BOZICH | Has Kentucky football moved past the Louisville meltdow - WDRB 41 Louisville News

BOZICH | Has Kentucky football moved past the Louisville meltdown?

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Kentucky halfback Jojo Kemp said the Big Blue Nation needs a winning football program. Kentucky halfback Jojo Kemp said the Big Blue Nation needs a winning football program.

HOOVER, Ala. (WDRB) -- Yes, I remember I whiffed with my prediction the University of Kentucky football team would beat Louisville and win seven games last season. Can’t run from that. Won’t run from that.

But there’s opportunity for the Wildcats in the Southeastern Conference this season. I sensed it during my visit to SEC Football media days Wednesday at the Wynfrey Hotel.

South Carolina, a team Kentucky has beaten in back-to-back seasons, is wobbling and banking on a coach (Will Muschamp) who could not deliver at Florida. Things are worse at Missouri, where the athletic director just bailed for Baylor. The backsliding Tigers have an unproven head coach (Barry Odom). Vanderbilt is Vanderbilt.

That is the path to bowl eligibility in year four for Mark Stoops and UK. Beat those three teams and win the three scheduled non-conference victories.

But considering the way the last two seasons ended at Kentucky, you cannot ignore this question:

How does UK rebound from its come-from-21-points-ahead, two-touchdown loss to Louisville in the Governor’s Cup last November at Commonwealth Stadium?

“It hurt,” linebacker Courtney Love said.

The Wildcats have lost at least four and perhaps five games they could have won the last two seasons while finishing one victory short of bowl trips in 2014 and 2015.

But that 2015 Governor’s Cup game, a home game, a rivalry game, a three-touchdown lead game, a season-ending game, stung more like a bee than a butterfly for Stoops and his players.

“It happened,” halfback Jojo Kemp said. “That’s a perfect example of getting that close and not finishing … The BBN needs a winning football program. We have everything else. It’s the only thing left to do.”

Jon Toth is Kentucky’s senior center, likely its best offensive player. Toth has beaten South Carolina. He’s beaten Missouri. He’s beaten Vanderbilt.

Jon Toth has not beaten Louisville.

Toth had a simple and direct take. Yes, the 38-24 home loss to Louisville was indeed a motivator during the off-season. Let Kentucky handle the Cardinals this season and, “you’re not asking that question. So our motivation is to get those (game-changing) plays so we can talk about other things. Talk about winning.”

Agreed. But how?

The Wildcats return nine starters on offense, including their two best backs – Kemp and Boom Williams. The receiving group is experienced but inconsistent. Stoops believes his defensive backfield is a team strength.

There are major questions in the defensive front seven where the Wildcats are waiting on defensive tackle Matt Elam, a recruit who picked Kentucky over Alabama and Notre Dame.

“I don’t want to put too much pressure on him,” Stoops said. “It’s all been planned really to help Matt get in great shape. The kid works out and does everything right in our facility. He can go through every workout. He’s explosive. He runs well. He does a good amount of workouts.

“But he has to manage his weight to play at a high level. I don’t want to jinx him or anything like that, but he’s looking a lot better.”

This is another major question at quarterback with Drew Barker, especially after Barker failed to complete 13 of his final 14 passes against Louisville. Patrick Towles left for Boston College. Barker, a guy with one career touchdown pass and two career interceptions, is The Guy.

“He’ll get the keys to the car, and I’m excited to watch him go,” Stoops said. “I know this is his time. He’s ready to play.”

Both were five-star recruits who have not been five-star players. Considerable improvement by either player would give Stoops breathing room.

No coach in the SEC East Division has more tenure in his current job than Stoops. But the UK coach is still preaching patience.

“The big thing I’m proud of is the culture change,” Stoops said. “It’s easy to change the climate within a program. I think it’s difficult to change a culture.

“A culture is very, very deep-rooted, and it has a long history. And I know we’re creating a positive winning culture. The results will happen. I’m confident. I wouldn’t say it if I wasn’t.”

Few things could speed the culture change more than success against Louisville.

Stoops is not coaching for his job, no matter what the Internet Hot Seat lists scream. Dismissing Stoops after the 2016 season would be economic silliness by athletic director Mitch Barnhart.

Kentucky would have to write a check for $12 million if it pushed Stoops out after this season. The number will remain at $7 million if he goes after 2017.

But Mark Stoops doesn’t need Paul Finebaum, Nick Saban, Kirk Herbstreit or me to analyze the situation He understands.

“We are doing all the things necessary to win,” Stoops said. “There are frustrations. There are setbacks. If anybody thought that you would walk into the Kentucky job three years ago and it would be a steady climb, you’re crazy.

“There’s going to be ups and there’s going to be downs. The downs are very difficult. Our margin for very is very small. We can’t lose opportunities. That’s my job. We’re going to hit that head on.”

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