The morning after what was arguably the pinnacle of his coaching career, Mark Stoops woke up on edge. Hours after Kentucky had taken down LSU, a week after beating Florida, he could not be consoled.
"I woke up Sunday and Monday as irritable as I've been all year," Kentucky's coach said this week. "I'm not changing our approach, but I was very irritable. On Saturday nights, I try to unwind and enjoy it. But it's immediately that competitive nature, it's hard to turn off.
"I've been kind of edgy. It's the edgiest I've been all year."
Playing the No. 1 team in the nation on the road will do that to you. For his next trick, Stoops is being asked to win at Georgia. For the No. 11 Wildcats, it's one of the biggest games in program history, following two of the biggest wins in program history (20-13 win over Florida, 42-21 over LSU -- both at home).
The reality? Stoops' mood entering Saturday's SEC on CBS Game of the Week may be justified. Georgia is a 22.5-point favorite. Its defense is showing no remorse -- for any opponent. Kentucky's magical unbeaten season could be stained by the latest Bulldogs steamrolling.
But one can dream. Stoops is a national coach of the year candidate at the halfway point of the season for getting the Wildcats this far. He joins a list that includes Mel Tucker (Michigan State), Dave Clawson (Wake Forest), Jim Harbaugh (Michigan), and oh yeah, Kirby Smart (Georgia).
Stoops and Kentucky are already 6-0, marking the first time the Wildcats have hit that mark since 1950 … when Bear Bryant coached them to a 10-0 start.
"I really hadn't put much thought into it until after the [LSU] game," Stoops said. "It did kind of hit me. … It's not just this year. It's years of hard work."
That Stoops, 55-50 into his ninth season, is still around to count those years is a bit remarkable. Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart has shown incredible patience in an age of anxiety by his peers. The average coach doesn't get much of a chance after starting 12-24 over his first three seasons.
Suddenly, Stoops is tied with NC State's Dave Doeren for the 14th-longest tenured coach in the game. If he makes it through season, Stoops would tie Fran Curci at Kentucky for longevity. Six more wins, and Stoops passes Bryant.
Barnhart had faith, saw potential and backed it up. In Year 3, Commonwealth Stadium was renovated, expanded and eventually renamed Kroger Field. In Year 4, a football facility was completed. In 2020, 247Sports rated Kentucky's facilities the 12-best in the country.
"Mark had a good plan," Barnhart recalled. "'This is how I think we can recruit,' which was something we were just short on. We had an ability to recruit close to home. … When you start getting into the Deep South of Georgia and Florida, we were having trouble getting people to cross state lines to Kentucky just to consider us."
There was not a lightning-bolt moment. This was a long, slow slog. This was digging a recruiting foundation at a place that doesn't have much talent around it. Stoops knew, if you don't have linemen, you don't have a chance. Win starting in the trenches and you deserve to be one of the 20 highest paid coaches in the country; you deserve a $5.25 million salary.
Especially at Kentucky, which might be currently doing the best current job of marrying a blue-blood basketball program with a top-15 football program.
In an unpredictable season filled with surprising results, Kentucky's emergence has hit college football upside the head. Mark Stoops also might be the most high-profile Stoops … at the moment.
"Don't tell Bob that," Barnhart said.
Bob Stoops has national exposure as a Fox analyst, but he shares the stage on Saturday mornings. Kentucky is all Mark's vision. That includes elevating Los Angeles Rams assistant quarterback coach Liam Coen to offensive coordinator. The Wildcats are averaging more than 400 yards per game for the first time in five years.
The man Coen replaced, veteran Eddie Gran, actually returned to the program in September as Mark Stoops' special assistant.
"It's simple," Gran said explaining why he returned to a lesser position after being fired. "I love Kentucky."
That vision is developing defensive end Josh Allen, a two-star recruit from New Jersey whose only offer was from Monmouth, into the 2018 SEC Defensive Player of the Year and a first-round pick for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Running back Benny Snell, now in his third year with the Steelers, finished second in SEC rushing that year.
This year, Chris Rodriguez leads the SEC in rushing. Former Penn State backup quarterback Will Levis has been capable; he's on his way to being the highest-rated Wildcats passer in at least 13 years. Only Georgia has allowed fewer yards per play in the SEC.
Stoops also hit the transfer portal hard, landing six FBS transfers, including Nebraska wide receiver Wan'Dale Robinson, who at least check has 128 career catches.
That vision is following a 10-3 season in 2018 with, gulp, what could be a College Football Playoff run 2021. Think about this: Could an 11-1 Kentucky that finishes second in the SEC East have leverage over, say, an undefeated Cincinnati?
"He's worked hard at building that program," former Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops told CBS Sports. "Little by little, it has continually gotten stronger and better. It's fun being in this position with Fox now, getting the tape. Those last two games against Florida and LSU, there's not a fluke about it. They're more physical and tougher than LSU. Not that they dominated Florida, but they didn't take a backseat to them in any way."
The Wildcats did muscle up on both the Gators and Tigers. Kentucky hadn't beaten Florida in Lexington since 1986. When linebacker Jacquez Jones batted down a fourth-down pass clinching the win, you could almost sense a burden had been lifted.
"Now we've beaten them two times in the last four years," Mark Stoops said. "We really don't have to listen to that narrative anymore."
So, dream all you want, 'Cats. Your coach is irritable for a reason. The burden now is upsetting No. 1. Somewhere, Bear Bryant is smiling.