Can Kentucky make the College Football Playoff? Who can lure Mark Stoops from Lexington?

Well, what do we have here? Is it … an everything school?

Mark Stoops is the toast of college football after winning at Florida last week and, in the process, becoming Kentucky’s all-time winningest coach and earning the Wildcats their first top-10 ranking since 2007. Now he comes home to coach against Youngstown State, a cosmic coincidence as so many people are reflecting this week on his career. Stoops is rapidly climbing the list of college football coaches who grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, and he’ll have a small army of friends and family at the game Saturday.

This feels like a major moment in time for Stoops and the football program, and that’s probably why our call for mailbag questions this week, even with a highly anticipated basketball season less than two months away, was jam-packed with football questions. We’ll get the basketball-specific questions next week.

Who is the King of Campus, Will Levis or Oscar Tshiebwe? — Terry J.

You won’t catch me starting another war between Kentucky football and basketball, buddy. But it’s an interesting question that highlights the fact that it has been a long time since the school had two such stars playing at their peak simultaneously in football and basketball.

I conducted a little Twitter survey, asking UK fans the last great two-sport combo, and it was hardly unanimous. A few people went all the way back to guys who played for Bear Bryant and Adolph Rupp. There were several attempts to pair Tim Couch with a hooper, but suggested stars Tony Delk and Ron Mercer were actually gone before Couch won the starting job. Tayshaun Prince averaged just 5.8 points as a freshman during Couch’s last season. Jeff Sheppard, who led the 1998 national championship team in scoring and won Final Four MOP, arguably fits the bill. But he was gone before Couch’s best season in the fall of ’98, when the eventual No. 1 pick set a bunch of national passing records, led UK to an Outback Bowl and was a Heisman finalist.

Couch’s beloved successor, Jared Lorenzen, threw for more than 10,000 career yards and overlapped with Prince and Keith Bogans, but Kentucky football went 2-9 both years that Prince and Bogans were co-stars. The season after Prince left, Lorenzen did lead football to a memorable 7-5 season — road wins at Louisville, Arkansas and Mississippi State, plus wild, heartbreaking near-upsets against Florida and LSU — while Bogans won SEC Player of the Year and led the Cats to an undefeated league record, No. 1 seed and Elite Eight.

What about the Andre’ Woodson era? Timing is everything. He threw for 7,224 yards and 71 touchdowns his last two seasons (2006 and 2007), but that corresponded with the last year of Tubby Smith and first year of Billy Gillispie. Dark days in the basketball program. Jodie Meeks was a freshman and sophomore then, but he was not yet a star. Joe Crawford scored more than 1,000 points those two seasons but lost 25 games and didn’t get past the second round of the NCAA Tournament. While none of these pairings feels quite as potent as Levis-Tshiebwe, here’s one that might: John Wall and Randall Cobb in 2009-10.

That duo got the most votes in my crowdsourcing effort, and that’s probably right. Wall was a rock star in John Calipari’s first season: SEC Player of the Year, consensus All-American and No. 1 pick who made Kentucky cool again. Cobb was a do-everything dynamo for a team that beat rival Louisville and won at Auburn and Georgia, which hasn’t happened since. Cobb had 573 rushing yards, 447 receiving yards, 653 return yards and 15 total touchdowns in 2009 — a reminder that what Rich Brooks did with far fewer resources was almost as impressive as what Mark Stoops is doing now.

To be sure, though, Kentucky fans are living a rare dream. They have a top-10 football team led by a projected first-round pick at QB and a preseason top-five basketball team led by the returning national player of the year. So is Levis or Tshiebwe the big man on campus? Yes.


Will Levis just led Kentucky to a win against Florida. (Kim Klement / USA Today)

What is the staff’s (or your) ceiling for the football team this season now {that a} big early test was taken and passed with the win at Florida? — Lucas H.

Stoops would tell you he believes Kentucky can win every game. I remain skeptical that the Cats (or anybody) can beat Georgia, but I do think a 10-win regular season and a New Year’s Six bowl game are now on the table. To me, the season hinges on road games at Ole Miss and Tennessee. You can lose one of those and still dream big, but win both and you can dream really big. That would all but guarantee for the third time in five years, you’re playing Georgia in November with a chance to win the East.

What are we more likely to see this year, a Sugar Bowl for the football team or a Final Four in basketball? And I can’t believe I just wrote that with a straight face. — Spald S.

If UK makes the Sugar Bowl, which game are you going to, Sugar Bowl or UK/U of L basketball game? — Trey M.

