USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.

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It took Mark Stoops only three sentences, a few prepositions and 37 words at his introductory press conference as Kentucky's new coach to get to the point: recruiting.

"Well, Kentucky's had success," Stoops said. "The key will be to build on that success and be consistent with it and take it to another level. I believe I can bring a strong staff that will help building and recruiting."

Eighteen months later, Kentucky devoted more than half of the eight paragraphs and 312 words detailing Stoops' contract extension – now through 2018, five seasons from the date of February's signing class – to the staff's recruiting efforts.

SPRING FOOTBALL: SEC East

"In recruiting, Mark and his tireless assistant coaches have made an obvious impact with their first two classes and that momentum is carrying forward for 2015," Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart said in a statement.

The general idea is this: Teams in the Southeastern Conference gauge success in different ways, using different barometers, standards and measurements, and unlike Alabama, which weighs its success in crystal footballs, Kentucky has opted for a patient, bottom-up approach to SEC contention.

This is how a two-win coach entering his second season earns a contract extension through 2018 – giving last year's recruits five years of continuity and the members of the current recruiting class the stability of knowing Stoops and his staff are in for the long haul, or at least the duration of their college careers.

Now watch the recruits continue to pour in. Stoops was hired late in 2012, two months before signing day, and led a ragtag, unproven operation to a top-30 class in the country, according to most major recruiting services. Last year's class hit No. 1 during the summer and remained in the nation's elite for much of the fall, though a late charge from a few national powers knocked UK's ranking down a peg. This year's class will be no different.

So how do you pull UK from the bottom of the heap into the conversation? It's not with schemes and offenses and defenses – those they'll be needed eventually – but with three stars and four stars and five stars. Less than two years later, we can say this: Kentucky's new hire has two wins and the program couldn't be happier.

LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:

I will say that anything is possible, even in the ridiculously deep SEC; I will also say that I think it's more likely Kentucky loses 10 games than it wins six, in my opinion. There's just too much work to be done, too many holes and too many question marks, for this season to end anywhere other than 4-8 – two wins better than last season, remember. Five would be a pleasant surprise; six wins would be shocking. While it's tough to make such a claim in June, this schedule looks like the most difficult in college football.

2013 RECAP:

In a nutshell: Lost somewhat in the off-field successes – all those four-star recruits, the general positivity and so on – was a 10-loss finish, giving the Wildcats back-to-back seasons with double-digit defeats for the first time in program history. On the field, the Wildcats hit all the low notes: UK lost to Western Kentucky and Louisville, topped 17 points only twice against SEC competition, started a new multiple-game losing streak to Tennessee and beat only Miami (Ohio) and Alabama State – winless and Football Championship Subdivision, respectively. If far from a referendum on Stoops' ability to win in Lexington, last fall proved a simple point: Kentucky is not close to winning games in the SEC.

High point: Let's make an exception. For Kentucky, the high point came from June 6-15, when Stoops and his staff reeled in seven recruits, three with four-star billing.

Low point: Losing to Western Kentucky and Louisville. The Wildcats have lost to the two in-state rivals in back-to-back years.

COUNTDOWN: Complete list (so far)

Tidbit: Stoops' first class, compiled during a 60-day span in 2013, was ranked 29th in the Football Bowl Subdivision by Rivals.com. February's class ranked 17th, one spot ahead of UCLA and three spots ahead of Texas. From 2002-12, Kentucky's best recruiting class – this in 2006 – came in 36th nationally. Two more facts: Kentucky's average class ranking during this span was 58th, while only two groups ranked inside the top 50 in the FBS.

Tidbit (defense edition): Going by Stoops' coaching history, Kentucky's defense is ahead of the curve. True, the Wildcats did end last season ranked 92nd nationally in total defense, 94th in stopping the run, 112th in quarterback efficiency and 90th in scoring. In 2003, however, Stoops' first defense at Arizona finished 109th, 84th, 112th and 107th, respectively, in the same categories. Check out Florida State in 2009, Stoops' first season: FSU ranked 108th, 108th, 110th and 94th.

ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:

Surprising football recruiting classes, 2014

1. Kentucky
2. North Carolina State
3. Indiana
4. Texas
5. Michigan

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

Offense: Kentucky scored only 14 offensive touchdowns during SEC play a season ago, the program's first in coordinator Neal Brown's pass-happy, up-tempo attack, with more than a third of these scores coming in the fourth quarter of uncompetitive defeats – three against South Carolina and one apiece against Georgia and Tennessee. So the offense didn't hit the ground running: Kentucky was more productive than Florida, at least, but still lags well behind the curve in an SEC suddenly accepting of offensive unorthodoxy. In the long run, however, this will work: Brown's track record suggests it's simply a matter of finding the pieces to complete the puzzle – none bigger than the unsettled quarterback competition – before UK can regain the momentum lost during the latter stage of the previous coaching regime.

Before solving its quarterback conundrum, Kentucky must address the SEC's weakest offensive front – one that struggled more than any unit in the transition to Brown's system. Improvement is coming, based on the heightened experience seen across the board, but the Wildcats will need a drastic step forward in protection to help ease a new starter under center. You can pencil three returning starters into familiar roles: Darrian Miller at left tackle, Jon Toth at center and Jordan Swindle at right tackle. Changes are afoot at both guard spots, however, due to last season's revolving door of unproductivity on the left side and Kevin Mitchell's departure on the right. In this case, it's clear that UK could use a jolt from one of a few incoming freshmen, with Nick Richardson the most ballyhooed of the bunch. If redshirt freshman Ramsey Meyers can hold down the fort in Mitchell's former role, the Wildcats will be able to throw bodies at left guard – Richardson, Max Godby, Zach West and Teven Eatmon-Nared – though nothing near optimal experience. In my mind, the line is a year away from finding a rhythm.

Let the fact that Brown himself was running routes during spring ball speak to two factors: UK is dealing with injuries at wide receiver, obviously, while still adding numbers to a grouping short on the depth needed in this system. When back at full strength, UK's receiver corps will feature a mix of holdovers and newcomers; whether Brown can make this work hinges largely on how quickly the new faces can adapt to the college game. First, the holdovers: Javess Blue (43 receptions for 586 yards), Jeff Badet (22 for 285), Ryan Timmons (32 for 338), Demarco Robinson (20 for 213) and Alexander Montgomery. Among the newcomers, two true freshmen, T.V. Williams and Thaddeus Snodgrass – real names, I swear – enrolled in time for spring ball and have a leg up on their fresh-faced competition. But in total, the Wildcats clearly need to augment the returning cast with Williams, Snodgrass and fellow rookies Blake Bone and Dorian Baker for this passing game to succeed. And let's not forget that these receivers will be tasked with making life easier on the Wildcats' new starting quarterback. There could be a hiccup.

Meet a backfield that hearkens to Kentucky's gloried past – like in 2007, when three Wildcats shared the wealth and the ball in helping the offense set school records. At one position, at least, this team is up to snuff in the SEC: Kentucky can go at least four and perhaps five deep at running back, a position led by sophomore Jojo Kemp (482 yards) but brimming with challengers for the starting job. One player to watch in particular: Braylon Heard comes via Nebraska, where he lost the starting job to Ameer Abdullah, and is easily the most gifted back on the roster – and as such should be earning starter's touches by no later than midseason, in my estimation. In addition, UK returns Josh Clemons from injury, brings in Pittsburgh transfer Demitrious Davis and has a pair of true freshmen, Mikel Horton and Stanley Williams, with four-star billing. This is a very, very good group.

