HOOVER, Ala. — As they somberly limped out of The Swamp last Sept. 10, things could not have seemed any more dire for the Kentucky Wildcats and Mark Stoops, their beleaguered coach.
A team that was expected to finally have a breakthrough season and maybe contend in the SEC East had just been decimated by Florida. The Wildcats went out with a whimper in a 45-7 loss, making only nine first downs and gaining all of 149 yards.
And Stoops, already on the hot seat heading into the season, had flames flaring up all around him.
A disaster seemed to be cooking for Kentucky football.
Then, somehow, seemingly out of nowhere, the Wildcats found the resolve to reverse the direction of their season.
Ignited by a quarterback change a week later and a close win over South Carolina two weeks later, Kentucky won seven of its final 11 games and closed the regular season with the ultimate high — a road win against arch-rival Louisville and eventual Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson.
With that momentum-generating turnaround, the Wildcats are now considered legitimate SEC contenders heading into the 2017 season.
“It feels awesome,” senior middle linebacker Courtney Love said Wednesday at SEC Media Days. “We definitely started from the bottom and we’re working our way up. We’re definitely going to make our case to be one of the best teams in our conference.
“There’s definitely a lot of respect that we’ve earned. It’s not just given to us. We’ve earned it.”
The finish to last season and the expectations heading into this season seem to have taken the pressure off Stoops. He seemed relaxed and confident standing at the podium Wednesday, knowing his program finally has gained traction after breaking through last fall.
“I’m excited about our football team. I’m excited about our season,” Stoops said. “It’s really nice to come in here year five and build with some positive momentum that we had a year ago. A year ago, we did not start the season the way we wanted to, but we finished strong. To go to the TaxSlayer Bowl, to have those extra practices meant a great deal to our program.
“Our players have worked extremely hard to get to this point, and it was really nice to finish with that momentum. If you heard me talk a year ago, you heard me constantly talk about our capacity to do more.
“Our team needed to mature. We needed to work them harder. We needed to have stronger weightlifting sessions, run harder, longer practices, mentally and physically, to be able to endure the rigors of an SEC season.”
Most look at last season’s turnaround and point to quarterback Stephen Johnson, a dual threat at quarterback who took over for injured starter Drew Baker in the third game of the season. The offense came to life with the insertion of talented junior college transfer.
The QB change was big. The players say that grim day in Gainesville the week before is actually what started the rebounding process.
“We recovered just because coach really just explained to us that it was about us, the guys in our locker room,” Love said. “It was about what we wanted to accomplish. That is when we all really started to just believe in ourselves. We knew what we could do.”
The potentially devastating loss turned out to be a season changer.
“It was a very, very difficult time,” Stoops said. “You open the season with a lot of optimism. You’re very excited. Players have worked hard. And year four is very hard as coaches in the position that I was in. As you’re rebuilding a program, as you’re trying to rebuild a program in the SEC, what you’re here for, it’s nut-cutting time.
“People were tired of hearing you’re getting better. You see progress on the field, but it’s about wins and losses.
“That is a very critical time. I’m very proud of our coaches, and I’m very proud of our team because under the immense pressure that you get at that point in your program, in your system, you have to be able to withstand that, and you have to be able to respond. And we did.”
Just like it was a year ago, the Florida game could be pivotal. The Wildcats, who have lost 30 consecutive games in the series, play the Gators on the fourth week of the season, a week after opening SEC play against South Carolina.
If the Wildcats can get off to a 2-0 start in the SEC (instead going 0-2 like last season), they’ll be viewed as serious contenders in the East.
“Our players are probably well aware of that, because what we’re a month or two months away from playing Florida,” Stoops said. “And it’s getting talked about right now. So I think they’ll hear that a few times between right now and the time we play them. So, we don’t hide from that, but it’s not something I talk about.”
Love is OK talking about it.
“It will be huge, it will be fun,” he said. “It will be a great opportunity for us and we’re really looking forward to it.”
Contact Robbie Andreu at 352-374-5022 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also check out Andreu’s blog at Gatorsports.com.