LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – For University of Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops, the next big question is whether he can get his program to take the next step. And that step, to win a divisional championship in the Southeastern Conference, is a doozy.

Stoops appeared at SEC Media Days on Tuesday, his ninth preseason at the school. And that number is significant.

No SEC coach in the past 20 years (and only one in the past 30) has coached more than nine seasons without an SEC title and kept his job for a 10th. In fact, Dan Mullen (Mississippi State) and Bobby Johnson (Vanderbilt) are the only two others to last eight years in SEC jobs since 2000 without a championship, until Stoops joined them after the 2020 season.

Not that there’s any indication that Stoops’ seat is in any way hot. To the contrary, Kentucky seems satisfied with his work, with his program’s progress, and with his recruiting. The Wildcats, without question, have reached a level of talent and depth to be more competitive in the SEC. But with the exception of a 10-win season (and SEC Coach of the Year honors for Stoops) in 2018, they have not.

That was Stoops’ only winning season in SEC play. And at some point, he will have to produce more.

“Grateful to be here, grateful to be in this league for nine seasons,” Stoops said. “You see so many people come and go, so many coaches come and go. Obviously, very, very difficult, very challenging. Again, grateful is the word that comes to mind.”

Under different circumstances, 2020 might have been that breakout season. But little seemed to break right for the Wildcats. Chris Oats, a star defensive back, suffered a freak health setback and was lost. Offensive line coach John Schlarman lost his battle with cancer in midseason. Quarterback Terry Wilson could not improve off his first year showing in a comeback from a broken collarbone, and the Kentucky offense languished.

And so the spotlight turns to 2021, and the question for Stoops is, will the program be ready to contend in the SEC’s Eastern Division?

“I said it when I got to Kentucky that we were going to recruit, we were going to develop, we were going to compete, and I wanted to take this program to national prominence, and people laughed at me,” Stoops said Tuesday. “We're not there yet, but we're on our way. I'm going to continue to work. I feel good about where we're at. I think we have a very good team, and we have some things in place, and we're constantly learning, constantly growing, and we're getting better.”

Stoops, in 2021, is loaded on defense. He is stocked with “super” seniors and has some key transfers. The question, always, is on offense. New coordinator Liam Coen comes from the NFL, and will be expected to expand the passing game.

“That's a big reason why I hired Liam,” Stoops said. “It took me some time to clearly look at what I wanted our team to look like and what I felt like we can do. So I spent quite a bit of time researching people and systems and ultimately came down to Liam. So I have full confidence and trust in him, and that is part of his system, part of the offense to be able to play action pass and get the ball down the field. I felt like this spring we got the ball down the field better than we have in years, so I feel very good about it.”

Which quarterback will trigger that passing game is anyone’s guess. Stoops wasn’t about to tip his hand on Tuesday. He’s got Penn State transfer Will Levis, Auburn transfer Joey Gatewood and a big arm in freshman Beau Allen, who played in two games last season, thus preserving his redshirt.

“It’s nice to have options,” Stoops said.

For Kentucky, the next step under Stoops will also mean maintaining discipline. From Lynn Bowden punching an opponent before the 2019 Belk Bowl to wide receivers coach Jovon Bouknight being suspended after a DUI charge in May to football chief of staff Dan Berezowitz currently being on suspension after an arrest and assault charge for an alleged incident with his wife caught on video, discipline has not always been a hallmark of Stoops’ time in Lexington.

But five straight bowl appearances do mean something in Lexington. No Kentucky coach has ever accomplished that.

Kentucky schedules for bowl games. Louisiana Monroe, Chattanooga and New Mexico State in non-conference games this season are testament to that. It has not always scheduled for SEC success. That now becomes the focus for Stoops program. After going 4-20 in the SEC in his first three seasons, UK is 20-22 over the past five. In 2018, Kentucky got a taste of the big-time, earning a home matchup with No. 6 Georgia that could’ve gotten it a share of the Division title.

No one is predicting a return to that place this season, but Kentucky’s talent and depth are improving, and the time has come, after years of building, for another opportunity of that kind.

With year nine before Stoops, the expectations begin to increase. Is the program ready for the next step? After building stability in the Bluegrass, can Stoops build a legitimate contender?

“You guys have heard me for years sit here and just pound it about the program, the program, the program, and building the program, and all the different things we do each and every year,” Stoops said Tuesday. “That's still the foundation, build, select, develop. Constantly talk about that, build a winning culture, hit our players over the head with a sledgehammer about a positive culture, selecting the right players. . . . And then develop, intentionally develop. That's what we do. We have to. . . . We really did benefit our program this year. I felt like we added some players, we added some personnel that can help us, that can help continue to push our program forward.”

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