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2017 SEC Football Season Preview: Kentucky Wildcats

Mark Stoops and the Wildcats are out to prove UK isn’t just a basketball school.

Kentucky v Louisville Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Head coach: Mark Stoops (19-30, 8-24 in SEC play. Entering fifth season, all with Kentucky)

2016 record: 7-6 (4-4 in SEC play)

Bowl result: 33-18 loss to Georgia Tech in the TaxSlayer Bowl

Key returnees: LB Josh Allen, CB Derrick Baity Jr. WR Dorian Baker, QB Drew Barker, TE CJ Conrad, S Mike Edwards, OG Nick Haynes, WR Garrett Johnson, QB Stephen Johnson, LB Jordan Jones, LB Courtney Love, K Austin MacGinnis, P Grant McKinniss, OG Kyle Meadows, DT Adrian Middleton, OT Cole Mosier, RB Benny Snell, C Bunchy Stallings, OG Logan Steinberg, DE/LB Denzil Ware, OT Landon Young

Key departures: Jon Toth, Stanley Boom Williams, Jeff Badet, Jojo Kemp and Blake McClain

Key newcomers: WR Lynn Bowden, DE Josh Paschal, WR JaVonte Richardson, CB Yusef Coker


2016 Summary

All in all, 2016 should be looked at as a rousing success for Stoops and the Wildcats. For the first time since their 2010 Compass Bowl appearance, Kentucky compiled a winning record and made an appearance in the TaxSlayer Bowl. Though they fell to Georgia Tech, it was a cherry on top of a good season. However, now that the bowl game drought has been lifted, the goalposts have been moved for the Wildcats. They must make their way back to a bowl this season.

After starting the season with back-to-back losses to Southern Miss (featuring a 35-17 halftime lead going by the wayside thanks to 27 straight points by USM in the second half) and Florida, things looked like they were going to go as usual for the Wildcats.

Things started to turn around in week three, though. After Drew Barker went down with an injury that would ultimately cost him the rest of the season, Stephen Johnson stepped in against New Mexico State and threw for three touchdowns. Benny Snell rushed for four of his own, and the Wildcats pulled out a 62-42 victory.

The rushing attack was on display again the next week as the Wildcats knocked off South Carolina, 17-10. Snell and Boom Williams combined for 196 yards and two touchdowns on 31 carries.

Kentucky faltered the next week in Tuscaloosa, as most teams do, to fall to 2-3 heading into October, a month that would prove most fruitful for the Wildcats. The ground attack got them back to .500 with a 20-13 win over Vanderbilt heading into their bye week.

Then came one of the most entertaining games in all of SEC play last season. The Mississippi State Bulldogs made their way to Lexington sporting a 2-4 record and desperate for a win. Kentucky had lost seven straight games to Mississippi State. The game was an utter shootout, with the Bulldogs holding a 38-37 lead with three seconds to play.

Kentucky kicker Austin MacGinnis entered the game to try and give the Wildcats the win. His challenge? A 51 yard field goal. You already know what happened next.

The next week, Kentucky traveled to Columbia to face the Missouri Tigers. What followed was a Tre Mason in the 2013 SEC Championship Game level thrashing of the Mizzou defense by Snell and Williams. They combined for 374 yards on the ground and three touchdowns to give the Wildcats their fifth win of the year, tying Mark Stoops’ career high for a season.

Kentucky rolled into November by taking losses to Georgia and Tennessee, but a big win over Austin Peay gave the Wildcats bowl eligibility for the first time in six years.

Kentucky v Louisville Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Kentucky v Louisville Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Then came the Louisville game.

Heisman candidate Lamar Jackson was great all game, until he wasn’t. With the game tied at 38 and the Cardinals in the Kentucky red zone, Jackson fumbled and Kentucky’s Courtney Love grabbed it. Stephen Johnson led the Wildcats down the field, and MacGinnis hit a field goal from 47 yards with 12 seconds to play to seal Kentucky’s first win over Louisville in five years.


