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Kentucky pushing to earn bowl eligibility in Mark Stoops' 3rd year as coach

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HOOVER, Alabama — One season after Kentucky fell just short of postseason eligibility, coach Mark Stoops believes the Wildcats are ready to become relevant in the Southeastern Conference's Eastern Division.

Stoops said he's learned a lot of "valuable lessons" during his first two years leading the program. He feels the momentum gained last season — which saw a jump from two wins to five — will keep building.

"Clearly, there's progress being made at Kentucky," Stoops said Wednesday at SEC media days.

Kentucky fell one win short of bowl eligibility in 2014, losing its final six games after starting the season 5-1. The Wildcats return 14 starters, including seven on both sides of the ball.

Senior offensive tackle Jordan Swindle said Stoops has made it clear that this is the year the Wildcats will break through and advance to the postseason for the first time since the 2010 season.

"Coach Stoops has laid out that we're going to win six games and go to a bowl game," Swindle said. "That's our team goal, and I'm excited for this year and looking forward to getting better."

Junior quarterback Patrick Towles is back after throwing for 2,718 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, but Stoops said that he's still in competition for this year's starting job with freshman Drew Barker.

PHOTO: Kentucky coach Mark Stoops speaks to the media at the Southeastern Conference NCAA college football media days, Wednesday, July 15, 2015, in Hoover, Ala. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops speaks to the media at the Southeastern Conference NCAA college football media days, Wednesday, July 15, 2015, in Hoover, Ala. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Swindle said the two quarterbacks were very similar. Whoever wins the job will be behind an experienced offensive line that has four starters returning.

"They both have great arms," Swindle said. "They're both fast. They're both really smart guys. I'd say that's why they're listed as 'either/or' right now. I feel like they're both very comfortable."

Stoops continues to try to push Kentucky forward in the SEC East, which has proven to be a historically difficult task. The Wildcats have a 2-14 record in SEC play during Stoops' tenure and a 6-34 mark in league games over the past five years.

Kentucky hasn't won four conference games in a season since 2006.

Stoops said it was disappointing that the Wildcats lost six games in a row to end last season, but he's adamant that the program is still heading in the right direction.

"I don't want anybody to take away from our team's improvement from a year ago," Stoops said. "We have a long way to go. I knew what I was doing when I took this job, and I'm very optimistic about where we're at and where we're going."

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PHOTO: Kentucky coach Mark Stoops speaks to the media at the Southeastern Conference NCAA college football media days, Wednesday, July 15, 2015, in Hoover, Ala. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
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