Kentucky Wildcats coach Mark Stoops promises 'this is a good football team'

Despite an opening-game performance that would suggest otherwise, Mark Stoops says the first impression of the Wildcats is not the one that will define them.

“We feel the same way today as we did after the game," the UK boss said. "It hurts just as bad. But I promise you, as I said all year, this is a good football team."

Speaking Monday during his weekly press luncheon, Stoops said his team has no time to dwell on the breakdowns that saw Southern Miss overcome a 25-point deficit en route to a win 44-35 on Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium. Not with an SEC opener looming this week against a team that UK has not beaten in 30 years.

Will losing to underdog Southern Miss -- a game Big Blue Nation was banking to reach bowl eligibility this season -- put more pressure on the Cats to pull an upset Saturday at Florida?

“I don’t ever want to put a make-or-break on one game because, say we win it, it doesn’t mean anything. You all know that. You’ve written plenty about starting (the season) good and not finishing, so what good does that do? It’s a 12-game season," Stoops said.

Kentucky began the 2014 season 5-1 and lost six consecutive games to narrowly miss a bowl invitation. The Cats opened strong again last season at 4-1 only to drop six of their last seven and suffer the same consequences.

Asked if pulling an upset of their own at "The Swamp" could remedy the sick feeling the team has now, Stoops said: “I think it would do a lot because it’s a big game. It’s a conference game, a divisional game, and it’s on the road. It would mean a great deal for us to respond and bounce back and go get a victory.”

The Cats have come close to ending three decades of misery against Florida in each of the last two years. Kentucky lost 36-30 in triple-overtime at Gainesville in a 2014 game that featured a controversial ending. Last season, the Cats simply could not generate enough offense on a day when their defense shined in a 14-9 loss at Commonwealth Stadium. 

Many of the current UK starters were part of both losses. Does Stoops see that as a potential source of confidence heading into this matchup with the Gators (1-0) who defeated UMass 24-7 in their opener?

“I do, but I always say every year is a new year and a new team," Stoops said. "Last year’s game – win or lose – is behind you. But I definitely think that our players will respond and play well. We have quite a few players on our team that are from Florida and they like going down there and playing.

"We know it is a real challenge. We know that we have to play very well or we will not have a shot. I think they deserve the respect that they get, but our players also know it is about us and what we do. And if we go execute and play the very best that we can then we will have a great opportunity. And if we don’t, then we will have no chance.” 

History has demonstrated that Kentucky's first game has not always been a good indicator of how the season will end.

The Cats opened 2014 with a 59-14 thrashing of UT-Martin, but finished at 5-7. In 2006, UK was throttled 59-28 in the opener by Louisville but bounced back to finish at 8-5 with a Music City Bowl win over Clemson. In 1997, UK opened with an impressive 38-24 win over the rival Cardinals, but just missed a bowl trip at 5-6. And the 1994 squad began the season with a 20-14 win over Louisville but went on to lose all of its remaining 10 games.

But Stoops understands the concerns over the Cats' first performance.

“I think when you’re looking at us, it’s the world we live in," he said. "Every game is very important to us, and we knew the first game was important to us. I don’t think I think we put any added pressure on that. I think we went out and executed (early) and did the things we thought we were capable of. We’ve just got to continue to do them, and when things go wrong, hone in and be very precise when bad things happen. Until we do it, until somebody makes a big play when those games are on the line and flip it, then that’s the result. That’s what we have to get changed and will get changed.”

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