John Sommers II
As you've probably seen by now, Kentucky and Mark Stoops have come to terms for Stoops to become Joker Phillips's replacement. My feelings are mixed on whether this is a game-changing hire for our division opponents in Lexington.
First things first: This is a good hire for Kentucky. Yes, Stoops's defenses in Tallahassee have underperformed in key games when you take into consideration the unbelievable talent he has had at his disposal. The Seminoles gave up 37 points to both Clemson and Florida. The Gamecocks held Clemson to 17 in Death Valley, while tons of teams shut down Florida's offense. However, Stoops's defenses have regularly been statistically impressive, and he's a well-respected coordinator in coaching circles, a guy whose name regularly came up on the short list for coaching vacancies. He's well-groomed and comes with connections to the state of Ohio, which Kentucky will need to recruit better in order to raise the level of talent on its roster. Kentucky could have done a lot worse. They were never going to get a sure-fire winner, unless maybe they hired Bobby Petrino, which would have come along with a different set of problems.
What's particularly curious about this hire to me, though, is that if I'm Mitch Barnhart, I go with conventional wisdom and do whatever I can to bring an offensive mastermind to Kentucky. Kentucky is going to struggle to win if it builds its identity around defense and ball-control offense. That's the model for Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and LSU, but those are programs that regularly stockpile the kind of talent along the offensive and defensive lines that's necessary to play that brand of football. The Stoops hire would suggest that Kentucky wants to go that route, but Kentucky has never had the kind of talent to play that kind of football, and I doubt that's going to change in the near future.
"But wait," you say, "didn't South Carolina prove the naysayers wrong on this point?" Yes and no. South Carolina has transformed into a better football program in the last few years, and it's largely done so by becoming successful as a classically physical, grind-it-out SEC football team. The difference between these two programs, though, is that when Steve Spurrier came to Carolina, he knew he would have a talented in-state talent base to recruit from. South Carolina, as it has often been noted, has long produced an abundance of talented football players; the problem for the Gamecocks was that we never got them. That's to say that the potential was always there; it just took commitment from the athletic department and a coach like Spurrier to turn the potential into results.
I'm not sure the same potential exists for Kentucky. The state produces a weak talent pool, although certainly it would make a difference if Kentucky could get more of the best Bluegrass talent to stay home. Neighboring Ohio produces plenty of talent, but Kentucky is never going to sway the best players from Ohio St., although it will certainly help if it can get some of the kinds of second-tier players who have helped Cincinnati find some success in recent years.
Without the kind of talent available to build a conventional power, Kentucky would do better to go after an offensive coach who can neutralize talent differentials with an offensive scheme that's designed to win shootouts. The plan seems to have worked for Vanderbilt and James Franklin, who use some unconventional offensive strategies paired with a defense that does just good enough to slow down the lesser teams that it plays. Maybe Kentucky should have hired Petrino, after all. Of course, Stoops can solve some of these problems by hiring a good offensive coordinator, and that will probably go a long way towards determining how much of a threat his team will be to the rest of the East.