Good things just don't happen to Kentucky football.
After sharing the conference title for the second time ever in 1976, the NCAA found that the building Fran Curci had been doing in Lexington was based on rules violations. The 1977 team went 10-1, the second ever ten-win season in school history, but it did so under a postseason and television ban and therefore couldn't claim another conference title despite going 6-0 in league play. To date, '77 is the last time the Wildcats have finished above .500 in SEC action.
After a couple of coaches who were fine but not spectacular, UK snagged a true innovator from Valdosta State in Hal Mumme. His newfangled Air Raid offense would one day spread throughout college football, but in 1997, the Wildcats had a monopoly on it. Mumme got the team to a pair of bowls and developed a No. 1 overall draft pick, but he too was busted for violations.
After Guy Morriss decided not to stick it out through the sanctions, UK found a winner in Rich Brooks. He cleaned things up and eventually got the team to perennial bowl status. He even beat the eventual national champion in 2007. But things weren't quite in perfect sync with him either. Had the 2008 defense been moved back a year to pair with the 2007 offense, UK might have won the East that season. Instead, those two teams went 3-5 and 2-6 in the SEC, respectively. Brooks retired after four straight bowls and handed things off to Joker Phillips, under whom everything fell apart again.
It's now in the third year of Mark Stoops where things feel on the rise again. He's a well respected coach with a good track record. He's not nearing retirement and does not yet appear to be someone looking to use UK solely as a stepping stone. He's had real success going north of the border to Ohio to get recruits, and he just helped mold a defender into a first round draft pick. He even had his offensive coordinator poached by another school to be its head coach—a sign of program health, if you ask me, because it means he hired someone worth poaching.
The expectations are somewhat muted for the Wildcats for 2015, as they just got picked to finish sixth in the division at SEC Media Days. Ending last season on a six-game losing streak to finish a game away from bowl eligibility probably plays a lot into that. Still, the team was potentially a questionable non-call away from finally beating Florida in an eventual triple-overtime loss, and a four-point loss to Louisville to close out the season was a good sign of life.
The team returns seven starters on each side of the ball for this year, and there are some appealing pieces back beyond just them. Three of the top four rushers are back, including team leader Boom Williams and sneaky good rising-sophomore Mikel Horton. Three of the team's top five receivers from last year were underclassmen who are back. Patrick Towles returns after starting all of last year, and while he wasn't a disaster in his sophomore campaign, he might get beat out by the talented redshirt freshman Drew Barker.
UK is also modernizing some with new offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson. Though he did work directly under Mumme at Southeastern Louisiana, he comes to Lexington after working for Dana Holgorsen at West Virginia. Former OC Neal Brown learned his Air Raid variant from Tony Franklin, who in turn learned it from Mumme while at UK. Holgorsen has a unique kind of take on the offense that is not so closely tied into he system's roots, so while things will look a bit similar on offense, they'll also have some wrinkles that no one in the SEC has done before.
The schedule even sets up for a step-forward kind of year. The closest thing to a sure-win on the conference slate (Vandy, natch) is a road game this time around, helping to allow potential swing games against Florida and Missouri be at home. Annual cross-division rival Mississippi State projects to be the weakest West team according to the SEC media, and Louisville is a home game too. The team will have to improve over last year's outfit to get back to the postseason, but it's doable.
Yes, good things could happen to Kentucky football this year. A bowl game is definitely within grasp. Bringing an end to the losing streak against Florida has seldom looked so feasible as it does now. For the 2016 class, UK presently has two in-state 4-stars committed (Louisville: 0) and already has 11 commits from Ohio. The arrows are pointing in the right direction.
It's now up to Stoops to make sure some of those good things happen on the field this fall. The universe doesn't just give wins to Kentucky football. The Wildcats have to take them.