Key Players

NCAA Football: Austin Peay at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

RB Benny Snell

A huge part of Kentucky’s success last season was its running game, led by Boom Williams and Benny Snell. Each player rushed for over 1000 yards (1170 for Williams, 1091 for Snell) and they combined for 20 touchdowns, with Snell having a 13-7 advantage in that category. While Williams has departed, Snell is back. Perhaps of equal importance, the majority of the offensive line returns, as well.

The offensive line played just as big of a role in the rushing attack as Williams and Snell did, and if they can manage to be the force they were last year, we could see Snell approach Moe Williams’ Kentucky single-season rushing record of 1600 yards. Moe Williams averaged 5.4 yards per carry in his record-setting 1995 season, while Snell averaged 5.9 last season. If Snell gets the bulk of the work this year, as he’s currently projected to do, the record may be in serious jeopardy.

TaxSlayer Bowl - Georgia Tech v Kentucky Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images

QB Stephen Johnson

As mentioned above, Johnson took over when Barker went down with an injury that was ultimately season-ending. Johnson was perfectly fine throwing for 2000 yards and 13 touchdowns with just six interceptions. He didn’t have a single game with more than one interception, and only recorded a completion percentage under 50% twice in 11 starts. Simply put, he’s the type of quarterback who won’t make decisions that lose you the game, but it remains to be seen if he would be able to win you a game on his own. He’s also a running threat if he needs to be, as he was fifth amongst SEC quarterbacks with 327 rushing yards last season. His best performance of the season came in the win over Louisville, where he went 16-27 for 338 passing yards, three passing TDs, and just one interception. He also picked up a season-high 83 yards on the ground. If Johnson could pick up where he left off, the Wildcats will be in good shape this year.

New Mexico State v Kentucky Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

S Mike Edwards

The junior found himself on the preseason third-team All-SEC defense list, and for good reason. He was second on the Wildcats with 100 tackles last season, and tied for the team lead with three interceptions. Our friends at A Sea of Blue wrote in July about how Edwards is becoming a defensive leader for the Wildcats, which you can find below.

New Mexico State v Kentucky Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

LB Jordan Jones

Jones led Kentucky with 109 tackles last season (third in the SEC) and he recorded double-digit tackles in four games, with a season-high 19 coming in the season opener against Southern Miss. Like Edwards, Jones was named to the preseason third-team All-SEC list. He also had nine quarterback hurries (team high) and 15.5 tackles for loss (team high) last season.


Kentucky Wildcats 2017 Schedule

Week Game
Week Game
Week 1 @ Southern Miss
Week 2 Eastern Kentucky
Week 3 @ South Carolina
Week 4 Florida
Week 5 Eastern Michigan
Week 6 Missouri
Week 7 BYE
Week 8 @ Mississippi St.
Week 9 Tennessee
Week 10 Ole Miss
Week 11 @ Vanderbilt
Week 12 @ Georgia
Week 13 Louisville

Worst Case Scenario

4-8

In this scenario, the road tests are too tough, Kentucky falls to an improved Missouri team at home, can’t replicate last year’s magic against Louisville, and loses to Southern Miss to open the season again. It’s not likely that it happens, but that’s why they call it “worst case”.

Best Case Scenario

9-3

Kentucky plays in the SEC East, which means it’s always at least a remote possibility that they could sneak up and grab eight wins, which would be an improvement from last year. Maybe Missouri isn’t as improved as we thought, maybe Florida’s quarterback situation is troublesome, maybe Ole Miss and Mississippi State and Tennessee are average to below average. If you were to ask a team to design an optimal SEC schedule for success, they’d probably not include Alabama, Auburn, or LSU. Guess what? Kentucky doesn’t play any of those three!


Prediction(s)

8-4

The powerful offense rolls along and Snell sets the single-season rushing record. Johnson continues to not turn the ball over while raising his touchdown numbers, and the defense is good enough to keep the Wildcats afloat. They also will avoid the trap against Southern Miss this year and start the season off on the right foot. Additionally, Austin MacGinnis will have another long field goal to win a key game.