The lasting sting of narrowly missing a bowl game after starting 5-1 and 4-1 the last two years has led to changes in the mindset of the UK players.
"The difference between this year and last year, all of our guys have really matured, taking it on themselves to do the little things that coaches normally have to ask us to do," senior running back Jojo Kemp said on Wednesday at SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala.
"Doing the extra work. Getting in the weight room. Watching the extra film. Deleting those mistakes you have seen from us before. Winning those close games. Guys don't want that same feeling guys have had before, going 5-7, being so close and not being able to finish.
"The main focus this year is finish. Just finish, finish, finish."
That means sacrificing even more personal time for players who are already heavily taxed in today's college game. But it's a price Kemp knows he has to pay if the Cats are going to get over the proverbial hump.
"Guys have taken it upon themselves, when coaches have given us breaks, to go home and come back early," he said. "Just come and be at the facilities, doing things that coaches didn't ask them to do."
For a senior like Kemp, it also means being more vocal during off-season workouts. The Florida native has always been one of the Cats' most charismatic players, but his dialogue has taken on a different tone entering 2016.
"Taking it on myself to take the younger guys to the other side, telling them the expectations we have here at Kentucky," Kemp said.
Part of that expectation is converting losses like Florida (14-9), Auburn (30-27) and Vanderbilt (21-17) into the win column. It also means being able to hold onto a 21-0 lead like they had against Louisville in the season finale with a bowl bid hanging in the balance. The Cardinals rallied past the stunned Cats for a 38-24 victory.
The Cats finished at or near the bottom in several SEC offensive categories last season. It's a performance they know can't be repeated in 2016 if they have any hope of competing against a typically rugged schedule that includes the likes of Eastern and Western division favorites Tennessee and Alabama, as well as another finale against a highly regarded UofL squad.
A new offensive coordinator may also have a big impact, according to Kemp. Eddie Gran wasted no time upon arriving at UK in letting his unit know it was not paying the price necessary to be successful in the nation's most demanding conference.
"Coach (Gran) is an older coach. He has spent 30-something years coaching college football and spent 15 years in the SEC, so he knows what it is like in this league" Kemp said. "If we're not doing something his way, he's not having it. Not just him, but like I said before, guys are just more mature. Guys don't want that same feeling. We are just doing whatever it takes to get this program where it needs to be."
Accountability is at its highest level since he arrived in Lexington, added senior center Jon Toth.
"I think that there has been a big leap forward in the leadership from the players, and that has come from the coaches holding us more accountable," he said. "... It started from the day that coach Mark Stoops got there; he’s trying to change a culture. That is not an easy thing to do. You don’t wake up and overnight it’s been changed. As you can see, it’s been a multi-year process, and we have been working day to day to achieve that."