LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Mark Stoops quickly dismissed any notion of this weekend's home game against the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, which competes in the lower-tier Football Championship Subdivision, being a "breather" for the Wildcats.
Not with Kentucky (2-0) facing another Southeastern Conference challenge next week at South Carolina. And certainly not with the Wildcats hungry to keep rolling against the Mocs (1-1) — a preseason favorite in the Southern Conference — after answering several gut checks last week against Missouri in the SEC opener for both teams.
"Any great team, no matter what competition level is, plays to the best of their ability," Stoops said. "That's what we're trying to do. It's on to the next opponent, it's on to the next challenge for me, it's trying to get their minds right.
"This team was picked to win their league, so you know they're talented and can do some good things. No matter who we're playing, you're always going to hear me talk about us."
And Kentucky has given Stoops plenty of good things to say.
The Wildcats squandered a 28-14 lead at home against Missouri, but they quickly answered in the fourth quarter and made a key stop late for a 35-28 victory that seized the initial lead in the SEC East Division standings. Kentucky never trailed, but the resilience shown after the Tigers tied the tense game is why Stoops is so upbeat in the early stages of his ninth season leading the Wildcats.
That contest revealed flaws Stoops stressed must be corrected, even against a supposedly overmatched opponent.
"You still got to keep the same approach," running back Kavosiey Smoke said. "You've got to have the same mindset like you're playing Florida. You can't underestimate any team."
The Mocs used every phase to shut out North Alabama 20-0 on the road last weekend, bouncing back from a a 30-20 home loss to Austin Peay in an opener that matched two teams in the preseason national rankings of both FCS polls listed by the NCAA.
UTC's Ailym Ford ran for a short touchdown against the Lions last Saturday night before Jerrell Lawson returned an interception 38 yards for a touchdown. Aaron Sears' two field goals bookended those scores as the Mocs held North Alabama to just 131 yards.
Now the Mocs face a huge challenge pursuing just their fifth victory in 127 meetings against 10 SEC schools and their first since beating Tennessee 14-8 on Nov. 8, 1958. Then again, eight FCS schools have beaten opponents from the higher-tier Football Bowl Subdivision already this year, and Mocs coach Rusty Wright echoed Stoops' belief that it's more about what his team does than Kentucky.
"You've got to weather some storms to get it done and hang in there," said Wright, who praised the Wildcats as a complete team. "You can't let it snowball and let it get out of control. That's what we have to overcome."
Kentucky opened with a 45-10 victory against the University of Louisiana at Monroe, with the Wildcats trailing 7-0 early in the first quarter before scoring the next 38 points.
That game and last week against Missouri have shown the Wildcats' determination to shed a label of being predictable on offense in past seasons. First-year coordinator Liam Coen's pro set scheme has helped them record consecutive 500-yard efforts for the first time in program history, and they rank 12th nationally at 541.5 yards per game. Best of all, they've shown balance so far, totaling 598 passing yards and 477 on the ground.
"I'm pleased with how well they are adapting to it, how much they are picking it up," Stoops said. "We can be a lot better. I love the fact that we're doing what we need to do."
Kentucky running back Chris Rodriguez Jr. had career bests with 27 carries for 206 yards against Missouri, and he scored three touchdowns — two rushing and one receiving — to earn SEC player of the week recognition. His 323 rushing yards mark the best two-game start in program history, and he has yet to lose yardage.
However, the Wildcats are minus-4 in turnover margin and had a giveaway lead to an opponent touchdown for the second consecutive week. To be fair, both of Will Levis' interceptions have come off receivers' fingertips, but Rodriguez's two goal-line fumbles last week — one of which Missouri converted into a touchdown — raise concerns.
Stoops stood by his running back this week and expressed confidence that Rodriguez will correct things.