Dooley: Stoops has turned Kentucky into team to be reckoned with

Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops talks with his players. (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)

Let’s go back to the preseason, shall we?

Back when we all had the Heisman Trophy race pegged and were talking about how Tennessee, FSU and UCLA should be much better this season. Back to when none of us believed LSU could really change.

Back to when Clay Helton was on the hot seat and Lynn Swann was athletic director at Southern Cal.

Back when Syracuse looked like a lock to host GameDay for the first time ever this Saturday.

Back to when you could cook bacon on your forehead.

OK, that last one hasn’t changed, but already so much is different in college football and we’re only in Week 3.

It’s why this unscripted sport is so great. It’s why we were all rooting for Army last week and Georgia State the week before.

Looking back only really became relevant to me this week because I had to ask myself this question — Self, why didn’t anybody vote for Kentucky in the preseason Associated Press poll?

And that includes this voter.

You may remember — and if you do I appreciate it — that last year I was the sole AP voter to give the Wildcats a point in the preseason poll. (Points meaning you get one point for 25th all the way up to 25 for first and I’m sorry for the math).

I had Kentucky No. 25 on my preseason ballot last year, which freaked a lot of people out.

But I could smell what coach Mark Stoops was cookin’.

I saw a team that was going to continue the rise under the lesser known of the Stoops brothers. He had won eight games in the conference the previous two seasons and been to two straight bowl games. Kentucky’s administration had been patient with the coach and aggressive with the spending and I thought it was ready to pay off.

As you know, the Wildcats went 10-3, won the Citrus Bowl and finished the season ranked No. 12 in the AP and No. 11 in the coaches/SID’s poll.

It didn’t happen by accident. Stoops has recruited and developed players at Kentucky and the team Florida will face on Saturday is stacked with SEC-level players.

“They’ve built a consistent winner,” UF coach Dan Mullen said.

Yep. In the last three seasons entering 2019, the only coaches with more SEC wins (13) than Stoops are Nick Saban (23), Kirby Smart (18), Ed Orgeron (16) and Gus Malzahn (15).

This from a program that won only 12 games in Stoops’ first three seasons and went 4-20 in conference play.

“I went through a similar situation at Mississippi State,” Mullen said. “He’s done a great job of getting guys who fit their profile.”

So we go back to the original thought here — why did we ignore the mighty ’Cats in the preseason?

Two reasons — Josh Allen and Benny Snell. They were studs. And if Kentucky lost studs (this isn’t horse racing, folks), it would be easy to dismiss the Wildcats as a one-year wonder.

“They lost 12 starters including their top offensive player and top defensive player, and they haven’t recruited at a high enough level to replace them easily,” said Matt Baker, another AP voter from the Tampa Bay Times. “Mark Stoops had a great year, no question. But I was hesitant to assume he could do it again, just because it doesn’t happen at UK very often, especially with so many departures.

“I wasn’t willing to give him and the Wildcats the benefit of the doubt because they haven’t earned it yet.”

That’s the key — the benefit of the doubt. I had John Clay, the veteran columnist from the Lexington paper, on my Tuesday podcast and he said he hasn’t voted yet for the 2-0 Wildcats.

“Maybe I’ve been around Kentucky football too long,” he said.

Yes, we all get that. No team has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory more often than Kentucky football, including two years ago when the Kentucky secondary became conscientious objectors to actually covering Florida’s receivers.

It’s a stigma that hangs around a program that deserves better, certainly better than no votes in the preseason. (The Wildcats did receive two points in the most recent poll. Yay!).

The biggest reason Florida had a 31-game winning streak against UK before last season was the gap in talent. That gap has closed significantly and I would dare say the two teams I saw at The Swamp last year were about the same in talent.

Obviously, Kentucky losing its quarterback may skew things Florida’s way Saturday and certainly contributed to a 10-point spread. That seems a little high.

Kentucky has really good players. Stoops is too rugged a guy to build something and let it collapse.

Even with all of the players lost to the NFL, Kentucky is good enough to beat Florida on Saturday night, especially at home at Kroger Field, a stadium named after a grocery chain.

It’s kind of a fitting name considering how Stoops keeps loading up his cart.

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at And follow at


  1. I tried cooking the bacon on my son’s forehead. The bacon was great but grease got in his eyes. We tried it again with his head tilted back so the bacon oil got in his hair and he didn’t have to use a hair product for a week. Thanks Pat.
    On paper we should win this game but don’t tell the players I said that. I’m looking forward to watching it.

  2. I am really looking forward to this game. So many questions. What does KY have? Can FF execute at a high level against a Stoops defense? Can we run the ball? (I’m holding my breath on that one. Please, more jet sweeps with Copeland!) How will the young secondary hold up, even against KY’s second-string QB? Got a ticket to the TN game, really going to enjoy these next two Saturdays. Go Gators!

    • Excellent questions, PVB. Dunno the answers just yet but we’ll sure know by Saturday night. One thing we can agree on whole heartedly, MORE JET SWEEPS WITH COPELAND!

      And while we’re at it……Pearce! C’mon OL, practice is over. Show us what you’re made of! GO GATORS!

    • Agree, PVB, with the possible exception of the jet sweeps. I don’t think you want to over-use them, but I suppose what constitutes “over-use” is a matter of opinion. I really think the way to establish the running game is to stick with it and give your starting RB 15+ carries. Like Gator-6, I love Pierce, but I think Perine is the man right now. But if I’m wrong, then give it to Pierce 15+ times, and let’s pound our RB’s at the UK D and give our guys enough carries to get into the flow of the game. If the OL can improve enough to get us through this game, the next two should be opportunities to get better in games that should be comfortable wins.

      Go Gators!!!