UK football has five steps it needs to take to keep climbing in the SEC

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Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops celebrates with the team and the Governor’s Cup after beating Louisville last November. Stoops agreed to a contract extension late last season. (Alex Slitz/
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My firsthand memory of Kentucky football begins with the initial season (1973) the Wildcats played in the venue formerly known as Commonwealth Stadium.

In all that time, the UK program has never been at a consistently, higher level than it is now.

Fran Curci’s 10-1 squad in 1977 remains the best team in my experience of Wildcats football. However, no Kentucky coach in my lifetime has been able to shift the paradigm for what is possible for the UK program in a sustained, positive direction to the extent Mark Stoops has.

Since 2016, Kentucky has gone 47-29 overall and 25-25 in SEC games.

You have to go back to the Bear Bryant and Blanton Collier coaching eras — when Kentucky went 22-11-3 in SEC games from 1949 through 1954 — to find a better six-year stretch for UK vs. Southeastern Conference foes.

In the midst of a school-record six-year bowl streak, the Wildcats have won four straight bowl games, beating No. 12 Penn State, traditional ACC power Virginia Tech, No. 23 North Carolina State and No. 15 Iowa.

UK will enter 2022 with a non-league win streak of 16 games that includes seven victories over power-conference foes — five over ACC opponents, two against the Big Ten.

In its entire football history, Kentucky has had four seasons of at least 10 wins — and two of them have come since 2018.

A member of the Southeastern Conference since it began in 1933, UK has had only nine winning league records in all that time — and two of them have come since 2018.

Having elevated UK football from its traditional perch near the bottom of the SEC solidly into the middle of the league, the question facing Stoops is what has to be done for Kentucky to continue to climb.

There are five major steps toward improvement still available for the Cats to take.

Step one: More beating of Tennessee. By most meaningful metrics, UK has been a better football program than UT since 2016.

In that time frame, Kentucky has a 47-29 overall record; Tennessee is 36-37.

UK is 25-25 in SEC games; UT is 18-32.

The Wildcats have played in six bowl games and won four; the Volunteers have played in three bowls and won two.

Yet even as it has appeared in other ways to be the superior program, Kentucky is only 2-4 head-to-head vs. Tennessee.

For UK to keep rising, that will have to change.

Step two: More beating of Florida. The two wins Stoops has engineered over UF since 2018 are the only ones for Kentucky over the mighty Gators since 1986.

Yet UK in recent years has been tantalizingly close to more. Six times since 2014, the outcome between Kentucky and Florida has been in doubt in the game’s final seconds.

You could rationally argue that, if you reversed the results of just four plays, Stoops would be 6-3 vs. the Gators overall instead of 2-7.

For UK to keep rising, it has to more often take advantage of the opportunities to vanquish Florida that Stoops has shown he can consistently produce.

Step three: Some beating of Georgia. Twice in the past four seasons, Kentucky has played Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs for the SEC East lead.

Twice, UK has been smoked by 17 points by the Dawgs.

Stoops is 0-9 vs. Georgia. Only once, a 27-24 loss to the Bulldogs in Lexington in 2016, has the game even been close.

As evidenced by its victory over Alabama in Monday night’s national title game, Smart has built Georgia into one of the nation’s elite programs.

Given the rich, in-state recruiting base the Bulldogs enjoy, there’s no reason to think that changes anytime soon.

Still, if the Kentucky goal is to win an SEC East title and travel to Atlanta to play in the league championship game for the first time in school history, Georgia is the team that dream runs through.

Step four: More beating of the SEC West. As Kentucky’s head man, Stoops lost his first seven games against SEC West foes.

Since then, UK has gone 5-8 vs. the West.

Kentucky is 3-6 under Stoops against its permanent interdivisional rival, Mississippi State — 3-1 in Lexington, 0-5 in Starkville.

Once Oklahoma and Texas join the SEC from the Big 12, we don’t know what football scheduling format the Southeastern Conference will implement.

But if UK and MSU remain yearly opponents, Kentucky has to figure out how to play better in Starkville.

Step five: Don’t let anyone behind you gain. Just as UK aspires to better results vs. the teams it is not now consistently beating, the same applies to the teams over which Kentucky now holds the clear upper hand.

Kentucky has been dominating three SEC East foes.

UK has beaten South Carolina in seven out of the past eight meetings. The Cats have also beaten Vanderbilt seven out of eight. Kentucky has beaten Missouri six out of seven.

Out of conference, the Wildcats have vanquished intrastate rival Louisville four out of five.

For UK football to keep rising, the Wildcats have to make these trends enduring.

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