After Kentucky baseball’s success, which UK sport is poised to break through next?

Kentucky football, you’re up.

Kentucky baseball just completed its breakthrough, earning an SEC regular-season co-championship, playing host to a super regional for the first time and advancing to the Men’s College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska, for the first time in program history.

Kentucky men’s basketball has won eight titles. Volleyball captured a national title in 2020. Softball reached the Women’s College World Series in 2014. Men’s tennis was national runner-up in 2022 and reached the Elite Eight this past season. Men’s soccer was ranked No. 1 in 2023. Women’s swimming won its first SEC title in 2021. Women’s track and field has placed in the top five in national competition. Rifle has won four national championships.

So which UK sport is poised to break through next?

You could say Kentucky women’s basketball. The Wildcats came within one victory of the Final Four three times under Matthew Mitchell, most recently in 2013. Success has been sparse since. The addition of new coach Kenny Brooks and a renovated Memorial Coliseum should inject new life. Brooks has built a formidable roster, but this will be his first season on the job.

This will be Mark Stoops’ 12th. With Nick Saban’s retirement, Stoops is the longest-tenured football coach in the SEC. He’s also the program’s all-time winningest coach, the first to post a plus .500 conference mark since 1977 and the first to produce a pair of 10-win seasons.

Kentucky football head coach Mark Stoops greets women’s basketball head coach Kenny Brooks during the Blue-White Game at Kroger Field on April 13.
Kentucky football head coach Mark Stoops greets women’s basketball head coach Kenny Brooks during the Blue-White Game at Kroger Field on April 13.

Still, the football Cats have yet to reach the SEC Championship game or crack a New Year’s Six bowl, much less the College Football Playoff.

Could this be the year?

Adding Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC doesn’t make the task any easier. That’s especially true this season when, Texas is projected as a national top-five preseason pick. Kentucky plays in Austin on Nov. 23.

On the plus side, this will be the first college football season using the expanded 12-team playoff format. The CFP was limited to four since its 2015 inception. That changes for 2024. The dozen participants will consist of the five highest-ranked conference champions, plus the next seven highest-ranked teams.

Had that been in place in 2018, Stoops’ Cats would have been close to making the cut. They capped a 10-3 campaign with a victory over Penn State in the Citrus Bowl. They were ranked 12th in the final AP poll and 11th in the final coaches poll. They were 14th in the CFP on selection day that Dec. 2.

Kentucky football in the preseason rankings

With Kentucky coming off back-to-back 7-6 seasons, you won’t find UK in most of this year’s preseason top 25s. I picked up a Lindy’s College Football Yearbook for 2024 on Friday. It listed Kentucky at No. 35 in its rankings of the 134 Division I teams.

Nine SEC teams were ranked ahead of the Cats — No. 1 Georgia, No. 3 Texas, No. 5 Ole Miss, No. 7 Alabama, No. 9 Missouri, No. 13 LSU, No. 15 Tennessee, No. 19 Oklahoma and No. 34 Auburn. Kentucky plays five of the nine — Georgia, Texas, Ole Miss, Tennessee and Auburn.

Then again, UK’s 2024 roster might be among the most talented of the Stoops’ tenure. He has a projected top-five NFL draft pick in defensive tackle Deone Walker, a pair of pro-level wide receivers in Barion Brown and Dane Key, an All-SEC caliber cornerback in Maxwell Hairston and several transfer portal additions expected to fill key positions.

Brock Vandagriff and Bush Hamdan are keys

One portal addition occupies the sport’s most important position, of course. That would be Brock Vandagriff, the transfer from Georgia who is expected to be the starter for the Aug. 31 opener against Southern Miss.

And Vandagriff will be playing for UK’s third offensive coordinator in three seasons. Ex-Boise State OC Bush Hamdan is expected to incorporate college-friendly tweaks to the Kyle Shanahan/Sean McVay pro scheme used by Rich Scangarello (2022) and Liam Coen (2023) the past two seasons. How quickly Hamdan and Vandagriff mesh could tell the 2024 tale.

Taking the next step is never easy. That’s especially true for a Kentucky football program that lacks the tradition, history and geographical advantages of many of its rivals, both inside and outside the conference.

But didn’t we say the same thing about UK baseball?

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