COLUMBIA — Mark Stoops well remembers his first visit to Williams-Brice Stadium.
“I was very impressed with that place the last time we were there two years ago,” said Kentucky’s head coach. “That was my first experience in that stadium, and I was really blown away by the energy and how loud it was.”
South Carolina’s 35-28 victory that night was another step toward the Gamecocks’ third consecutive 11-win season — and another setback in what has become an epic road losing streak for the Wildcats, who return to Columbia for Saturday’s 7:30 p.m. game.
Kentucky has lost its last 22 true road games, dating back to a 23-15 victory at Louisville on Sept. 4, 2010. Including one bowl game and a pair of neutral-site contests, the Wildcats have won just once away from home since — a 14-3 victory over Western Kentucky in Nashville, the lone exception in what’s become a 1-23 stretch away from Commonwealth Stadium.
In meetings this week prior to the USC game, Stoops hasn’t been shy about mentioning that skid to his team.
“I don’t see why not. It’s a fact. They know that. And if there were a few guys in there that didn’t know that, I wanted to bring it to their attention,” Stoops said Wednesday on the weekly SEC coaches’ conference call.
“You don’t win the game by a bunch of hoopla or a bunch of rah-rah on Friday or Saturday. You win the game by preparation and what you do throughout the week. So I wanted to set the tone real quick … and challenge our team to see what little extras we will do to prepare ourselves both mentally and physically to go in there, go in that environment, and get a victory.”
Kentucky beat USC 45-38 last season in Lexington, but has lost 13 of its last 15 to South Carolina (1-0), and hasn’t won at Williams-Brice Stadium since 1999. The Wildcats’ road losses last season included a 36-30, three-overtime loss at Florida, a four-point loss at Louisville and a 10-point setback at Missouri, in addition to blowout losses at LSU and Tennessee.
“You have to progress in your program,” Stoops said. “... I think our players know that we’re very close, in a lot of situations. I think if you look at our team, there are going to be a lot of games that are going to be really close, and you have to be able to step up and make a play at the end of a game. That’s why last week was good in certain situations, because it wasn’t just a runaway.”
Kentucky (1-0) won its opener at home 40-33 over Louisiana-Lafayette, which trailed by 23 before tying the game in the fourth quarter. The Wildcats won it on a touchdown with 57 seconds left, capping their longest drive of the night. Stoops is trying to generate more of a running game to complement the “air raid” passing attack overseen by quarterback Patrick Towles.
“What we have to stay away from is three-and-outs, and not being able to move the ball when maybe the defense is struggling or not playing as well,” Stoops said. “We have to have some drives where we stay on the field for a bit.”
Elsewhere, the SEC placing a record 10 teams in this week’s AP Top 25 has generated plenty of discussion. Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema called it “a major statement to not only everybody (in the SEC), but to the nation. Those things just don’t happen.” And he couldn’t help bringing up the SEC’s most notable foil.
“I’m sitting there watching the Monday night game, and I spent a lot of time in that other conference,” Bielema said of the Big 10. “Ohio State is ranked No. 1, and they have one game remaining on their schedule (against) anybody ranked right now, Michigan State. And then I look at it, and we’re going to play eight straight opponents that are ranked.”
Arkansas, ranked No. 18, opened against UTEP and hosts Toledo this week in Little Rock. Beginning Sept. 26 the Hogs open a nine-game stretch including eight consecutive SEC foes currently in the Top 25 — No. 16 Texas A&M, No. 23 Tennessee, No. 2 Alabama, No. 6 Auburn, No. 17 Ole Miss, No. 14 LSU, No. 25 Mississippi State and No. 21 Missouri — broken up by homecoming against Tennessee-Martin.
“It just goes to show, Jeff Long and his committee have a huge task in front of them,” Bielema said, referring to Arkansas’ athletics director and the chairman of the College Football Playoff selection committee. “Because if you truly do put a weight on strength of schedule, to get through this conference — everybody can make a joke about it, but it’s truly unprecedented what every team in this league can bring. And if anybody tries to argue with it, they’re completely nonsense. It’s a whole another level when it comes to competitive nature and balance.”
Mark Richt, head coach of No. 10 Georgia, cautioned that it’s still early in the season, and said the SEC will likely end up with between seven and 10 ranked teams at the end of the year. But to LSU head coach Les Miles, 10 wasn’t enough.
“I thought we should have had 25 teams ranked in the top 25, to be honest,” he said. “They didn’t quite use all the opportunities to rank second teams.”