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UK's confidence growing even in midst of brutal schedule

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UK will host No. 1 Alabama at 7 p.m. ET on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK will host No. 1 Alabama at 7 p.m. ET on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
As he interviewed to be Kentucky's next coach, Mark Stoops had done his homework.

He had a detailed plan for how he would succeed. Stoops understood the unique set of challenges that faces UK, had a grasp of returning personnel and even knew the recruiting areas he would target, and it convinced Mitch Barnhart that Stoops was the man for the job

But for all the preparation he had done, Stoops didn't know about UK's early-season 2013 schedule.

"I didn't," Stoops said with a laugh. "I didn't. I really didn't, because we were in the middle - we were in season there at Florida State so I was pretty consumed with what I was doing."

With the latest rankings coming out on Sunday, it became official that this weekend will mark the end of a stretch during which UK (1-4, 0-2 Southeastern Conference) will face four consecutive top-20 opponents for the first time in school history.

The idea of guiding a young team through such a grueling month would have been a daunting prospect had Stoops known about it when he took the job, but by no means would it have affected Stoops' thinking.

"Wouldn't have deterred me, though," Stoops said.

As UK prepares to conclude the four-game stretch against top-ranked Alabama (5-0, 2-0 SEC) on Saturday, Stoops sees a team taking on a similar attitude.

The Wildcats hung tough against both No. 7 Louisville and No. 19 Florida, but turned in arguably their best effort of the season in a near-comeback at No. 13 South Carolina. Trailing 21-0 seconds into the second quarter, UK twice rallied to within one possession of the home-standing Gamecocks in the fourth quarter of a 35-28 defeat.

The Cats were just a third-down stand away from getting the ball back with a chance to tie the game in the final minutes. Stoops sensed plenty of frustration on the part of his team that it couldn't finish the job, but a productive kind of frustration.

"When we talked after the game I saw a bunch of guys right up there, all eyes on me, guys are very focused," Stoops said. "Some guys were hurt and I'm sure disappointed and the whole bit, and I hope they are tired of that."

That disappointment stemmed from the fact that UK was so close to pulling off the upset. In spite of the hostile environment and an early deficit, the Cats never quit believing. Stoops doesn't want that mentality to go anywhere.

"I just hope we continue to understand that we can win these games," Stoops said. "It's not just me up here talking about that. If we truly believe, if we go about our business, if we work the right way, if we prepare the right way and execute and make plays when the game is on the line    we had every opportunity to win that game and that's a very good team, very well-coached and we have a lot of respect for them."

It's a credit to the coaching staff that the Cats have not only stayed engaged in facing ranked opponent after ranked opponent, but improved as the weeks have gone on. It's also a credit to UK's undisputed defensive leader, Avery Williamson.

"He's the model of consistency and leadership," Stoops said. "He's exactly what you want. He's there every week and it's not something that we take for granted because I think he's a very good player, like I say every week, and a very good leader in somebody that we need in there."

Williamson -- a senior -- has played each of the last games with a cast on his left hand to protect a deep bone bruise, but still ranks second in the SEC in tackles with 51.

On Saturday, Jason Hatcher followed suit in playing through pain. The true freshman defensive end broke his hand in two places against South Carolina, but trainers put a cast on it and he returned.

"It tells me that his toughness is there and his heart is in the right place," Stoops said. "Like I said, he didn't flinch."

What's most encouraging to Stoops is that approach is permeating his entire team. From seniors like Williamson to freshman like Hatcher, the Cats are hungry to play and play well. And by the week, they become more steadfast in their self-belief.

"I feel like more and more are starting to understand that we can do that and we can compete and play with anybody, and just sticking together," Stoops said. "So I think it's a good locker room right now. I think, you know, last week was a point where we could have gone either way. I felt like this team would respond the right way, and I think we are going to keep on improving."

Showing improvement against the two-time defending national champion Crimson Tide will be no easy task. Stoops knows that and so does his team. All they can do is continue to work.

"Obviously we know how talented this team is and how well coached they are," Stoops said. "It's going to be a real tough challenge, but again, we'll measure (success) by how we play, how we compete and go from there."

Dupree 'day-to-day'

In extending his streak of games with a sack to four in the second quarter of the loss to South Carolina, Bud Dupree aggravated a strain to his pectoral muscle that he suffered in weight-lifting earlier in the week. He missed the rest of the game and Stoops said on Monday the junior defensive end is dealing with soreness and swelling.

As for Dupree's status this week, Stoops is uncertain.

"I really don't know to be honest with you," Stoops said. "He'll probably be day to day most of this week."

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