The one thing Mark Stoops has to fix to get UK football back on the rise

The depth of the challenge facing Mark Stoops and Kentucky in the newly expanded Southeastern Conference is best illustrated by how the Wildcats’ 2024 schedule was altered due to the changes that accompanied the pending arrivals of Oklahoma and Texas into the SEC.

From its original 2024 SEC schedule, UK lost a home game with Mississippi State and road games at Missouri and Arkansas.

In their place, UK added a home meeting with Auburn and road contests at Mississippi and Texas.

To give full context to what the alterations on the Kentucky schedule mean, consider:

UK has won its last four home games over Mississippi State; Kentucky has won on three of its last four road trips to Mizzou; and the Wildcats have a 5-3 all-time mark against Arkansas.

Conversely, UK has lost nine straight games versus Auburn in Lexington and 18 of its last 19 against the Tigers overall; the Wildcats have lost their last seven games against Ole Miss that were played in the state of Mississippi; and Kentucky is taking on a road game at Texas in the season immediately after the Longhorns made the College Football Playoff.

Suffice to say, the “new SEC” is going to be an even more rugged test for a Kentucky program that has produced only nine winning league records while playing in the Southeastern Conference since it began in 1933.

If UK is going to rise to the occasion in 2024 against a schedule that will feature four teams ranked in the top 15 of’s post-spring top 25 — No. 1 Georgia; No. 3 Texas; No. 6 Ole Miss; and No. 15 Tennessee — Kentucky must fix the single biggest weakness that has undermined the past two Wildcats seasons.

Simply stated, UK has to put an end to the abundance of sloppy play that has plagued the Wildcats over the past two years.

Kentucky coach Mark Stoops will lead the Wildcats against four teams ranked in the top 15 in ESPN’s post-spring top 25 — at home vs. No. 1 Georgia and on the road vs. No. 3 Texas, No. 6 Ole Miss and No. 15 Tennessee.
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops will lead the Wildcats against four teams ranked in the top 15 in ESPN’s post-spring top 25 — at home vs. No. 1 Georgia and on the road vs. No. 3 Texas, No. 6 Ole Miss and No. 15 Tennessee.

In compiling back-to-back 7-6 seasons that were deemed disappointing by large segments of the Big Blue Nation, UK has taken self-sabotage to new heights.

During the 2022 season, a Kentucky illegal motion penalty nullified what almost certainly would have been the game-winning touchdown pass for the Wildcats in what became a three-point loss at Ole Miss.

An illegal hands to the face penalty on UK negated what would have been a game-clinching Wildcats interception in what became a three-point defeat to Vanderbilt.

UK almost gave away a late 21-17 lead at Missouri by long-snapping the ball over the head of its punter. Only a herculean effort by then-Kentucky punter Colin Goodfellow to chase the ball down and get a punt off and a resulting Mizzou roughing the kicker penalty saved UK from disaster.

The Wildcats also threw two pick sixes in what became a 21-0 loss to Iowa in the Music City Bowl.

Last season, it was a tale of similar self-destruction for Kentucky.

Before what became a 51-13 blowout loss at Georgia got out of hand, Kentucky sabotaged its first two offensive drives with major penalties. UK also extended what became a Bulldogs touchdown drive with a third-down penalty that gave the Dawgs a first down after UK had apparently forced a punt.

In a season-altering 38-21 home loss to Missouri, Kentucky committed a whopping 14 penalties and turned the ball over three times.

While suffering a 17-14 loss to an eminently mediocre South Carolina, Kentucky again turned the ball over three times and committed seven penalties, almost every one of them at a crucial time.

Finishing with a performance worthy of inclusion in the Self Destruction Hall of Fame, UK turned the ball over four times in the fourth quarter in a come-from-ahead 38-35 loss to Clemson in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl.

The cost of all this dysfunction has been reflected in Kentucky’s bottom line.

Under Stoops, Kentucky’s best teams have been tough-minded and able to close out games. During Kentucky’s 10-3 campaigns in 2018 and 2021, UK combined to go 8-2 in games decided by one score (margin of eight points or less).

However, while going 7-6 in each of the past two years, UK is a combined 3-5 in contests decided by one score or less.

The nature of football being what it is, there are going to be mistakes.

For Kentucky, playing in an SEC that was already difficult and will be even more daunting with Texas and Oklahoma coming on board, there is not enough margin of error to be able to overcome the number of self-inflicted wounds that the Cats have have been producing over the past two seasons.

In the era of the one free transfer and NIL, it must be tougher for a coach to create the level of accountability necessary to mitigate against consistently sloppy play.

Nevertheless, to get UK football back on the ascension in 2024, that is the puzzle Stoops has to solve.

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