Defense: Kentucky must balance an increasing talent level – Stoops attacked this side of the ball with abandon on the recruiting trail – with the loss of several key starters from last year's defense. The losses are felt predominately up the middle: UK is rebuilding at defensive tackle and starting from scratch at middle linebacker, where Avery Williamson's departure leaves the Wildcats filling an enormous void in production, reliability and leadership. The issue is clear: Stoops and this staff have done admirable work finding and developing talent, but this year's defense will be stuck in neutral should the Wildcats not find answers against the run. Fail to stop the run; open yourself to the pass; sputter defensively; better luck next year.

With three ends worthy of accolades holding down the edges, Stoops and coordinator D.J. Eliot – another nice hire, by the way – can turn their focus to settling on an interior rotation. Seniors Mike Douglas (28 tackles) and Christian Coleman, the most experienced hands in the middle, are assured of major roles. Another two JUCO transfers, C.J. Johnson and Melvin Lewis – Lewis enrolled last fall but took a redshirt – will add heft, at least, with size a significant concern as the line aims to replace Mister Cobble and Donte Rumph. If size is what UK needs, true freshman Matt Elam could supply a boost in certain packages, though he's not a three-down lineman. Where Kentucky excels is at end: Za'Darius Smith (59 tackles, 6.0 sacks) and Bud Dupree (61 tackles, 7.0 sacks) are studs, pure and simple, and sophomore Jason Hatcher has nearly limitless potential.

What makes Dupree, Smith and Hatcher doubly valuable is the group's ability to play on two feet, giving UK a trio of big-bodied outside linebackers to use in a 3-4 set. One thing for sure: Kentucky can rush the passer – but may not be able to stop the run. Look for Dupree and Smith to take on leadership roles without Williamson, last year's leading tackler; in terms of personnel, Williamson's most logical replacement would have been senior Miles Simpson, a starter in 2012 who stepped back into a reserve role last fall, but Simpson's career was ended in July because of a hip injury. In the Wildcats' base defensive set, Simpson was going to be flanked by a group consisting of junior Khalid Henderson (51 tackles), senior TraVaughn Pascal (39 tackles), junior Josh Forrest and four incoming recruits – one, Dorian Hendrix, enrolled early, and a second, Ryan Flannigan, comes via the JUCO ranks,

But more often than not, UK will toss aside a third linebacker in favor of a fifth defensive back – a nickel back, in essence, who can patrol in coverage but also lend a hand in run support. Stoops likes sophomore Blake McClain (59 tackles), who held down the fort a year ago, and will likely use McClain in several roles in the secondary; he'll be the nickel back but also dabble at safety, where UK needs to land more consistency. For now, the starting lineup looks familiar: Nate Willis, Fred Tiller and Cody Quinn lead the way at cornerback, and seniors Ashley Lowery (46 tackles) and Eric Dixon (55 tackles) top the depth chart at safety. As elsewhere, February's class – as well as former Pittsburgh transfer Chris Davis – will impact the two-deep in fall camp: A.J. Stamps, Mike Edwards and Kendall Randolph will slot into roles at cornerback and safety, pushing the incumbent cast and adding depth, if not grabbing starting roles.

Special teams: With junior punter Landon Foster entrenched as a potential all-conference pick, the Wildcats can turn their attention to the open kicking spot, where sophomore Max Strong and redshirt freshman Austin McGinnis will battle to replace Joe Mansour. One area where you'd expect a good portion of February's recruiting class to make an impact is on special teams, whether joining Blue in the return game or pitching in to seal up gaps in coverage.

POSITION(S) TO WATCH:

Quarterback: The competition lost a contender in April when Jalen Whitlow opted to leave the program, but that's no big loss – with all due respect, of course. For one, Whitlow was a stopgap option a year ago: Max Smith couldn't stay healthy, though he produced capably when in the lineup; sophomore Patrick Towles was still behind the curve, keeping him out of the mix; and the staff wanted to keep a redshirt on Reese Phillips, who spent last fall working with the scout team. Come the spring, Whitlow's lack of development as a passer ended his short run as the Wildcats' starter – a negative for Whitlow, of course, but a sign that Stoops and Brown had augmented an area of concern with three or four promising could-be starters.

