Vols fans, especially those of us who remember the heady days of the program in the mid to late 90's—the days when a single loss to Florida was enough to ruin the entire season—might be excused for feeling that the program has fallen into a bit of a rut. Even the slow decline of Philip Fulmer's reign saw the mighty Vols make three (unsuccessful) trips to Atlanta to play for SEC Championships in the 2000's. That last trip, 2007, seems like ancient history, and our subsequent three head coaching changes have thus far failed to return Big Orange to glory. The last of these three changes, Butch Jones, coincided with a change north of the border, when Kentucky brought in former Florida State defensive coordinator Mark Stoops.
While Tennessee has shown steady improvement under Jones, Kentucky under Stoops showed a slight improvement from his initial 2-10 campaign, but consecutive 5-7 seasons are hardly anything to celebrate. Now, most blogs, papers, and indexes are picking Kentucky to finish with another four or five wins, and bottom-ish of the SEC East. Again. It's tough to be a Kentucky Wildcat football fan.
On paper, Kentucky should be improving. Last year, they returned 16 starters, and brought in a new offensive coordinator, Shannon Dawson, to kick start their misfiring offense. That effort failed, and the Kentucky offense scored 54 fewer points over 2015 than 2014, or 4.5 fewer points per game. And those 4.5 points would have come in handy against Auburn (lost, 27-30) or Vanderbilt (pulled a Kentucky, 17-21). A win against either would have seen the Wildcats become bowl eligible for the first time since 2010.
Once again, Kentucky enters the season returning 16 starters, and a shiny-new offensive coordinator, the third in as many years, Eddie Gran. And again, we could forgive Kentucky fans for thinking that this is the season that Stoops takes the Wildcats to the next level, prognosticators be darned. From the inside looking out, there is room for optimism. From the outside looking in, there's even more room for doubt.
Under Stoops, Kentucky has seen some of its best-ever recruiting classes. And yet, those classes are still behind 10 or so SEC schools (depending on the year and the ranking). Returning experienced starters are all well and good, but competing with many of the conference's heavy-hitters is still a tall order.
And this year's rendition of Kentucky faces another, far more practical problem: the schedule. It is, in a word, brutal. Away to Florida (the longest active losing streak of one FBS opponent over another, dating back to 1987). Away to Alabama (where they've never won). Away to Tennessee (where they haven't won since 1984). And finishing the season away to in-state rival Louisville (who they haven't beaten since 2010). So, that's four very likely losses right off the bat. If the Wildcats hope to extend their season beyond Louisville to the Whatever.com Bowl sponsored by Whocares, they'll need to find six wins in their remaining eight games. Herein lies some hope for Kentucky, seven of the remaining eight are in the safe confines of Commonwealth Stadium. They have home matches against Southern Miss, New Mexico State, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, Georgia, and Austin Peay, with the only remaining away trip besides the "Big 4" being a late October trip to Missouri.
Can Kentucky become bowl eligible? Possibly, but from an outsiders view they'll either have to pull off one or more major, even historical upsets, or thread the needle, beating all the mid-to-lower SEC sides, and all the mid-major and non-FBS opponents.
So, I'm looking forward to another 5-7 campaign from the Wildcats.
beat play Kentucky at Neyland Stadium Saturday, November 12.