The 2015 college football season was a frustrating one for the Kentucky Wildcats. They started 4-1, only to lose six of their final seven games to finish 5-7 and miss a bowl game for a fifth consecutive season. Even more frustrating, many of the losses were mighty close. The Wildcats lost to Florida, 14-9, they lost to Auburn, 30-27, and they lost at Vanderbilt, 21-17.
It was an agonizing year. And yet, it was an optimistic one.
“I think a little bit of both,” Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops said on CBS Sports Radio’s The DA Show. “I definitely feel like it’s certainly nice to know you have a team that is athletic enough to be able to keep up with some of the teams in the SEC that have been good for a long time. Florida has won the East a couple years in a row, and we’ve played them very, very closely two years in a row. The same goes with Vandy. We really feel like we shot ourselves in the foot. We had the ball on the 1-yard line and got zero points, and then in another possession we got the ball on the 3-yard-line and got zero points. You can’t do that. We have a small margin for error. We felt like we definitely worked hard to increase that, to not feel like you have to play a perfect game all the time. But you can’t let opportunities like that slip away. We’ve got to do the work and coach them and put them in a position to make up that gap.”
A 38-24 loss to Louisville in the regular-season finale was perhaps the most frustrating loss of all. Kentucky led 21-0 but was outscored 38-3 the rest of the way.
“It was agonizing to be up 21-0 to Louisville and not be able to close the door and beat them, our arch-rival,” Stoops said. “It also would have gave us that sixth victory, but I think it gave us a lot of motivation over this past year as well. You always got to learn from all of your experiences. Whether you win or lose, you’re always in a learning environment and trying to get better each and every day, each and every week. I definitely think we learned from some close losses a year ago.”
And, on the bright side, Kentucky beat South Carolina in Columbia, 26-22, to break a 22-game SEC road losing streak. Stoops expects more breakthrough performances like that in 2016.
“We’re a much more mature team,” he said. “We’re a lot more physical, we have more depth, and that’s to be expected. As you move into year four into building a program, you should have more players. I feel like we have a good group of players, a good nucleus to put some good things together. Our offensive players, if you look at our skill positions, these guys have been playing for a couple years, so they finally have that experience and they have that maturity to put it all together. I really feel like our offensive line is physical, we have a little bit of depth, our running backs have good experience and we’re very deep at wide receiver. That’s been a very big problem for us since I’ve been here. We’ve worked very hard year after year to continue to build depth at wide receiver and recruit and develop some playmakers, and I really feel like we have that. . . . It’s time for us to take it to the next level, and we’re excited to do that.”