Does 10-2 Kentucky (if losses are Georgia and Tennessee) make a New Year’s 6 bowl game? — Christopher G.

Does UK have a realistic shot at going to Atlanta (for the SEC championship game) this year? — Andrew B.

Why will Kentucky make the CFB Playoff? — Curtis S.

I’m beginning to detect extreme excitement and optimism about this Kentucky football team. Several fun questions there, but I’d say it still feels more likely basketball gets back to its first Final Four since 2015 than football making its first Sugar Bowl since 1950. That says more about my confidence in the basketball roster — which looks like a well-rounded title contender to me — than any major skepticism about football. I do worry about attrition, though. Stoops has a team that is talented enough at full strength, but are they deep enough to get through three road games against ranked opponents and then No. 1 UGA without being battered in the process?

Kentucky has 26 former four- or five-star recruits on its roster, which is more than ever in the Internet rankings era, yet the Cats will face five more SEC teams with similar or better on-paper talent. Georgia has 67 blue-chippers, Tennessee 26, Ole Miss and South Carolina 24 each and Mississippi State 23. Now, UK already beat a “more talented” team on the road — Florida had 46 four- and five-stars — but that’s what makes the league so hard. You gotta do {that a} half-dozen more times to claim your prize.

The Wildcats would rank fourth in the Big Ten (behind only Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State) in blue-chip players, third in the Big 12 (behind Texas and Oklahoma) and third in the Pac-12 (behind Oregon, USC and Washington). They’re tied for seventh in the SEC. That feels like a few too many hurdles to clear still, like trips to the conference championship game or playoff might remain just out of reach for now. A ticket to one of the non-playoff New Year’s Six bowl games (Sugar, Rose, Cotton and Orange this year) would be a lofty but maybe more realistic goal — and yes, I think a 10-2 record probably would get Kentucky there.

The Cats are No. 9 in the latest AP poll, No. 10 in the coaches poll. If they can finish inside the top 12 of the CFP rankings, they’ll almost certainly be invited. Since 2014, only five Power 5 teams who failed to win their conference championship and finished outside the top 12 earned a NY6 invitation: No. 16 Oklahoma State (10-2) to the Sugar in 2015, No. 14 Auburn (8-4) to the Sugar in 2016, No. 15 Texas (9-4) to the Sugar in 2018, No. 24 Virginia (9-4) to the Orange in 2019 and No. 13 North Carolina (8-3) to the Orange in 2020.

Oh, and what would I cover if Kentucky does make the Sugar Bowl, which is on the same day (and same time!) as Cats-Cards basketball? Tough question, but probably the basketball game. Because that’s my primary gig. Plus, The Athletic has an army of tremendous college football reporters. In that case, I would be sure to find and write some awesome stories about the football team in the days leading up to the game as well. (Speaking of which, stay tuned, as I’m working on a couple of big football features at the moment.) It’d be quite the conundrum for media who cover the Cats and for fans who would have to make that choice (or go split-screen at home). But for Kentucky, that’d be a helluva great problem to have.

Who gets a statue on campus first? Cal or Stoops? — Ryan W.

Who do you think ends up staying at UK the longest: Cal, Stoops or Barnhart? — Mark T.

You guys think you’re sneaky with all of these prompts for me to wade back into the Cal-Stoops beef (which, as I understand it, is now pretty well squashed). Here’s the thing: The next person to get a statue (or permanent monument of some kind) on that campus should be the late John Schlarman. I’ve said before that I’d like to see a physical “Big Blue Wall” in honor of the man who built so many great offensive lines at Kentucky and inspired people all over the country with his brave battle against a cruel form of cancer.

Here’s the other thing: There’s no Adolph Rupp statue. There’s no Bear Bryant statue. None of UK’s all-time great basketball players are immortalized in bronze. There’s a Joe B. Hall statue outside the basketball practice facility and a beautiful, meaningful statue of the four Black UK football pioneers outside that practice facility. But that’s it. Which is probably a good idea. History tells us that way too many of those things eventually have to come down, because people are flawed, and it’s OK to just let the record book reflect their accomplishments.

If someone is hell-bent on building statues, though, I’d probably start an area where you put up a handful of the most impactful figures in both the football and basketball programs’ histories. Both Stoops and Calipari have earned their place in something like that.

