The Road To 61: The Five Best Wins In The Mark Stoops Era
Move over, Bear. Kentucky has a new leader in all-time wins. Who knew we'd be here when Mitch Barnhart announced the hiring of Florida State defensive coordinator Mark Stoops in 2012? There was plenty to be skeptical about, considering Kentucky would be Stoops' first head coaching job, but we did know about the Stoops family pedigree. The first years of the Stoops era were certainly shaky, but Kentucky's administration stuck by him and his vision and now, the football program is in unfamiliar territory as one of the top 10 teams in the country. Let's take a trip down memory lane and revisit the best wins in Coach Stoops' road to 61.
5: Louisville (2016)
The Lamar Jackson era in Louisville was Bobby Petrino's best work as the Cards' head man. The eventual Heisman winner led Louisville into the matchup against Kentucky with a 9-2 record and an outside chance at the college football playoff still on the table. With a bowl bid clinched for Kentucky, for the first time in the Stoops era, the Wildcats were playing with house money. Lamar Jackson had two costly turnovers in the second half that gave the 27.5 point underdogs a chance to pull off the monster upset. Behind the arm of Stephen Johnson and the leg of Austin Macginnis, Kentucky pulled off one of the greatest upsets in college football history, based on the point spread. It's fair to say that the JUCO transfer outdueled the Heisman winner on this day.
4: Mississippi State (2016)
This one may seem like a stretch, but hear me out. The game above this one, the games below and every game in between may not have happened if it wasn't for this win at a turbulent time in Kentucky football. The Wildcats had started the year 0-2 with losses to Southern Miss and Florida, but had rebounded nicely with wins over New Mexico State, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt. Even with that, it was assumed Kentucky had to win the Mississippi State game to have a chance at getting bowl eligible. Stoops was in his fourth season and another year below .500 would have likely been the end of his career in Lexington. In fact, rumors were swirling that Stoops could have been fired following the game had Kentucky lost that night. Fortunately, we don't have to consider that hypothetical, as the Wildcats pulled out a 40-38 thriller at Commonwealth Stadium, winning on a 51-yard field goal by Austin Macginnis as time expired. The look on Stoops' face said it all as he walked to midfield and seemed to take the deepest sigh of relief ever. Thanks to this victory, Kentucky has had the pleasure of enjoying the best five year stretch in program history.
3: Florida (2018)
The gas price and top hit graphics finally went away on this night. After a lousy performance against Central Michigan in week one, as well as the hype surrounding the Dan Mullen era in Gainesville, very few were picking Kentucky in this one. However, Mark Stoops got the best performance out of Terry Wilson in his Kentucky career on that night and the defense proved that they were going to be among the nation's elite all season. Despite dominating a large portion of the game, Felipe Franks and the Gators got one final opportunity to put a game-winning drive together. A strip sack by Josh Allen, with a recovery for a touchdown, took the clock to zero and cemented one of the most historic wins in program history.
2: Penn State (2019)
Getting to spend New Year's Day in sunny Orlando, Florida is a treat that the Big Blue Nation could get used to. On the first day of the new year, the elite senior class that included Josh Allen played in their final game in blue and white. This would also be Benny Snell's last time taking the field for the Wildcats. After getting up 27-7 on the 12th ranked team, Trace McSorley willed the Nittany Lions back into the game late in the fourth quarter. Kentucky was able to hang on to the lead and get out of Orlando with a 27-24 win and give Mark Stoops his first bowl win as Kentucky's head coach. This would also be the game where Benny Snell became Kentucky's all-time leading rusher.
Is this a case of recency bias? Maybe so, but for Stoops' 61st win to come inside a sold out Ben Hill Griffin Stadium makes this one a little extra sweet. The country had declared Anthony Richardson a Heisman contender and completely wrote off Kentucky's chances going into the game. Experts like Roman Harper even went as far to say that the Gators would win in dominating fashion, calling the Wildcats "soft". Nobody was calling Kentucky soft after their 26-16 victory over the No. 12 team in the country, which catapulted them into the AP top 10 for the first time since 2007. To know the excitement surrounding this win, look no farther than the aftermath on State Street.
There are plenty of other games that could have been on this list. That goes to show how good we've had it the last 10 years. Congratulations to Coach Stoops on 61 wins. Here's to many, many more.