ATLANTA — Mark Stoops has answered many questions since he took over as the head coach at Kentucky in 2013.
He took Kentucky to a bowl game, something the Wildcats hadn’t done since 2010. He’s recruited at a higher level than any coach before him, turned that success into a $110 million dollar renovation to Commonwealth Stadium and a $45 million dollar investment into a new football training facility. He’s turned Kentucky from a dollar store doormat into a legitimate SEC team, or at least a high-end doormat from Crate & Barrel.
There was one question that he was expecting on Monday afternoon at SEC Media Days.
The question posed from the media member was about, of course, beating Florida.
“I always look forward to that annual question here,” Stoops said with a self-deprecating laugh. “Until we get it done. I know. I’m not blaming you. I’m going to get it a thousand times between now and that game.”
Stoops’ Wildcats were trounced by Florida in his inaugural season (24-7) but took Florida to triple overtime in 2014, a 36-30 loss. Then a 14-9 loss and a 45-7 trouncing before a 28-27 loss in 2017. That last game was probably Kentucky’s best shot and if not for two blown coverages and a questionable holding call might have ended the now 31-game losing streak to Florida.
Stoops generally dodged the question in his first couple of seasons at Kentucky. The task of rebuilding the Wildcats was so grand in scale he couldn’t afford to circle one game on the calendar.
“(The) first three or four years, I really wasn’t concerned about it,” he said. “I’m trying to build a culture at Kentucky and win games and get in position.”
The 2017 game really sticks in the minds of Kentucky fans, Stoops and his players. The Wildcats scored first and their defense had shut Florida’s offensive efforts down with back-to-back three and outs to start the game before Kadarius Toney took off for a 36-yard touchdown. Kentcky scored again to re-take the lead but Tyrie Cleveland took advantage of a complete blown coverage for a 45-yard touchdown to tie the score. Kentucky would blow another coverage with 43 seconds left in the game, allowing Luke Del Rio to connect with Freddie Swain for a five yard score that sealed the game at 28-27.
“Last year I thought the majority of people thought we were the better team that game,” senior tight end C.J. Conrad said Monday at SEC Media Days. “We played extremely well, we just didn’t finish the way we wanted to. It stings but you also want it to motivate you. I think we’ve done a really good job of that.”
Conrad has come close to beating Florida. A senior-to-be, he’s also seen how the program has grown so much in such a short time but anther seven win season and another loss to Florida and Georgia would feel like their wheels are stuck in mud rather than continuing to move up the SEC pecking order.
“Two back-to-back bowl games. We went 7-5 the last two seasons. We want to take that next step,” he said. “(Beating Florida) that’s part of it. I don’t think it’s everything but it’s a huge step for us to take and it’s s early in the season, so it’s important for us.”
Stoops is now the second longest tenured head coach, after Nick Saban, in the SEC but he can’t escape the question. Stoops was a freshman defensive back at Iowa the last time Kentucky beat Florida on the football field. He’s answered so many questions and built a program but he can’t escape the one that has plagued Kentucky for more than three decades.
“We don’t put too much emphasis on that game until it gets there. We do play them early in the season. We’ll see. It is what it is. We’ll go down there and play them early in the year at The Swamp,” Stoops said. “We all know it’s a very tough environment. They have a new change in coaching staff. We’re familiar with Dan and what he does and the great job he does. It’s a tough game, but we’re excited, and we’ll embrace that challenge when the time comes.”