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2016 SEC Football Season Preview: Kentucky Wildcats

Can the Wildcats finally get over the hump and make a bowl game under Mark Stoops’ leadership?

NCAA Football: Missouri at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Record Last Year: 5-7 (2-6 SEC)

Key Returnees: QB Drew Barker, RB Boom Williams, RB Jojo Kemp, WR Garrett Johnson, WR Dorian Baker, C Jon Toth, DE Denzil Ware, DT Regie Meant, LB Josh Allen, CB Chris Westry, K Austin MacGinnis

Key Departures: QB Patrick Towles, QB Reese Phillips, LB Josh Forrest, LB Khalid Henderson, DE Jason Hatcher (dismissed from team), DT C.J. Johnson, S A.J. Stamps

Key Arrivals: QB Gunnar Hoak, WR Zy'Aire Hughes, TE Dakota Holtzclaw, C Drake Jackson, OT Landon Young, OT Tate Leavitt, LB Kash Daniel, CB Jordan Griffin

What Happened Last Year

The 2015 iteration of Kentucky football was—to many—all too familiar, featuring the commonplace peaks and valleys that are quite customary for football season in Lexington.

After beginning the season with a win over Louisiana-Lafayette, the Wildcats traveled to South Carolina, defeating a downtrodden Gamecocks team in order to notch Kentucky’s first road SEC win since 2009. Two wins and a heartbreaking home loss to Florida later, the Wildcats were sitting pretty at 5-1 with two SEC wins already under their belt.

From their Thursday night rendezvous with Auburn onward, the Wildcats were never able to recapture the magic that they encountered during the first five weeks of what would become a tumultuous season.

The Wildcats suffered four losses in a row before picking up a win against Charlotte on November 21st in what was Kentucky’s first November win over an FBS opponent during Mark Stoops’ tenure. After blowing a 21-0 lead over Louisville in the final game of the year, Kentucky finished yet another season without earning a bowl berth.

3 Key Players

RB Stanley “Boom” Williams

It seems pretty safe to say that after the transfer of QB Patrick Towles to Boston College and the year that Williams had in 2015, Kentucky’s offensive gameplay is going to primarily revolve around the junior running back and his proclivity for producing big plays.

After hiring Eddie Gran away from Cincinnati during the offseason, it has become clear that Mark Stoops wants to build his offense around utilizing the dynamic running backs on his roster, chief among them being Boom Williams. Williams’ speed and agility enabled him to rack up over 800 rushing yards last season despite missing the Georgia game and the majority of the Louisville game due to injury.

If there’s one player on this team to watch, it’s Williams. He’s as good of a running back as Kentucky has had in a while, and it’s clear that he’s going to be carrying the ball often this upcoming season.

WR Dorian Baker

As arguably the best member of a veteran Kentucky receiving corps, Baker should be the go-to receiver for Drew Barker, who will be starting the season under center after being elevated to the starting role over Patrick Towles in the final two games of 2015.

When a team possesses a young quarterback like Barker, it’s a huge plus to have him surrounded by veteran offensive playmakers like Dorian Baker. Baker, along with other experienced Wildcats, is going to play a key role as a leader of an offense that saw both success and failure last year, depending on which half of the game they were in.

CB Chris Westry

While Kentucky’s defense as a unit was nothing to write home about last season, there were many solid players that often gave great performances. With many such players leaving the team—Josh Forrest, Khalid Henderson, and A.J. Stamps, to name a few—it’s up to players like Chris Westry to pick up where they left off.

After having an impressive freshman season that saw him amass 36 tackles and haul in 2 interceptions, Westry looks to be part of an ever-improving secondary. While the team may have lost some of its biggest names on defense, the Cats will still have guys like Westry on the team, a player whose size and agility makes him a threat to opposing SEC offenses.

Best Case Scenario

7-5 (4-4 SEC): Seven wins is the ceiling for this Kentucky team, and that’s if they encounter some lucky breaks this season. This scenario hinges on Kentucky’s offense getting the kinks out early on, Boom Williams staying injury-free, and the defense not giving up exorbitant point totals game after game. All of those happening would likely only lead Kentucky to SEC wins over South Carolina, Vandy, Mississippi State, and Missouri, all while defeating Southern Miss, New Mexico State, and Austin Peay.

Worst Case Scenario

4-8 (2-6 SEC): In this scenario, Kentucky loses its opener to a sneaky good Southern Miss team while also suffering home SEC losses to Vanderbilt, whose defense has the ability to carry them through games, Mississippi State, and Georgia. Wins against Mizzou, South Carolina, New Mexico State, and Austin Peay aren’t enough to sate the appetite of a depressed fanbase, leading to a moronic firing of Mark Stoops.

My Prediction

6-6 (3-5 SEC): I believe that this is the year that Mark Stoops finally gets to go bowling with the Wildcats. The Cats have a favorable home schedule, one in which many beatable teams (including some SEC foes like Vandy and South Carolina) come to Lexington. Boom Williams should have an excellent junior season, while Kentucky’s defense shouldn’t hemorrhage a great deal of points.

A bowl berth is right within grasp for Kentucky. The only question is whether or not they’ll fold in the second half of the season or work hard enough to get their shot at a trophy.