As for who stays the longest, that’s a really tough call. I thought Barnhart would’ve retired by now, but he’s 20 years in and still going. I’ve wondered, as one of the most respected ADs in the country, whether he might get a call to lead the NCAA. Calipari has said many times that he thought 10 years was the most any mortal man could handle the weight of the UK basketball job — yet he’s entering Year 14. He has to go two more seasons to trigger the clause in his contract that would allow him to retire at any point and collect a million bucks a year as an ambassador for the university. Then there’s Stoops, who just passed Bear Bryant for the most wins (61) in program history and has this thing rolling in Year 10. He’s well on his way to a seventh straight bowl game, of which he’s won four straight, and we’re in here pondering whether UK can get to a Sugar Bowl or better.

It wouldn’t surprise me to see any of those three win the endurance competition, because they’ve all gone beyond everyone’s initial projection, but Stoops feels most likely to be the last man standing. Because he has really built something at Kentucky and made it a much, much better job than the one he inherited almost a decade ago. Barnhart and the university’s willingness to invest heavily in the program during that same time period is also a major factor, which is good because Stoops has never been a hotter candidate for other programs in need of a rebuild than he is right now. This brings us to …

What are the schools you actually think Stoops would leave Kentucky for? Iowa and Florida State come to mind. Obviously he’d leave for a big name like Ohio State as well. — Kenny C.

With Stoops’ continued success, do you worry that one of the more traditionally rich programs will poach him from UK? At one point, I was more concerned about it, but I truly feel like UK could be a consistent participant in the college playoff (when expanded to 12) and have an outside chance of bringing home a national championship. — Williams S.

What do you think it will take for Mark Stoops to retire here? — William L.

It’s really interesting to think about what kind of job might be attractive enough to lure Stoops away from a program he’s poured a decade of his life into and finally has it knocking on the door of something special — just to start over with a new rebuild. Of course, his gift for building something out of damn near nothing is the reason his agent (heavy hitter Jimmy Sexton) will be fielding a lot of phone calls in the coming months. But I don’t know if you can underestimate how much a total program rehab takes out of somebody. Going to a place that won a bunch in the past or has a lot of money now, or both, guarantees nothing these days.

Consider these numbers since 2016: Florida State is 28-33 with one winning season, two bowl appearances, one bowl victory and three head coaches; Nebraska is 20-39 with zero winning seasons or bowl appearances and is hiring its third head coach; Tennessee is 29-33 with two winning seasons, two bowl appearances, one bowl victory and three head coaches. Meanwhile, since 2015, Stoops is 49-29 with six bowl appearances, four straight bowl victories and two 10-win seasons.

Miami has one 10-win season since 2003 and is on its fourth coach in seven years. Florida has lost five-plus games six times in the 12 seasons since Urban Meyer went 13-1 three times in four years. The Gators are on their fourth coach in eight years. Texas has one 10-win season and five losing seasons since 2009 and the Longhorns are on their fourth coach in nine years.

All of that to say: Other than Iowa, where he and his brothers played, I think it would take a program with both the money to compete at the highest level and a history of having already competed at the highest level — meaning national titles — to pull Stoops from Lexington. But I know he’s also acutely aware that many of those former powers are former powers for a reason, and they might not ever come all the way back. He doesn’t want to jump at a nostalgic name brand and end up like Scott Frost, who went undefeated at Central Florida but then absolutely face-planted at Nebraska.

For the same reason, despite whatever fondness he has for his alma mater, I wonder whether Stoops believes Iowa (which should definitely try to get him when it needs a new head coach) has a markedly better chance to win it all than Kentucky. Especially when the playoff expands, as William S. noted above. The Cats would have a real shot at making a 12-team playoff — they would’ve been in that mix in 2018 and 2021 and certainly could be this season. That’s kind of a game-changer. Throw in the financial commitment to football at Kentucky and suddenly the grass might not be much greener elsewhere.

Stoops has one of the best contracts in football: $6.75 million this season, increasing by $250,000 through 2027, when he’ll hit $8 million, plus $250,000 bonuses for every win above eight in a season and access to a private jet for personal use. His contract also sets the minimum annual assistant coaching salary pool at $6.5 million, and his offensive, defensive and recruiting coordinators all make at least $1 million. The Cats have an upgraded stadium, a state-of-the-art training facility and plans for a renovated indoor practice facility. You know, that kind of sounds like a football school.

If a turnkey national title contender one day comes calling — Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State types; maybe Notre Dame, Michigan, Penn State, where he could maintain his recruiting pipelines — Stoops is probably gone. Otherwise, if we’re talking about signing up for another long, hard rebuild, I just can’t see it.

About the Author: Mofazzal Hossen

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