ATLANTA — Mark Stoops is tired of being close.
Kentucky’s sixth-year coach has gotten a lot of pats on the back for leading the Wildcats back-to-back seven-win seasons and bowl appearances and putting some big-time scares in some powerhouse programs. That included Georgia two years ago, when the Bulldogs slipped out of Lexington with a 27-24 victory thanks to a Rodrigo Blankenship last-second field goal.
Of course, there was nothing close about last year’s tilt against Georgia. The Bulldogs rolled 42-13.
Stoops expects the defending SEC champions to be the team to beat again in the Eastern Division. He’s hoping the Wildcats will prove they’ve closed that gap by the time they play host to Georgia on Nov. 3 in Commonwealth Stadium.
“It’ll take a lot,” Stoops said of being competitive again against the Bulldogs. “We had a close game with them two years ago at our place but it got away from us last year. That will happen when you make mistakes against a good team like that. We’ll have to play a cleaner game, to start with.”
In fact, Kentucky was within 21-13 of the Bulldogs after scoring a touchdown on its opening drive of the second half. But then Georgia decided to get serious about running the football and keeping the Wildcats’ offense sidelined.
They did, rushing for a total of 381 yards and scoring 21 unanswered points on the way to a stress-free 10th victory.
That win represented Georgia’s eighth in a row over Kentucky and 10th in the last 11 years. But that’s nothing compared to the frustration the Wildcats have experienced against Florida.
Kentucky famously blew a late lead to lose to the Gators 28-27 last season. It was the Wildcats’ 31st consecutive loss in the series.
Stoops was reminded of that at SEC Football Media Days on Monday.
“I always look forward to that annual question,” Stoops said sarcastically. “… We need to beat Florida, but we need to beat a lot of teams on our schedule.”
UK can look South Carolina for that. It has won four straight over the Gamecocks.
But Stoops is thinking bigger than that. The former Florida State defensive coordinator thinks he has the horses to challenge in the East this year. The Wildcats return junior running back Benny Snell, who has rushed for 2,432 yards and 32 touchdowns the last two years. They’ll pair that with a defense that leads the SEC returning defensive production.
“There’s a change in expectations and that’s a good thing,” Stoops said. “We look forward to making a big jump. We’re tired of being close. We want to get over the hump.”