Mark Stoops almost certainly knew the challenge he faced when he took the Kentucky head coaching job. The Wildcats were coming off a 2-10 season, with the only wins coming against Kent State and Samford out of the FCS. Eight opponents held Kentucky to fewer than 20 points in 2012, and the same number had scored more than 30 points against the Wildcats. No one had any illusions that Kentucky was going to contend for the SEC East in 2013.
And things went pretty much according to expectations. Kentucky again went 2-10, winning only against Miami (OH) and Alabama State out of the FCS. Seven teams held Kentucky to fewer than 20 points, and five scored more than 30 points against the Wildcats -- so there was progress on the surface if you look hard enough. And Kentucky pushed some decent teams a bit -- Louisville and, particularly, South Carolina -- but spent much of the year as hapless underdogs.
The promised revival of the Air Raid was largely grounded for the year -- Kentucky attempted fewer passes in 2013 (343) and more rushes (431) than in 2012 (387 and 403, respectively). Passing efficiency ticked up from abysmal in 2012 to below-average a year later, but if throwing the ball is going to be how the Wildcats win games, then the day when they can do that still seems to be off in the future.
The future, for now, remains what Stoops has used to win over the Kentucky fan base. The giddy days of the Wildcats having the No. 1 recruiting class in the country are long gone, but Stoops and Co. have still Yahtzeed their way to Rivals' No. 14 class as of this writing. That's a far better ranking than Lexington has seen in recent years, at least aside from basketball, and should put Kentucky in a relatively good position as National Signing Day draws near. Stoops isn't going to beat Nick Saban in recruiting this year, but he's got a pretty good chance of landing ahead of some very good teams.
There are also some more subtle changes that might work in the Wildcats' favor -- emphasis on might. Kentucky never beat James Franklin when he was at Vanderbilt, knocking them down a peg in the SEC East pecking order, and now Franklin is gone. That's not a guarantee that Kentucky can regain an upper hand over Vanderbilt -- before Franklin, the 'Cats had won 12 of the last 15 games in the series -- because Derek Mason might very well turn out to be a quality head coach. But there's at least a little hope there.
And while Bobby Petrino will remain on the schedule now that he's with Louisville -- at least for a year or two -- it might be better for Kentucky to have to contend with Bobby Petrino at Louisville than to deal with Bobby Petrino and Louisville on the recruiting trail. Petrino wasn't necessarily hauling four-star talent to WKU by the truckload, but it's still easy to make a case that the Hilltoppers won't be able to recruit quite as well without the offensive genius, and any increase in Louisville's rankings will likely be slight.
That's on the margins, though. The Wildcats still face some cold, hard truths from 2013. Kentucky only clocked Top 50 rankings nationally in three of the 25 statistics tracked on the NCAA website: fourth-down conversation percentage (25th), red-zone defense (42nd) and the number of first downs allowed (tied for 45th). There are a lot of areas where Kentucky has to improve dramatically to get back into the bowl picture, much less start talking seriously about beating Florida, Georgia, Missouri and South Carolina on a regular basis.
That's not a one-year project, and it was never going to be. Mark Stoops probably already knew that; 2013 just confirmed it.