Mark Stoops doesn’t like to look back, but he may want to reconsider it after Kentucky ended a 31-game losing streak to Florida Saturday night in Gainesville.
Although the 27-16 victory may have been a shocker nationally, it really shouldn’t be a surprise considering Stoops lost three of his first five games to the Gators by a combined margin of 12 points, including a 28-27 setback a year ago in Lexington. Stoops got close, closer and finally sealed the deal in his sixth season at the helm.
Three decades worth of losing to one team has been unbearable at times and even former Florida coach Steve Spurrier who never lost to the Wildcats during his tenure with the Gators, admitted he doesn’t know how Kentucky failed to end the streak, especially in 1993, 2003, 2007, 2014 and 2017.
Former Kentucky special teams coach Steve Ortmayer, a longtime assistant in the college and NFL ranks said Kentucky’s setback to the Gators 15 years ago was one of the most crushing defeats of his career and that’s saying a lot considering Ortmayer witnessed wins and losses in every which way imaginable even at the highest level.
Stoops, one of the longest-tenured coaches in the current Southeastern Conference fraternity, learned from his previous mistakes against the Gators and made sure history didn’t repeat itself this time.
Although it’s early and the season is just two weeks old, Stoops may just have the best football team he’s ever assembled at Kentucky with perhaps the best running back in school history in Benny Snell. His defensive unit isn’t too shabby either and has been solid during the past two weeks.
Although beating Florida is something new for Kentucky, the Wildcats won their Southeastern Conference opener for the second straight season, the first time that’s happened since 2006-07. Prior to the double-digit win over Florida, Kentucky had not won back-to-back road openers in the league since 1983-84.
One more thing on the list of accomplishments is the fact that Kentucky had not beaten a ranked Florida team since 1976 when the Gators were ranked No. 15 at the time. Kentucky’s win over the Gators Saturday night is definitely a big accomplishment considering all past failures.
Kentucky hasn’t enjoyed a victory of this magnitude since the Wildcats defeated LSU, which was ranked No. 1 at the time in 2007. That team enjoyed a successful season and a win over Florida State in the Music City Bowl, but couldn’t beat Florida, although they came close, and wasn’t able to break the Tennessee jinx at the time.
The task for Stoops moving forward is not becoming complacent and settling for this one achievement that will diminish in meaning as the season progresses. Kentucky hasn’t reached the ultimate plateau just yet, but the Wildcats are well on their way and beating Florida on the road is a dose of confidence this team needs to keep climbing the proverbial ladder.
Stoops is starting to turn those close calls of the past into legitimate victories and that’s a sign the program is beginning to take the next step and moving forward. It’s also a sign the Wildcats have the experience and maturity needed to handle success.
What transpires the remainder of the season remains to be seen, but the future looks brighter than it ever has in the Stoops era.
That’s a good thing.