One is Smith, though his injury-caused absence during the spring will have the junior playing catchup during summer workouts and fall camp. The second is Phillips, who flashed potential during the spring game but remains a second-unit contributor; while he could opt to remain with the program and battle for snaps, I imagine Phillips could eventually look elsewhere for playing time. In reality, this competition centers on a pair: Towles, the prototypically sized pocket passer with the background, spread-offense experience, arm strength and ability to shine in Brown's system; and true freshman Drew Barker, the gem of February's class. In Towles' corner was a strong spring capped by an afternoon with the first-team for the spring game – a crucial advantage in his corner. For Barker, the four-star billing, sterling credentials and off-the-charts potential will ensure that this competition continues in August. But think about the future: Wouldn't Kentucky be happy with starting Towles – if he produces – and using Smith as the primary backup, giving Stoops the option of handing Barker a redshirt? The best will play, but let's remember that Stoops and this staff are still thinking more about tomorrow than today.

GAME(S) TO WATCH:

Florida: With five home games in six tries to open the year, notching a road win in Gainesville – something the Wildcats haven't done since 1979 – could give this team a significant boost in the push for postseason eligibility. Of those five home dates, UK must look at four as winnable, recent program history be damned: Tennessee-Martin, Ohio, Vanderbilt and Louisiana-Monroe. But the smooth start does yield a rough second half, as one might expect. The Wildcats go on the road four times down the stretch, starting with a trip to Baton Rouge on Oct. 18.

SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:

In a nutshell: The first step is always the hardest. Kentucky has started the process of rehabbing a roster devoid of SEC-level talent, bringing in two classes with enough athleticism – and enough offense-defense balance – to eventually bring the Wildcats into contention in the SEC East Division. February's class spoke volumes: UK can go into Ohio and find upper-tier prospects on both sides of the ball, can dig in-state and can find gems and can surprise SEC rivals in the Southeast, basically overhauling the program's talent level in the span of 18 months – and creating a vision where UK can not only survive in the rough-and-tumble SEC but thrive, perhaps setting a baseline of perennial bowl eligibility. But that's not the hard part, believe it or not; the hard part is putting this talent into action.

That's going to happen, whether it be in 12 months or 24. It's not going to happen in 2014, when Kentucky remains too young, unproven and inexperienced to make a substantial improvement upon last season and charge into the mix in the East. Consider the issues: Kentucky is looking at a sophomore or true freshman at quarterback, is a mess on the offensive line and lacks depth and production at wide receiver; defensively, the interior is a step behind, the linebacker corps loses a leader and the secondary, while clearly improved since Stoops' arrival, lacks the athletes seen elsewhere in the SEC. The roster has been vastly improved, as noted, but it's unwise to bank on February's recruiting class stepping on campus and immediately altering Kentucky's place in the pecking order. The Wildcats are better, true, and that's obvious; they're still lagging.

But there are obvious bright spots. The first is in personnel, where Kentucky has a wonderful backfield, two very promising quarterbacks – Barker is a player to watch in the SEC – and a superb trio of ends. The running game will help take pressure off the new quarterback if the interior of the line rounds into form; defensively, the pass rush can help seal up the secondary on clear passing downs. In total, foundational pieces have been added at nearly every position. But UK's best draw is the process itself: Stoops and this staff have changed the program's course of direction. The Wildcats are making noise off the field. Next, the program needs to translate this success to between the white lines. Good days are ahead. But this team is not quite ready to move out of the cellar in the East Division.

Dream season: The young core of this roster exceeds expectations at least a year ahead of schedule, lifting Kentucky to seven wins and a bowl berth.

Nightmare season: The Wildcats drop from 2-10 to 1-11, beating only Tennessee-Martin in the opener.

UP NEXT:

Who's No. 103? As an FBS assistant, this school's coach worked under four coaches with a combined career record of 512-266-4.

PHOTOS: RANKING EVERY FBS TEAM FOR 2014

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