Kentucky could prove to be a useful test subject this season for one of those questions that comes up from time to time in college football: How much do returning starters mean if the team wasn't very good in the first place? Because the Wildcats have a relatively high number of returning starters this season, even accounting for the departure of Jalen Whitlow, and I'm sure there's no need to remind you that their 2013 was not particularly successful. Before Whitlow's transfer, the Kentucky spring football media guide boasted that the 16 returning starters were the most for the program in 14 years. Even 15 is a pretty solid number.
There are some added complexities in Kentucky's case. At some point, you have to assume that the coaching staff is going to make good on its promise to move toward an Air Raid-style offense for the Wildcats, and 2013 wasn't it. (Kentucky attempted 343 passes and ran the ball 431 times during a season in which it lost eight games by at least two scores.) If that season is 2014, or if the Wildcats are trying to make at least some progress in moving toward that goal, then the experience players earned last year -- not to mention the experience they picked up during the Joker Phillips Era -- might not help that much this season.
BIGGEST RETURNS: DE Alvin "Bud" Dupree and DE Za'Darius Smith
My concerns with the Kentucky defensive line this year largely concern depth and the line's interior, which are not small things to worry about in a season when the running game is likely to define the conference's top offenses again. But Dupree and Smith are two bright spots on the depth chart on defense for the Wildcats. They produced a combined 120 tackles, 16 tackles for loss and 13 sacks in 2013, not to mention nine quarterback hurries. Kentucky might get gashed on the ground this year, but Dupree and Smith should be able to at least limit the damage through the air if they can stay healthy.
BIGGEST LOSS: LB Avery Williamson
You know what can make a defense losing its two starting interior linemen even more vulnerable to the run? If that defense also loses its starting middle linebacker. Kentucky managed to hit that anti-jackpot when its most prolific tackler in 2013 moved on. (And got drafted in the fifth round.) Williamson had 102 tackles for the season, which was 41 more than Dupree had as the second-leading tackler on the team. And he started every game at the position, leaving little in the way of a clear successor.
BREAKTHROUGH POSSIBILITY: RB Braylon Heard
Heard had the potential to be a good running back at Nebraska -- the only problem being that Nebraska was pretty loaded at the position when Heard was there. Heard averaged 6.0 yards a carry over his two seasons in Lincoln, and appears to be a level-headed guy. Kentucky also has a good stable of backs, but if Heard can win the starting job and the Air Raid sputters again, he could be in line for a big season. That would be a mixed bag for the Wildcats -- but a mixed bag is better than what can be expected in other aspects of Kentucky's season, no matter who is returning.