HOOVER, Ala. — When a team has gone 2-10 in consecutive seasons, putting a number on success isn’t prudent.
That's why Mark Stoops isn't taking that approach. Even though Kentucky’s coach wasn’t around for the first two-win campaign, he’s still quite aware of the state of his program — and how it’s perceived in the hierarchy of the Southeastern Conference. Right now, it’s on the ground floor, as the Wildcats were picked last in the SEC East in the preseason order of finish voted on by media members.
To add further insult, Kentucky had only one player — defensive end Alvin “Bud” Dupree — named to one of the three preseason All-SEC teams; by comparison, last year’s SEC champion, Auburn, had 13 spread across the three teams.
But Stoops isn’t putting a tangible number to judge progress, remember?
“How we measure success is how we prepare. Our players are paying the price,” the coach said at SEC media days on Thursday. “They're working extremely hard this offseason. Our coaches are putting them in a position to be successful. We're doing everything we can.”
Besides, it’s not as if the Wildcats can descend any lower. They’ve finished last in the Eastern Division each of the last two seasons, going winless (0-8) in the conference both times. The last time they came out on top of a league foe was Nov. 26, 2011, when they survived a 10-7 war of attrition against Tennessee.
And while Kentucky can’t go anywhere but up, it’s also not going back. As in, the Wildcats refuse to look at the futility from prior seasons.
“We don't dwell on anything that's gone on in the past, (and) certainly anything before I arrived at Kentucky we really don't talk about much,” Stoops said. “We all take accountability in wins and losses. We all accept that.”
But it’s a mentality that has been easier for some players to adopt than others.
Count Za’Darius Smith as one player who hasn’t given 2013 a second thought.
“It’s a good thing to not look back on it, and if you look back on it, some things will bring you down,” the senior defensive end said. “The main focus we have to worry about is finishing up this summer and going into fall camp.”
It’s been a tougher sell for junior offensive tackle Jordan Swindle.
“Yeah, it definitely is difficult to just look forward. That’s the case with anything,” he said. “You just have to learn from your mistakes (from) last year.”
So forget the media’s prognostication of another long season in Lexington. Stoops couldn’t care less about the outside expectations — however low they may be — others have placed on his team. Instead, he’ll trumpet the improved leadership and physical stamina of his team, which he believes represent a wholesale turnaround from this time last year. And don’t count the Wildcats out of a trip to the postseason, Stoops said, a place they haven’t been since 2010. Stoops even dismissed the goal of simply attaining bowl eligibility, which entails capturing six victories.
Why set the sights so low?
“(Winning) six games, obviously, it's important to us,” Stoops said. “But I won't put that mark on it because I don't want to give up the other six. We’re going out to compete (and) to win each and every game.”