CRAWFORD | UK faces No. 1 again, but win or lose, this time thin - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | UK faces No. 1 again, but win or lose, this time things are different

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — The University of Kentucky football team has played a No. 1-ranked team in the nation 14 times before; in fact, today will mark the fourth time in the past five seasons it has faced a No. 1 team.

It has won only three of those 14 meetings. I don't know whether it will win today when Mississippi State visits for a 3:30 p.m. nationally televised game. But win or lose, I do know that this time is different. And here's why.

Look at the scaffolding and construction around the $120 million Commonwealth Stadium renovation project. Look at the plans for the $45 million football complex that will be built next year. Look at the recruiting rankings over the past three seasons. Look at the youth.

And more than any of that, look at the head coach.

Mark Stoops is not going to go all Shakespeare on the opportunities that lie ahead for his team the rest of this football season.

He's not going to pontificate. He just likes to pound.

But at the center of UK's football resurgence is a coach whose head will not be turned by it. If the Wildcats' rebuilding efforts are ahead of schedule, it isn't because Stoops cut corners. He's no fan of short cuts.

"A big game's a big game," Stoops said. "You kind of feel it in the air and the energy and the practice and the focus, so they're really all big games,” Stoops said. “Once you get to the point where we're doing what we're doing and trying to win a bunch of games, then they're all important. We've got a tough stretch and this is our next one."

Here's the deal with the Wildcats. They're not supposed to beat Mississippi State. They won't be expected to beat Missouri, or Georgia, or Louisville. They can beat Tennessee — but they've only done it once in 29 years.

But the difference between today and 2007, when the Wildcats beat then-No. 1 LSU, is that this is just the start of a process, not the culmination of one.

The quarterback, Patrick Towles, is a sophomore. Sixty-seven percent of the team's scoring this season has come from newcomers. Fifty-four percent of its points have come from freshmen or redshirt freshmen. Seventy-three percent of its rushing yards have come from players who didn't play a year ago.

Rich Brooks often spoke out about the commitment that the school made to football. He went on the road in the SEC, saw the facilities, then came home and was reminded of what he was up against.

That isn't the case for Stoops. Mitch Barnhart made a commitment when he hired Stoops from Florida State that he wouldn't show up to an SEC recruiting gunfight with a 1990s facility. He has gotten bricks and mortar to back up his efforts. UK has marketed football before. But now there's a physical change in the program.

Stoops came in knowing had to do three things to jump-start this program. Recruit, recruit, and recruit. He has piled up consecutive classes that are more impressive than anything UK has done in the modern era.

But he's done more than compile talent. Maybe because I've covered them both, and they both came from the defensive side of the game, but I do think Stoops has a lot of Charlie Strong in him. Both know what it's like to coach at the highest level of the game. Stoops' last defense at Florida State was ranked No. 2 in the nation, and that program went on to a national title the next season.

Neither is prone to get caught up in the hype — good or bad. Stoops knows what he wants to build at Kentucky. He knows what it's supposed to look like. Even with his team ahead of schedule this season and sitting at 5-2, he knows it doesn't look completely like it should. But it's not supposed to, yet.

And he has a very good grasp, mechanically speaking, of what is right and wrong with his team — no matter what its record, or what the score of a game was, as in last week at LSU. The Tigers ran for better than 300 yards, but Stoops already knew the mistakes that led to several big rushing plays before the team came back to the locker room afterward, and was able to put them in perspective.

“If you look back at last week, I think we did -- believe me, I'm not crazy, I've coached defenses that were pretty darn good against the run. The good news is if you take away some of the explosive runs, that can get corrected in certain spots, just physically we actually did some very good things,” Stoops said. “They ran the ball, what, 51 times, something like that. And a good portion of some of that yardage came late and it came on some finesse runs. . . . So if you look at the power run game we actually improved quite a bit in that game and had some good plays and some good stops and did some good things and, again, I know you can write it how you want, I'm not crazy!”

They'll be challenged again this week, against a much better rushing team in Mississippi State. We'll see how much his team learned, how well Stoops and his staff were able to correct mistakes, and we'll see how this team responds to a loss of the magnitude that LSU put on them.

“We got our butts kicked so hopefully we learned a little bit and some pride,” Stoops said.

It's not a matter, anymore, of believing whether they can win a game like the one they'll play Saturday. That's one hurdle Stoops says he has cleared. But there's a whole lot more than getting a team to believe in itself that creates a winning program. And those areas are ones that Stoops seems ready to address.

He hasn't tried to call an end-around on the rest of the SEC. It's generally the best defensive league in the country and he has countered by seeking to build a big-time defense, piece by piece. He has recruited skill position players who fit the SEC template in athleticism. He doesn't have enough of any of them yet, but that process takes time.

“I told you, other times, speaking to you and to our team, we've gotten beyond the belief,” Stoops said. “Then it's about execution and doing things, and then we go out and don't do it very well, so now we got to make sure they don't slip back and start doubting, and it goes back to preparation and work and controlling the things we can control.”

Win or lose, it's a different Kentucky program that will face No. 1 on Saturday. It may or not be ready to compete on this stage at this level right now. But take a look around at the signs of construction both around the stadium and on the field and, maybe most importantly, on the sideline. There are some things we haven't seen before, and a head coach who, clearly, is focused on the things that are most important.

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