Kentucky was the first BCS program to make a coaching change this year, and the Wildcats are the first team to hire a replacement. Florida State defensive coordinator Mark Stoops landed his first head coaching gig, as he was hired as the replacement for Joker Phillips in Lexington.
Winning at Kentucky is no easy task. Although the Wildcats have an elite basketball program, the football team is just 101-146 since 1991. Kentucky has made five bowl games since 2006 but has never won more than eight games since a 9-3 season in 1985.
Needless to say, Kentucky is arguably one of the toughest BCS jobs in college football and ranks 13th out of 14 teams in the SEC in terms of desirability. Considering how tough it is to win big at Kentucky and the Wildcats' 2-10 record in 2012, Stoops has his work cut out for him over the next couple of seasons.
Strong defensive background
Considering Kentucky has never finished higher than 40th in total defense over the last five years, this is one area Stoops should be able to make an immediate impact. The Wildcats finished 13th in the SEC in scoring defense in 2012 and ranked 11th in yards allowed. This unit had a lot of youth stepping into key roles but also needs an infusion of talent. When Stoops arrived in Tallahassee in 2010, the Seminoles were coming off a horrendous season on defense. Florida State ranked 108th nationally in yards allowed and was giving up 30 points a game. However, the Seminoles made significant progress in Stoops’ first season, finishing 43rd in total defense and 30th in points allowed. And in 2011 and 2012, Florida State ranked in the top 10 in scoring and total defense. The competition is tougher in the SEC, but Stoops should be able to bring some immediate improvement to this unit.
With a brother (Bob) that has a national championship at Oklahoma and another brother (Mike) who served as a head coach for eight years at Arizona, Mark Stoops has plenty of good bloodlines in his family. In addition to being surrounded by two brothers with head coaching experience, Stoops has coached at South Florida, Wyoming, Houston, Miami, Arizona and Florida State, so he has plenty of experience from various parts of the country and has paid his dues on each stop on the coaching ladder.
For Kentucky to be successful in football, it has to be able to pull some talent from Ohio. And this is a big advantage for Stoops, as he was born in Youngstown and is still well-connected within the state. Also, after spending three years at Florida State and time with Miami and South Florida, Stoops should have developed plenty of recruiting connections within the state of Florida. If Kentucky is going to be successful, it needs a relentless recruiter and someone who can spark some interest in the program. Mission accomplished.
Head coaching experience
Whether or not it’s overrated when it comes to hiring a replacement, a lack of head coaching experience has to be a concern. In other SEC hires, James Franklin and Dan Mullen had no previous head coaching experience but have turned out to be solid hires. However, there’s also the other side of the coin, which includes Kentucky’s last hire of Phillips and Ron Zook at Florida.
What offense will he run?
Although Stoops should be able to bolster Kentucky’s defense, it remains uncertain what time of offense he will run. Although the Wildcats should recruit well under Stoops, they need to do something unique on offense to compete in the SEC. Before a season-ending leg injury sidelined quarterback Maxwell Smith, Kentucky was on the right track with its pass-first offense. Whether it’s a pass-first approach or a spread offense, the Wildcats need to try something different and forget about a pro-style attack.
Building a coaching staff
In addition to finding the right fit as offensive coordinator, Stoops has to fill out a coaching staff for the first time in his career. If Kentucky makes the financial commitment to hiring good assistants, Stoops won’t have a problem building a solid staff of proven options. However, it’s never easy for a coach at his first job to piece together a staff, especially since he doesn’t have any ties to the SEC. It’s not a huge negative but something to watch as Stoops builds his coaching staff.
Final Analysis and Grade
Make no mistake: Kentucky isn’t an easy job. However, it seems the Wildcats made the right hire in picking up Stoops. The 45-year-old Ohio native is inheriting a roster that has some promising pieces on offense but needs a lot of work on the defensive side. Stoops is a highenergy guy, which should help spark some interest in the fanbase and on the recruiting trail for Kentucky. The biggest question for the Wildcats will be picking an offensive scheme that’s a little outside of the box and not a pro-style approach. Although that type of offense could work at Kentucky, Stoops needs pick a coordinator that can build a run or pass-first approach. Don’t expect Stoops to be a miracle worker, but he should turn the Wildcats into a consistent bowl team.
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