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By Alex Forkner | Football columnist
About this time last year, the UK football program looked in the mirror and didn’t like what it saw – one win, an attendance free fall and a coach that wasn’t inspiring much confidence for the future.
So Mark Stoops was hired a couple months later, and thus began the process of transforming the program into a contender instead of a perennial punching bag.
And when looking for a model to follow, UK could do worse than its upcoming opponent, new conference neighbor and fellow felines, the University of Missouri Tigers.
Almost no one foretold of Missouri’s surprise success this season, instead pointing to Saturday as a potential victory for UK. Now the Tigers will enter Commonwealth Stadium as leaders of the SEC East and controllers of their own destiny.
When current head coach Gary Pinkel took over in 2001, the Tigers had won more than six games in a season just four times in the past 20 years. After winning nine games combined in his first two years, he won eight in his third.
After a brief drop back to five wins in 2004, Missouri won seven or more games until finishing 5-7 last season.
That stretch includes three seasons of double-digit wins, a feat nearly unheard of in the Bluegrass.
In 2007, the Tigers finished 11-1, winning the Big 12 North division title before falling to the University of Oklahoma in the conference championship game. Had Missouri won that game, it likely would have played for a national title that year.
The Tigers finished 12-2 after beating the University of Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl.
The next year, Missouri repeated as division champs, going 9-3, but again lost to Oklahoma in the conference championship. The Tigers would go on to beat Northwestern University in overtime in the Alamo Bowl to finish 10-4.
In 2010, Missouri held a share of its division title after going 10-2, but tiebreakers left them out of the conference championship game. The Tigers lost to the University of Iowa in the Insight Bowl to finish 10-3.
This is the stuff UK fans’ dreams are made of.
The last time UK won 10 football games in a year was in 1977, when the Cats finished 10-1 but claimed neither the SEC title nor played in a bowl game due to NCAA probation.
Missouri has nearly singlehandedly rearranged the SEC this season, beating the University of Georgia, the University of Florida and the University of Tennessee, and was a doinked field goal away from possibly beating South Carolina.
Missouri has playmakers all over the field. Senior defensive end Michael Sam leads the nation with 10 sacks. The Tigers’ defense has intercepted 17 passes, tops in the SEC. UK only has one interception on the season.
On offense, the Tigers’ trot out a stable of tall, athletic receivers, three of which have already eclipsed 400 receiving yards on the season — a mark no UK receiver has passed so far.
And perhaps the most enviable asset Missouri has displayed is a backup quarterback who can win games. When senior starting quarterback James Franklin went out with a shoulder injury in the Georgia game, freshman Maty Mauk stepped in and has performed admirably, leading the Tigers to two victories and one heartbreaker of a loss (see aforementioned South Carolina game).
Missouri may be on the fast track for SEC success with a title in its sight in just its second year in the league, and the disparity between the two teams may show on Saturday.
But in the years to come, UK football should see a different reflection staring back at it, and it could resemble Missouri’s current success.