When Mark Stoops came to Kentucky, everyone knew this was not a normal situation for an SEC coach. Talent had bottomed out, expectations were as low as can be, and he had a little extra buffer thanks to UK being the conference's resident basketball school.
Stoops made an instant impact in recruiting, selling prospects on a bright future that they can build. He brought in more four-star guys from Ohio than ever, and he secured his quarterback of the future in Drew Barker. Maybe last fall's team went 2-10. Maybe it lost to Western Kentucky for the second consecutive year. Maybe the school hasn't won an SEC game since 2011. It's fine: everything is about the future.
We can't really say yet that the future is now in Lexington. One great (by Kentucky standards) class isn't going to turn things overnight. The schedule may drop Alabama, but LSU rotates in. A second week loss to Ohio, one of the MAC's better teams, is not out of the question. A 3-9 record would nominally be an improvement, but it wouldn't feel like much of one with another 0-8 SEC run and a loss to a non-Power 5 team.
But if Stoops can sell four-stars on hope after a pair of 2-10 seasons, he can probably do it off of another campaign that finishes a fair distance from .500. The SEC is, after all, the toughest league in America, right? Of course it will be tough to dig out of a deep hole. And if the older guys on the team aren't able to carry the team up the mountain, then surely there will be room for able young stars to jump right in and play! The recruiting pitch writes itself, really.
He's only got one more year to work like this, though, so Stoops had better sell the hell out of it. Kentucky fans may be patient, but they don't fit their stereotype of not caring about football as soon as John Calipari's bunch hit the hardwood for preseason practice. Football fans there might be a bit more patient, but they do want to see regular bowl appearances. The school is spending $110 million to improve Commonwealth Stadium right now. They can see Vanderbilt win nine games in consecutive years and wonder why their own program hasn't done so since the '70s.
Stoops can't put out another hopeless team and expect to continue his momentum, but 4-8 won't kill his narrative either. The defense should be headed in the right direction, given that it's the head coach's specialty. Sooner or later, though, Stoops and Neal Brown are going to just toss Barker in and take their lumps as the freshman gains experience.
It's probably going to be a year with more ugly than pretty in the bluegrass. It just had better be the last of them.