The Kentucky Wildcats enter Year 3 under Mark Stoops with the hopes of fielding a squad that can compete on a weekly basis. The third season in rebuilding projects is when judgement gets passed -- fairly or not -- on head coaches. The team's scheme, off-season workout programs, and recruiting contacts and relationships have been established. The blowout losses should cease to occur. Players recruited on that first National Signing Day have become upperclassmen. Mark Stoops and his staff own this roster.
Competing in games isn't necessarily the same as winning games. Kentucky remains in the SEC and expectations should not increase beyond reality. Then again, James Franklin did Stoops no favors going 9-4 in both his second and third seasons at Vanderbilt. Not to mention that Stoops' own recruiting success may make Kentucky fans more impatient than they would be otherwise.
Year 3 is also when a rebuilding program should start punching above its weight, and seriously scare at least one highly-ranked team. This season UK should take advantage of a SEC East that projects to have a degree of parity in that middle space between Georgia and Vanderbilt. The SEC East is ripe for a program with Kentucky's current standing to punch above its weight, and the failure to do so would be disappointing.
With that criteria in mind, there are two teams UK plays that currently sit on the rung above the Wildcats, and beating either of them would signal verifiable progress. It would also likely cement Stoops best recruiting class to date, would probably serve as a harbinger for a bowl game, and create momentum heading into the 2016 season when the entire roster will be Stoops' recruited players.
It just so happens UK plays both of these teams back-to-back in the first month of the season.
September 12th vs South Carolina
UK travels to Columbia to face the revenge-minded Gamecocks. South Carolina will be rightfully favored to win this game for various reasons. The overall quality of the rosters probably remains an advantage for South Carolina, especially in the upperclassmen ranks. Pharoh Cooper also returns and last season he had six receptions for 83 yards, and a touchdown against Kentucky. Importantly, the Wildcats have yet to win a road game under Mark Stoops, and Williams-Brice Stadium is one of the toughest road games in the SEC.
For Kentucky, there is reason for optimism. South Carolina has to replace the left side of its offensive line, its quarterback, and its starting running back. South Carolina's defense returns everyone of note, but it's unknown how much they will have improved in the offseason. Meanwhile, the Kentucky offense that put up 450 yards against the Gamecocks last season returns everyone of note with the exception of the left tackle.
September 19th vs Florida
The Gators travel to Lexington this year after it took three overtimes to dispose the Wildcats in 2014. Florida will field a more impressive roster, especially on the defensive side of the ball, but this is a game UK's players and coaches feel they should win based off last year's result. On top of that, this preseason Florida appears temporarily vulnerable.
The Gators will only be two games under their belt employing Jim McElwain's scheme. There are well-known issues along the offensive line, and that unit could be protecting a redshirt freshman at quarterback. If Will Grier is the starter, the trip to Lexington will be his first road game. Florida's squad will still be gelling in all likelihood in the third week of the season. That's not to say UK should be favored. Florida will remember last year's game as well, and could take UK even more seriously as a result. The Gators will also have a very talented defense that will challenge, perhaps even neutralize UK's biggest strength - it's offense.
Unlike beating South Carolina, a victory against Florida would also carry a lot of symbolism. Florida currently holds 28 straight victories over Kentucky. For perspective, the weekend the streak started Boston's "Amanda" was the most popular song on the American Top 40, and Crocodile Dundee led the box office. There were players on Kentucky's roster as many as 8 years ago who weren't alive the last time Kentucky beat Florida, let alone the players currently in the program.
There'd be no better way for Mark Stoops to publicly demonstrate a competitive program, and punctuate the rebuilding process, than beating Florida.