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2018 SEC Football Season Preview: Kentucky Wildcats

Year 6 of the Mark Stoops Era is about to commence... so, what do we make of the ‘Cats, exactly?

NCAA Football: Kentucky at Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

We’re about to commence the sixth year of the Mark Stoops Era. After a dismal 2-10 campaign in 2013, the last four seasons for the Kentucky Wildcats have resulted in… essentially, an average mark. The Wildcats are 24-26, with identical 7-6 records the last two seasons, and identical 5-7 records in the two ones before. They have hung around .500, on the plus side and the minus.

Their standing over the last few years probably shouldn’t surprise you, as they’ve been around the middle of the pack. In fact, they’ve been a combined 8-8 over the past two seasons against league opponents. You don’t wanna call it mediocrity for fear of a denigrating term.

But… that’s kind of what it is.

That being said, Kentucky is aiming to make it three bowl appearances in a row. This after a showing in the Gator Bowl in 2016 and the Music City Bowl a season ago. They’ve only pieced together bowl streaks of three or more seasons twice before in program history. The first came back in 1949-51. They had a guy named Bear Bryant on the sideline. He turned out to be alright. The second time was very recently, actually. The Rich Brooks Era of the late 2000s, and the first year of Joker Phillips, saw them go to a program-best five bowl games in a row.

Does UK have the chops to make it three in a row in 2018? Yeah, they might very well. Will they do it is the question that must be asked, so let’s dive in to see what could make or break them.


3 Big Questions

NCAA Football: UC - Davis at Oregon Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

1. How will the new QB situation affect things?

No longer are Stephen Johnson and Drew Barker around in Lexington. Johnson graduated after completing his collegiate career, while Barker opted to leave the game of football earlier this year. So Stoops has some quarterbacks to choose from, but if the depth chart issued out for the opener is any indication, we know who will get the nod from the jump. That’s Terry Wilson, who arrived to town after playing on the JUCO level for a little while after he’d originally been with the Oregon Ducks. The other option was figuring to be Gunnar Hoak, a sophomore who may see the field still if Wilson doesn’t take the ball and run with it.

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

2. Can the defense end their recent slides?

The Wildcats have trended downward defensively over the last few years. That plunge hit a low point a season ago, when they ranked 97th in the country in Defensive S&P+. It was their worst output by a hearty margin since Mark Stoops took over, down big from being in the Top 50 in 2014 and 68th in 2015. It might be a lot to ask for in 2018, considering that their best player, Denzil Ware, has since departed. As have Courtney Love and Eli Brown. But there’s lots of experience around in this unit. Jordan Jones, Josh Allen and Kash Daniel should be patrolling on the linebacker corp. And elsewhere, they have kept most of their defensive line, with the likes of Adrian MIddleton, Calvin Taylor Jr., K.J. Carter and Joshua Paschal aboard. That experience will hopefully be flipped into better numbers this season, because they will certainly need it.

3. Will they get through the meat grinder?

The SEC East is the worser of the two divisions. This is true. But, UK still has a hearty task ahead of them this season. Florida, Mississippi State, South Carolina, Texas A&M, Mizzou, Georgia and Louisville all are beginning the season within the Top 50 of the S&P+ rankings. If you want to get technical with it, Vanderbilt is 7th, and Tennessee and Middle Tennessee are ranked no worse than 83rd (Tennessee is 79th, MTSU is 83rd). There are only two ‘cupcakes’ on the schedule in Central Michigan and Murray State. It will be no easy feat to get through this schedule, but they will absolutely have to make something happen to get back to a bowl game this year.


A Shred of Optimism

NCAA Football: Music Bowl-Kentucky vs Northwestern Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Benny Snell is still here! The celebrated yet underappreciated running back is still kicking in Lexington. A reminder that Snell showed out as a sophomore, rushing for 1,333 yards while picking up 19 touchdowns on the ground. He flashed a little bit of an ability as a pass-catcher, with 10 receptions, but running the ball is what this man’s bread and butter is. He’s set for a big junior season, and will absolutely be the star of this UK team.


Projection

Merely looking at the schedule, you can probably assure Kentucky of two victories: Central Michigan and Murray State. You figure they should take care of Middle Tennessee, so that’s three, and hosting Vanderbilt should result in a victory. So you have four wins,and to be bowl eligible again, they will have to pick off two other teams. Do I think that’s possible? They have some of their toughies at home (South Carolina, Mississippi State and Georgia) but I don’t see them getting wins over the Gamecocks or the Bulldogs (either of them). So that leaves games at at Florida, Texas A&M, Mizzou, Tennessee and Louisville. And so, I could see them picking off Florida and Mizzou and perhaps Tennessee, as well. Thus, I can see a situation where they get 7 wins, but winding up 5-7 wouldn’t surprise me either. Talent-wise, this Kentucky team is fine, but their schedule does them no favors whatsoever.

Prediction: 6-6 (3-5 SEC)