two games by nine or more points.

Trying to rally from a halftime deficit, the Wildcats held Auburn to 110 yards of total offense in the second half last week. Kentucky also posted a season-high 497 yards of total offense, its best offensive output since … 2014 against Mississippi State (504).

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Florida lost by a touchdown to LSU last week, suffering its first setback of the year. The Gators still lead the East Division race, one game clear of Georgia. Kentucky and Tennessee also have two conference losses.

Alabama’s surprisingly easy win over Texas A&M leaves the Tide a game behind LSU, the SEC’s last unbeaten team, with A&M and Mississippi also lurking with one conference loss.

For the second week in a row, Kentucky will face a team that resides in last place in the West Division. Mississippi State, Auburn and Arkansas are all 1-2 in league play.

Top SEC games this week include UK-MSU, Tennessee meeting Alabama and Mississippi hosting Texas A&M. In a non-conference matchup of interest, Western Kentucky with take record-setting quarterback Brandon Doughty and its 6-1 record to LSU for a 7 p.m. contest on ESPNU.

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