LEXINGTON, Kentucky — Kentucky coach Mark Stoops wants his third season to culminate in the winning record he promised when hired.
The Wildcats seemed headed that way last season at 5-1 before a tough second-half schedule ended in a six-game losing streak and no bowl bid for the fourth straight year. This season is just as challenging, but upsetting Southeastern Conference East foes such as South Carolina and taking Florida to three overtimes last fall are reason for optimism.
"We feel like we're heading in the right direction," senior safety A.J. Stamps said.
Kentucky's task is building on those lessons, and eight home games in renovated Commonwealth Stadium provide plenty of chances to reach that six-win plateau needed to earn a bowl berth and maybe make some noise in the SEC.
"There is great energy, there is great optimism, but we have to go do it," Stoops said recently on media day. "We have to be more disciplined. Bottom line is, we have to be more consistent and I think we are. ... We've not arrived yet, but we're on our way."
Kentucky finally ended a 17-game SEC losing streak by beating Vanderbilt before a memorable 45-38 upset of South Carolina in which the Wildcats overcame a 14-point, fourth-quarter deficit and sealed the victory with two defensive stands. Weeks before that they battled Florida long and hard before falling 36-30 in three overtimes, a game that showed the Wildcats' won't-back-down mentality.
They just couldn't sustain that will and effort against many opponents during those half-dozen losses including then-No. 1 Mississippi State and No. 17 Georgia. Kentucky's main thing is leaving the streak behind while finding ways to get ahead of teams and stay there.
With 14 starters back and more depth at many positions than they've had in recent years, the Wildcats believe they're capable of winning those close games that eluded them. The key is having a short memory.
"I wouldn't say it's a make-or-break year because coach has built this program for the next 10, 15 years," junior quarterback Patrick Towles said. "We're better than how we played last year. It was a disappointment with how it ended, but the phenomenal thing about this is we get another shot at it."
Some things to watch as Kentucky seeks its first bowl bid since 2010:
NEW ASSISTANTS: New offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson arrived from West Virginia and aims to pick up where predecessor Neal Brown left off with the pass-oriented Air Raid scheme, concentrating more on a faster pace and balancing the attack with the run. Andy Buh takes over an outside linebackers corps featuring less depth this season.
TOWLES' NEXT STEP: Stoops answered the team's biggest question by naming Towles the starting quarterback over Drew Barker, and now the expectations are for the second-year starter to take the Wildcats to the next level. Towles' 3,000-plus yards of total offense prove that he can throw and run, but he's focusing more on pocket passing and executing Dawson's up-tempo system.
DEFENSIVE LEADERSHIP: The departures of bookend pass rushers Bud Dupree and Za'darius Smith to the NFL leave huge voids to fill on the field and in the locker room. The Wildcats have experience up front and in the secondary but seek playmakers to handle another tough schedule featuring Auburn, Mississippi State and Florida. Additionally, linebacker Jason Hatcher has been suspended the first two games for violating an unspecified team rule.
RECEIVER DEPTH: Junior Ryan Timmons (45 catches, 536 yards, two TDs) leads a group that is still fairly young but has numbers. Sophomores Dorian Baker and Jeff Badet are expected to play bigger roles this season, and Dawson is working toward getting the tight ends more involved.
NEW DIGS: Commonwealth Stadium's seating capacity has been reduced to around 61,000 but features a new limestone outer facade, concession stands, added luxury suites and club areas. Field turf has replaced the natural grass playing surface and the team will enter the field through a new tunnel in the east end zone beneath a new recruiting room with observation deck.