We have to be honest with ourselves; the Missouri and Kentucky football programs suffer from similar issues. Both programs lack the resources, reputation and support that other SEC programs like Alabama, Georgia, etc. have historically enjoyed, thereby making it much more difficult for MU and UK to maintain a consistent level of success.
Since it’s officially bye week, let’s take this opportunity to look back at how the Wildcats fared in 2015 and later progressed into a consistent contender in the conference. I think you’ll find they have a couple of things in common with this 2022 Missouri team.
- Rising Recruiting
Kentucky Football, historically, has never been a very strong program on the recruiting trail, and I'd be willing to bet that most football recruits pre-2015 would assume the ‘Cats were looking at them for basketball if they saw a UK staffer at their door. That’s just what happens when you’re known for your wildly successful basketball program, and not so much your fairly mediocre football program.
Mark Stoops changed that. Among the many great accomplishments that led him to raise the Wildcat football program from the ashes was landing some really quality recruiting classes. In 2014, Stoops’ second year at the helm, he landed the nation’s 22nd best recruiting class. This class, the Wildcats’ best in the 21st century, featured names like “Boom” Williams (led UK in rushing two years in a row) and Drew Barker (UK’s third best recruit of all time). They laid the foundation for Stoops to land consistent top-40 recruiting classes ever since. Still not on par with basketball, but much, much better.
Missouri similarly just fielded one of their best recruiting classes ever this past season after not having much success on the recruiting trail in prior years. They now look set up to continue that recruiting success, and quality depth will be a result of that.
2. The Results
The Kentucky Wildcats, like many rebuilt football programs, had to suffer some tough losses before breaking through as a program. 2015 was their year to do just that.
Early in the season, Kentucky lost a heartbreaker to Florida by a score of 14-9, extending their losing streak to the Gators to 29 games. Then, they lost by three points to a mediocre Auburn team. Later in the season, they fought Georgia hard in the first half before the Bulldogs pulled decisively away, winning 27-3. Oh, and they also lost to a non-conference rival in disappointing fashion when Louisville beat them 38-24 to knock them out of a bowl contention in the season’s final game.
Notice anything? Yeah, Mizzou played Georgia a bit closer, but the results for this 2022 team are very similar. The 2015 Wildcats had to suffer through some heartbreakers to get to a better place (7-6) in 2016 and beyond. Mizzou has now lost three straight heartbreaking games, and there may be a couple more down the line this season. But, if they follow Kentucky’s trend, the breakthrough season may be closer than expected.
3. The Coaches
In 2015, Mark Stoops was in his third year at the helm in Lexington. He had won over the fan base by this point, but few people nationally believed this program would develop into anything more than the SEC-bottom feeders they had been for years.
Still, some people could tell they were close to a breakthrough in 2015. In year four, Stoops & Co. finally got the results they’d been waiting on. They upset Lamar Jackson and Louisville, beat South Carolina, Mississippi State and Missouri, and gave Georgia the scare of their lives in Lexington. The Cats finished the regular season 7-5, qualifying for their first bowl game since 2010.
Similarly, Eliah Drinkwitz is in year three and looks very close to a breakthrough as well. Year four for Drink could go very similarly to how Stoops’ did.
We know these programs are not exactly the same, but still, the similarities are glaring.
Kentucky in 2015 and Mizzou in 2022 both recently had recruiting surges, suffered multiple close losses, and had a head coach in year three that seemed so close to a breakthrough. Kentucky has gone 51-31 since the 2015 season and have been able to sustain success on and off the field. Mark Stoops appears to be committed to the program long-term, and the fan base could not be happier.
The signs point in favor of Mizzou being in a similar situation as a program that can not just completely turn things around overnight. It takes time and patience to succeed in the SEC as a middle-tier program, and Kentucky’s administration and coaching staff gave Stoops that time and support to get to where they are today. The jury is still out on Drinkwitz as a coach, but he has enough positives working in his favor that he may be destined for the same success if given the chance.
So, the question I pose to the audience: Is Missouri on the same trajectory? Will 2023 be the breakthrough season with just a couple more games swinging their way?