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Butch Jones, Mark Stoops, and Year Three

Our 2015 opponent preview continues with a short drive up I-75...

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

In the middle of October last season an uncomfortable comparison was stirring in Big Orange Country.  Butch Jones may have recently called the Florida loss the lowest point of his career, but two weeks later the Vols still couldn't run the ball, couldn't find the end zone against Ole Miss, and went back to Knoxville 3-4 and without a quarterback.

Meanwhile in Lexington, Kentucky was 5-1 in mid-October, and the one was a painful woulda-shoulda-coulda triple overtime affair against those same Gators.  But Kentucky had followed up with a 45-38 win over South Carolina and a blowout of Louisiana-Monroe.  At that point, it was fair to ask if Kentucky had made a better hire in Mark Stoops than the Vols did in Butch Jones.

Of course, you know the rest of the story:  Josh Dobbs and Butch Jones' Vols rebounded to win four of their last five games, including an even less likely win at South Carolina and an emphatic blowout of Iowa in the Taxslayer Bowl.  Kentucky went from 5-1 to 5-7, giving up 41+ points in five of those losses down the stretch.  And no one is asking that question right now.

However, just because Stoops lost six in a row at the end of the year and hasn't pulled in a Top 10 recruiting class (yet) doesn't mean the foundation he's laying in Lexington isn't just as impressive as the one Butch Jones is building in Knoxville, relatively speaking.  Much like James Franklin at Vanderbilt, Stoops doesn't have to pull in a Top 10 class to still be recruiting at a higher level than anyone has seen in the bluegrass before.

Mark Stoops Recruiting - 247 Consensus

  • 2013:  34th overall, two four-stars
  • 2014:  22nd overall, six four-stars
  • 2015:  39th overall, two four-stars
  • 2016:  currently 7th overall, two four-stars committed
Joker Phillips Recruiting
  • 2012:  50th overall, one four-star
  • 2011:  37th overall, two four-stars
  • 2010:  47th overall
Rich Brooks, who had a number of successful seasons in Lexington, still never signed a class ranked higher than 58th overall.  Stoops, like Butch, doesn't have a ton of tangible success in the SEC just yet.  But he, like Butch, is consistently recruiting at the level his program needs to be deemed successful.  Keith Garrett at A Sea of Blue wrote a great story on UK's progression under Stoops this week.

One of Kentucky's final six losses last year came in Knoxville, a 50-16 thrashing by a well rested and suddenly dangerous Tennessee squad.  But it would also be dangerous to assume the 2015 Vols are 34ish points better than the 2015 Cats.  Kentucky's young talent abounds on offense, where Patrick Towles returns for his junior year after throwing for 2,718 yards last season.  UK needs to find some separation in its backfield, where last year four players had between 59-74 carries, and must replace two of its top three pass catchers.  The defense, so maligned at the end of last year, loses three of its top seven tacklers but the other four will all be seniors.  As the story from ASOB argues at the link above, Stoops is growing not just talent, but depth, which could be the biggest difference between this Kentucky team and the bowl eligible ones during Rick Brooks' time.

Will this be the year Kentucky returns to those seven or so wins and goes bowling?  One of the interesting things about their schedule is, if you remove Vanderbilt from the equation, they may play the other East foes in increasing order of difficulty:  at South Carolina September 12, Florida September 19, Missouri September 26, the Vols on Halloween, and at Georgia on November 7.  Their annual date with Mississippi State is less of a gift than usual these days and they also draw Auburn from the West.  But like last year, there's plenty of opportunity to build momentum in the early season schedule.  Will they be good enough (and deep enough) to sustain that momentum into November this time around?  I don't know.  But if Stoops and Kentucky can take a step this year, his recruiting will make everyone start thinking about a higher ceiling in Lexington than we've seen in a long time.