March 2, 2024

Mark Stoops raising the bar by turning Kentucky into football school

Kentucky Wildcats Football

Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops walks along the sideline during the second quarter of the Music City Bowl against Iowa Saturday December 31, 2022 at Nissan Stadium. (Lynn Harrington/stayaliveinpower5)

It’s no mystery that sports in the Bluegrass State has always centered around basketball.

After all, Kentucky and Louisville have won multiple national championships, and gained notoriety along the way. However, Mark Stoops is starting to change the narrative with his surging Wildcats’ football program. Stoops has been on the job since 2013, making him the second-longest tenured coach in the almighty SEC.

Not to mention he’s 71-59 at Kentucky, including a 21-17 mark against the SEC East over the past six seasons. On top of that, Stoops hasn’t lost in the non-conference since 2017, and has won four of his last five bowl games. His program has also become a puppy mill for the NFL, with a jaw-dropping, 20 players drafted over the past five years.

Stoops couldn’t have asked for a better way to start his 11th season. The 56-year old has the Wildcats 5-0 for the third time in the last six years, and they’re ranked 20th in this week’s AP Poll. Kentucky is one of three remaining undefeated teams in the SEC. Saturday’s clash on the road at No. 1 Georgia is arguably the biggest game of his career.

The Wildcats haven’t beat a top-ranked team since 2007, and they’re two touchdown underdogs for this matchup. Although no one is really giving Stoops a chance against the reigning National champs, his team is dangerous. Georgia (5-0) has dominated the series. The Bulldogs own a 62-12 record over the Wildcats, and have won 13-straight. Georgia hasn’t lost to Kentucky at home since 2009.

No doubt Stoops’ squad will be walking into a snake pit between the hedges, but they’re ready to shock the world. Kentucky has arguably the best running back in the conference in Ray Davis. The former Vanderbilt Commodore is raising eyebrows across the league with his stellar play on the gridiron. He’s coming off a 280-yard rushing performance in the victory over Florida. It was the third-most rushing yards by a Kentucky running back in a single game. The Californian also is averaging 7.82 yards per carry, which ranks first in the SEC, and fifth nationally.

Kirby Smart is going to have his defense load the box to stop Davis, so quarterback Devin Leary will have to make them pay with screens, and play-action. Leary has a ton of experience, and threw for a school-record, 35 touchdowns at NC State in 2021. Regardless, this will be the biggest game Leary has ever played in.

Georgia’s last four opponents have a combined 7-13 record. That means the Bulldogs haven’t been battle-tested, and they’ve had slow starts all season. Last week Georgia struggled to pull away from Auburn.¬†Stoops just needs his players to focus on the task at hand.

The Wildcats have the best defense the Bulldogs will face this season. Kentucky currently ranks fifth in the league, and 19th in the FBS in total defense. Kentucky is stingy against the run too, allowing only 75.8 rushing yards per game, which is second-best in the SEC. Stoops also knows how to get to the quarterback, with 14 sacks through five games. If Kentucky can slow down Georgia’s rushing attack, and force Carson Beck to make some mistakes, Stoops will have a great chance to pull off the upset.

Accomplishing that feat would completely shake up the Playoff picture, put the Wildcats on the map, and everyone would have to give Stoops his props. Which is why Saturday night can’t get here fast enough.