Stoops should build a different offense and fans owe him patience
Mark Stoops is not on the hot seat.
Nobody whose opinion matters is suggesting that he is.
He's taken Kentucky to four straight bowls and won 18 games over the previous two years.
He has presided over the biggest improvement to any program's recruiting in college football over the last decade, with the possible exception of Clemson.
Kentucky just got beat by 60 points, but the Wildcats are not regarded as a punchline around the SEC. That game aside, the Wildcats finally have something resembling success, for what the program has achieved in recent years.
So let's make all that clear.
But something else is now clear. Mark Stoops can't take Kentucky to the next level -- to SEC East contention, which was the supposed to be the next step after that 10-3 season in 2018 -- with the same offense and the same football philosophy he's had for the last several years of his tenure.
We all know what that philosophy is.
Kentucky plays very conservatively on offense, defense, and special teams. Opposing coaches talk about Kentucky in terms of "you know what they're going to do," and "they know who they want to be."
That means Kentucky has an identity, and the identity is run the ball, eat clock, accept punts and field position, protect your defense, and force your style of football onto your opponent.
To those who would suggest that Stoops "will never change," and that this kind of offense and this kind of conservative coaching will characterize all of his future teams at Kentucky, I'd just say that we can't know that for sure.
Mark Stoops' first offensive coordinator was Neal Brown. His second was Shannon Dawson. The Eddie Gran era began with Drew Barker slinging the ball around the yard at then-Commonwealth Stadium.
The Stoops' offensive shift to ground, pound, and eat up clock did not happen until Barker's injury forced Stephen Johnson behind center. That all happened to also be in a year when the offensive line started to take a big step forward, when the 'Cats had star all-purpose back in Boom Williams, and when Benny Snell was beginning to do some things.
That's to point out that Stoops has been something other than ground and pound before. But also to underscore that it made a lot of sense to attempt that strategy based on the circumstances facing the program.
I do admit to wondering if Stoops has really internalized this need to change the offense. He was very sure of the old method, which is the current one, and may not be keen on the idea of making fundamental changes. Part of me wonders if he wants to get through this season, into a more conventional schedule, and continue doing things the way that won them games from 2016-2019.
It's clear to me that Kentucky needs to start catching up to the trend in college football and beyond college in order to have a chance to get back on track as a program.
Quarterbacks and wide receivers are the most important players on the field in the new college game.
The best coach in the sport's history, Nick Saban, is saying the days of just playing good football and winning are probably over.
Just one year ago Stoops would frequently reference stats that backed his strategy. "If you win the rushing yardage battle by one yard," Stoops would say, "You have an 80% chance of winning the game."
He was right, although there are a lot of reasons for that stat.
But right now, just watch the sport. You have to be able to throw and catch, and make guys miss after the catch. You have to be comfortable with your opponent getting a lot of possessions, and you have to be okay giving up yards and points. Those are old metrics that said a lot about success, but they're changing.
We could continue to diagnose the offensive issues and predict what a fix must look like. But it's pretty obvious, right? Recruit better receivers. Develop better quarterbacks. Spend your offseason building and developing a true modern passing attack, and that will force you to move away from the philosophy that helped you win so much in recent years.
But here's where the fans' part comes in.
Mark Stoops has earned the time and the patience for what is going to be some real growing pains.
Kentucky loses basically all of one of the best offensive line groups in program history. We don't know who the quarterback will be. There are still no known proven receivers for next year's team.
There is going to be a learning curve. In fact, it might be the kind of total rebuild that you are seeing at Georgia Tech in the post-Paul Johnson era, or that Mike Leach is undergoing at Mississippi State.
Think about that in real terms, not as an exaggeration. Those whole system changes take time.
But Stoops has earned the time and patience to change the offense and build something new from scratch. A first-year coach inheriting UK's current offense would be given a long leash. Stoops deserves that same leash, because he's won more games than all but one other coach in UK history.
Fans expecting the issue to be fixed next year may be disappointed. In reality, progress is not guaranteed will more likely come incrementally. Be prepared to look for little successes and small-scale player development stories before the bigger changes. Setting expectations is important because the next four years are probably going to be very different than the last four.