This time last year, UK fans were optimistic that Mark Stoops was the right man for the job in Lexington, but that quickly changed when the season kicked off. The Wildcats blew a big lead vs. Southern Miss in the season opener and followed that up with an even more embarrassing performance in the Swamp a week later.
The optimism that existed when the season kicked off on September 3rd quickly vanished by September 17th. The two losses were embarrassing, but the events that led up to that resulted in majority of fans losing faith in Stoops.
The Wildcats teased success and a turnaround during the 2014 and 2015 seasons, but both teams ended one win short of bowl eligibility. Following a 5-1 start to the 2014 season, Wildcat fans were the most invested they had been since Randall Cobb was running wild at Commonwealth Stadium, but the Wildcats dropped their final six games to finish 5-7, including blowing a lead vs. rival Louisville in the season finale.
The 2015 season started out on a high note as well, however, the Wildcats dropped close games to Florida, Auburn, Vanderbilt, and Louisville to finish 5-7 for a second consecutive season.
The second half collapses sent the fan base into a tailspin and the same old Kentucky football punch lines began to surface. There was no denying it, the program was at its lowest point of the Stoops Era, but fans’ frustration stemmed from more than losses on the field. Top recruits flipping to powerhouse programs frustrated fans, but none bigger than two players that committed to the University of Alabama.
The two that fans were visibly frustrated with were 5-star RB Damien Harris, and 5-star QB Mac Jones. Harris was the nation’s top running back in the 2015 class and an in state prospect just south of Lexington in Richmond, KY. Harris teased fans during the 2014 season by attending nearly every home game, before announcing his commitment to Alabama with UK defensive lineman Matt Elam in attendance. Most truly believe Wildcat fans were not bothered by the choice of Alabama, but instead were frustrated because UK spent so much time recruiting him, only for Nick Saban to land him at the last moment.
The same can be said for Mac Jones, who was rated a 3-star when he committed to the Wildcats. Jones quickly soared up the rankings, as he climbed to a 4 or 5-star in all recruiting services, which forced Kentucky fans to sit back and watch as Nick Saban convinced another talented recruit that Tuscaloosa is better than Lexington.
These are all bad memories for Wildcat fans, but it’s also a reminder of how far the program has come. Following the losses on the recruiting trail and an 0-2 start to the 2016 season, a changed occurred, however, it wasn’t the change everyone thought it would be.
Transfer Stephen Johnson took over the starting QB job following a season ending back injury to Drew Barker during the first drive vs. New Mexico State. That same game, Wildcat fans got their first taste of running back Benny Snell Jr.
The Wildcats knocked off New Mexico State and South Carolina in back-to-back must win games for Mark Stoops to save his job, before a trip to Alabama awaited them. Fans expected the Tide to roll the Wildcats, but Kentucky battled Alabama for four quarters and earned back some respect.
A strong October that included wins vs. Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, and Missouri, helped rejuvenate the fan base. However, Kentucky dropped a heart breaker to Georgia and followed that with the sloppiest performance of the season in a loss at Tennessee to even their record at 5-5.
The Wildcats clinched bowl eligibility vs. Austin Peay and a week later picked up the biggest win of the Mark Stoops Era at Papa Johns Cardinal Stadium. That is when things really started to take off for Mark Stoops, as the fifth-year head coach is still reaping the benefits of that victory.
The victory vs. Louisville is still leading to wins on the recruiting trail and as a result, the Wildcats will likely finish with the best recruiting class in program history. Wildcat fans can finally see the vision that Stoops had when he took over a program that was at its lowest point.
Recruits are taking notice of the change in Lexington, as each big time commitment heals the wounds left by Damien Harris, Mac Jones, and so many that flirted with calling Lexington their home. The best example is 4-star QB commit Jarren Williams, who committed to the Wildcats twice.
Williams committed to the Wildcats last year, but like other UK targets before him, began to receive offers from the nations best, including Alabama. However, this time Saban couldn’t convince a difference maker recruit for UK to flip to college football’s juggernaut program. That alone should be enough to notice the change that has occurred since last September.
The Wildcats also have a chance to make a statement with a commitment from the nations No. 1 athlete, Blue Smith. Smith has offers from a long list of major programs, but the Wildcats biggest competition is the home state Buckeyes of Ohio State. Kentucky is in great position in his recruitment and if Blue decides to put on a blue hat in a few weeks, Big Blue Nation will never remember the names Damien Harris, Mac Jones, and all the others that took the easy way out.
Image courtesy of UK Athletics and SEC Network