Kentucky football’s Mark Stoops has a balancing act to perform when assessing season

The regular season is over. The decision-making season begins now. And Mark Stoops has decisions to make. It’s why he’s paid the big bucks. Even bigger bucks all the time.

His Kentucky football team completed its regular-season schedule with a 7-5 record by sticking the landing. Saturday’s 26-13 victory over Louisville was UK’s fourth straight over the Cardinals in the annual Governor’s Cup showdown. And 7-5 has a much better feel than 6-6.

Kentucky didn’t win the SEC East title, however. The Cats aren’t making the trip to the SEC Championship Game. Not by a long shot. Picked by league media to finish second in the division, UK instead wound up 3-5 in conference play, behind Georgia (8-0), Tennessee (6-2) and South Carolina (4-4).

That 7-5 overall and 3-5 in the SEC mark is a step back from last year’s 9-3 and 5-3 regular-season marks.

Now comes the hard part. The big-picture part. As leader of the program, Stoops is charged with finding the right balance in his decision-making. A few weeks back, the coach described the problem perfectly, saying he wasn’t going to be knee-jerk in his judgments, but he wasn’t going to bury his head in the sand, either.

UK head coach Mark Stoops is congratulated by UK President Eli Capiluto following Saturday’s win against Louisville at Kroger Field. Ken Weaver
UK head coach Mark Stoops is congratulated by UK President Eli Capiluto following Saturday’s win against Louisville at Kroger Field. Ken Weaver

Don’t mess with Kentucky’s defense. Coordinator Brad White did another outstanding job. UK is ranked 12th in scoring defense (19.1 points per game) and 20th in total defense (320.2 yards per game). There are holes to fill, and leadership roles to replace, but the Wildcats boast a core of terrific young players at all three levels of the defense.

Offense is the big question. Does Stoops keep offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello? Or does he tear up the playbook and start over again with a fourth coordinator in four seasons? Despite what some might believe, there’s not an easy answer.

The math is grim. Kentucky is 105th out of 131 FBS teams in scoring offense (22.1 points per game) and 107th in total offense (336.3 yards per game). It averaged 17.5 points per game in its eight SEC contests. It scored six points against both Tennessee and Georgia. And it lost to Vanderbilt.

It also operated most of the year with a banged-up Will Levis at quarterback and a work-in-progress offensive line. Even with good young wide receivers, it still missed Wan’Dale Robinson’s playmaking ability. And its tank of a running back Chris Rodriguez was suspended for the season’s first four games.

In the should-he-stay or should-he-go Scangarello dilemma, there’s one thing we don’t know. What is the coach’s relationship with the players inside the building? Is it close? Is it not? Is he respected? Is he questioned? Do the players have confidence in their play-caller even when the plays aren’t working?

Here’s another question: Can Scangarello recruit or develop a quarterback to replace Levis? It doesn’t matter if that QB comes from the current roster, the 2023 signee class or, more likely, the transfer portal? Was the draw of Scangarello’s NFL credentials damaged by the offense’s 2022 performance? Or can the coach explain the reasons for the shortcomings well enough to keep everyone, including Stoops, on board?

That’s the coach’s biggest decision to make, but there are others. Should he shake up the entire staff? Does he need more recruiters? After this year’s kicking games struggles — Governor’s Cup MVP Matt Ruffolo’s four Saturday field goals excluded — does he need to hire a full-time special teams coach? Does the program need to be restructured in other ways?

How can Kentucky football chart a path forward without losing the characteristics that moved it to this point in the first place? Does the program need a tweak or an overhaul?

After all, you’re either getting better or you’re getting worse. As Stoops says, no one in the SEC is interested in going backward. And forget divisions. Those will soon be a thing of the past. Instead of six other teams to worry about, Kentucky will have 13. Fifteen when Texas and Oklahoma join the party.

“There is work to be done, and we all know that,” Stoops said Saturday.

That work starts now.

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