Column: Is Citrus Bowl Kentucky football’s ceiling?


Kentucky Wildcats head coach Mark Stoops holds up the trophy after the UK vs Iowa VRBO Citrus Bowl football game on Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022, at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Florida. UK won 20-17. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

Barkley Truax

For the second time in four seasons, the Kentucky Wildcats are Citrus Bowl champions. But where does the success end?

In 2019 and now 2022, Mark Stoops has led his Cats to two 10-win seasons—something that has only been done two other times since 1947. As someone who’s grown up, born and raised following the Kentucky football team since infancy, the two-win Joker Phillips teams became the norm throughout my childhood and the popular battlecry around Lexington was, “just wait for basketball season.”

Those statements are simply not made anymore. At all. After defeating Iowa 20-17 in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day 2022, Kentucky now boasts the nation’s longest non-conference winning streak at 16. They were previously tied with the Hawkeyes heading into the bowl game.

Under Stoops, Kentucky has qualified for a bowl game in six-straight seasons, including four-straight bowl victories from 2019-2022 (Citrus twice, Belk and Gator). 

When Kentucky defeated ULM in the 2021-22 season opener, Stoops’ 100th game as the Wildcats’ head coach, he notched his 50th victory at the helm. The only other coach to attain that title is the legendary Bear Bryant, widely regarded as one of the greatest collegiate coaches in football history. 

With Kentucky’s Citrus Bowl victory, Stoops tallied win No. 59 and is one game away from tying Bryant’s program-high 60 wins as head ball coach.

It seems as though Stoops and company are just getting started. But success doesn’t happen simply because of the coaching staff—it starts with the athletes on the field and having them buy into the program’s vision.

With starting quarterback Will Levis already announcing his intentions to return to Lexington next season and with star running back and wide receiver Chris Rodriguez and Wan’Dale Robinson’s NFL Draft status up in the air as of this writing, the pillars of this season’s Kentucky team may remain. 

If Kentucky’s self-proclaimed standard of 10 wins per season is to maintain, acquiring Rodriguez and Robinson’s signatures are the first steps. 

With Stoops brining in the top recruiting class to the Kentucky program that Lexington has ever seen next season, there’s no telling where the likes of incoming freshmen such as Kiyaunta Goodwin, Dane Key, Barion Brown and Destin and Keaton Wade will be by the time they’re the stars of the program—it starts by learning from those that pave the way before you.

The seniors that just won the Citrus Bowl in 2022 were freshman during their first victory in 2019. That’s when the standard was set and barring the COVID-19-riddled and SEC only schedule of 2020-21, it’s maintained. There is a winning culture in Lexington and Mark Stoops built it from the ground up brick-by-brick, season-by-season, recruit-by-recruit.

The only thing holding Kentucky back from an SEC Championship berth, a New Year’s Six bowl game—even the College Football Playoff—is themselves.

This has been apparent in both seasons that Kentucky has won 10 games under Mark Stoops. First in 2018-19 when they were utterly embarrassed by a 4-5 Tennessee team, who took down the then-7-2 and No. 12 ranked Kentucky 24-7 in Knoxville. That was a game that UK should have ran away with on paper and was the deciding factor holding them back from a top bowl game.

That sentiment is true this past season as well. Kentucky laid an egg in Starkville, Mississippi against Miss. St. 31-17 after leading the Bulldogs 10-0 after the first quarter. Add that to Kentucky’s 45-42 loss to another under performing Tennessee team and Kentucky didn’t only blow a potential Sugar Bowl berth, but a potential College Football Playoff showing with their only loss coming to Georgia, a team that’s gearing up to battle Alabama in a SEC Championship rematch in the national championship game.

It’s not to say Kentucky blew it—but maybe they weren’t ready for the bright lights of college football yet. Maybe the incoming freshman, current freshman and rest of the younger generation of Wildcats are the ones to launch Kentucky football into the stratosphere. Maybe that road is being paved before our eyes at this moment.

Two Citrus Bowl’s in four years is an impressive feat, but the rabid fanbase that is the Big Blue Nation will be craving more. They’re beginning to hold the football program in the same light and their basketball counterparts—and that’s saying something. 

With BBN now expecting greatness from their team—the ball is in their court. Their fate is in their own hands; it’s all about what Kentucky does with it. Will they capture greatness? Or just let it slip through their fingers?