LEXINGTON, Ky. (KT) — Mark Stoops can’t wait to open the season, and in less than 24 hours, the Kentucky coach will usher in his seventh season as coach of the Wildcats.
“It just seems like it gets long at this point, the last three, four days,” Stoops said Thursday. “It’s been a good camp. The guys have worked hard. (We’re) putting the finishing touches on it here the next couple of days (and) anxious to get going. Appreciate our team and our coaches and the work they’ve put in. We’re excited to get out there and play some ball.”
Stoops has every reason to be excited with his team coming off a 10-3 campaign and the program’s best finish in more than four decades. Stoops admitted earlier this week the opener against Toledo set for Saturday is a “little bit different” considering it’s the first meeting between the two teams.
“It's good for us to play an opponent like Toledo because they're a very good football program,” Stoops said. “They're used to winning football games. They're well-coached. They have two quarterbacks that are coming back with good experience, that are good players. We'll have to play very good. If you watch the MAC, you got to have great respect for the MAC, because they're always very well-coached. They're not going to beat themselves.”
Like Stoops, Toledo coach Jason Candle is looking forward to the first game of the season and wants to gauge his team’s overall progress.
“(We’re) a team that’s ready to go play and ready to go see where we’re at,” Candle said. “It’s been along, grueling process, just like everybody else in the country. Everybody is doing the same thing right now. Everybody is undefeated and got the same intention and got the conference championship on their sights right now. Now you have these 12 weeks to see if your work can be validated.”
The Wildcats have won their last two openers and are poised to build on last year’s successful campaign. Stoops said Toledo is a formidable foe but he’s more interested in how his team performs against the Rockets.
“No matter who we're playing, we're really worried about us, putting ourselves in the best situation to play the best football we can,” Stoops said.
Toledo is coming off a 7-6 campaign, which ended with a disappointing 35-32 loss to Florida International in the Bahamas Bowl. The Rockets are known for scoring points in bunches and averaged 40.4 points per game last year. They also torched the scoreboard by scoring 50 or more six times.
Toledo returns its starting quarterback — Mitchell Guadagni — and running back Bryant Koback also I back to anchor the backfield. Koback, a Kentucky transfer, rushed for 917 yards and scored 14 touchdowns last season.
“They definitely can rely on Bryant,” Stoops said. “Koback, he's a good football player, rushed for darn near a thousand yards a year ago there. They have great balance. I'm sure they're looking for the same thing this year.”
Like Stoops, Candle is anxious for the opener, a game that he said will be a challenge for his squad.
“It’s a tremendous test,” Candle said. “Kentucky is a program that is definitely on the rise, coming off a 10-win season last year and it was a tremendous year. I think it’s a program build for stability and longevity. It’s not something that’s a quick fix and those guys have done it right down there. They’ve done it with strong recruiting and really good development of their players.”
Stoops said the Wildcats are ready to compete against an outside opponent and is approaching the season one game at a time.
“We only have 12 guaranteed opportunities,” he said. “That’s why we all know how important they are. You have to be ready at this point. We certainly have some inexperience. We’ve just gotta play as a team and overcome any adversity that shows up.
“There’s always going to be some surprises, but I’m excited. As I just told the team, they need to be confident and do all the things that are necessary the next couple of days to make sure they’re prepared. They need to spend a little extra time watching film, read over their tips and reminders, and be locked in. But I don’t want them to be tight.”
Coming off a successful season, Stoops would like to have more fans in the stands. The first two games aren’t sellouts, but the Southeastern Conference opener against Florida in two weeks has already been listed as a sellout.
“I’m a little disappointed in that, to be honest …” Stoops said. “Coming off 10 wins and these guys have worked extremely hard, we need the support out there. Makes a difference. We’re all trying to build this program.”
Stoops signed a revised contract Thursday, one that adds amendments to his current deal with the school. The deal adds $500,000 to each of the remaining six years in his contract that expires on June 30, 2025.
“It’s important,” Stoops said of the amendments. “I greatly appreciate, like I said in my statement, I just really appreciate Dr. Capilouto, Mitch Barnhart and the support they’ve given me and my staff since we’ve been here. It’s very important. Continuity is important. Just appreciate it. We’re grateful for it. We’ve been talking about it for some time. It always takes a little time with the details and things of that nature. But it’s been good.”
Gametracker: Toledo at Kentucky, Saturday, noon. TV/Radio: SEC Network, 98.1 FM WBUL.
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter @keithtaylor21.