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SEC 2015: The Kentucky Wildcats Look for a Return to the Normal

Even by Kentucky's standards, the last few years have been a disappointment. Can the Wildcats find their way back to a bowl game?

Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Editor's Note: Part of Brandon's effort to catch up.

The Kentucky Wildcats occupy something of a niche in the SEC East. They are neither one of the division's traditional powerhouses like Tennessee and Georgia nor one of its nouveau riche programs like Florida or Missouri. (By "nouveau riche," I mean programs that rose to true prominence after the divisional split.) But the Wildcats' history is also not filled with the lengthy stretches of pain and humiliation that are characteristic of Vanderbilt. It's somewhere in the middle.

After all, Kentucky went to three bowl games in the 1990s and won fewer than two games (meaning they beat someone other than Vanderbilt) just twice in the decade -- winless conference years in 1991 and 1994. The 2000s started out with an up-and-down period, but Rich Brooks closed them out with four straight bowl bids, and Joker Phillips extended the streak to five during his first season in charge.

While the long slog of the last four years might seem like more of the same for the Wildcats, it's actually about the program's historical nadir. The 2011-14 span of four straight losing records matches lows most recently hit in 1994-97 and 1979-82 before that. If the Wildcats turn in another losing campaign in 2015, it will be the longest such streak since 1978-82, and only the third time Kentucky has failed to have a winning record in five straight seasons in program history. They've been playing football at Kentucky since 1881.

So, no, the Rich Brooks Era is not the norm for Kentucky, but neither is the 12-34 slump that the Wildcats are riding coming into 2015. There is every reason to believe that Mark Stoops -- or whoever succeeds the Wildcats' current coach if he makes enough noise at UK again to get his name back into the coaching carousel -- will eventually turn things around, at least for a bowl season or two. Historically, the question seems to be less whether it will happen than when.

This year? Maybe. It's not the most hospitable schedule Kentucky will ever see, despite a generally weak non-conference schedule outside of the game against Louisville. The best opportunity for Kentucky to get the second SEC win (on top of a victory against Vanderbilt) needed to even think about a postseason bid might be South Carolina, and the Wildcats will go to Columbia to face a team looking for revenge after last year's gut-punch loss in Lexington. Kentucky hasn't won in Columbia since 1999, which is not coincidentally the last time the Wildcats beat the Gamecocks in consecutive seasons. The home conference games are against Missouri (3-0 against the Wildcats since entering the SEC), Florida (hasn't lost to Kentucky since 1986), Auburn (one UK win in a 17-game stretch dating back to 1967) and Tennessee (lost to Kentucky once since 1984). Even if the Wildcats can defeat Bobby Petrino's Cardinals, it might be tough to actually get to a bowl.

That's even before taking into account the roster losses and pickups that could decide which way Kentucky goes. The quarterback position is unsettled. Three of the five Wildcats who caught more than 20 passes are gone. None of the rushers hit 500 total yards in 2014, though Stanley "Boom" Williams, the leading contender for the starting job this year, averaged a healthy 6.6 yards a carry, and Jojo Kemp always has a chance to be dynamic. Four of the five offensive linemen are back. Some of the defensive players you might have heard of, like A.J. Stamps, are coming back; others, like Alvin "Bud" Dupree, are gone. Mash all that together, and there are reasons to like Kentucky and reasons to be hesitant about them.

And then you have to toss in the trend of coaches not seeming to do as well in their third year in the SEC -- or at least not doing significantly better -- especially when they get a big bump in winning percentage in the second season, as Kentucky did last year (from 2-10 to 5-7). Treading water could be something of an accomplishment, even if it's disappointing by Kentucky standards.

The perfect season: Shannon Dawson's offensive scheme clicks with the new quarterback, and the running backs manage to have one of their best seasons under Stoops. Kentucky stuns a still-gelling South Carolina at Williams-Brice, then puts a scare into either Florida or Missouri and maybe picks one of them off. The Wildcats knock off Louisville in the final game of the season to secure a bowl bid for the first time since 2010. After the season, Stoops decides to stay put.

The nightmare: The quarterback position is inconsistent and the experience along the offensive line doesn't lead to increased production by the running backs. At the same time that the offense is stagnating, Stoops struggles to get a defense losing a couple of its key players on track. Louisiana-Lafayette plays Kentucky uncomfortably close, and the only Wildcats victory from the opener until November is against Eastern Kentucky. Vanderbilt ambushes a reeling Kentucky in Nashville, and UK limps to a 3-9 record, ending the good feelings that currently surround Stoops.

What actually happens: Kentucky looks to have one of the narrowest spectra in the SEC when it comes to what's likely to happen. It's really hard to see this team winning fewer than four games, given the non-conference schedule and the troubles at Vanderbilt. On the other hand, getting to even seven wins would be a triumph for Kentucky and would make Stoops a virtual shoo-in for SEC coach of the year, barring something truly improbable happening elsewhere in the conference. If you account for Kentucky pulling an upset somewhere, then five or six games seems like a good bet for this team. That one-game difference between five and six still makes a huge difference for Stoops' rebuilding process, as one gives him a bowl game to brag about and the other doesn't.