2019 SEASON PREVIEW — KENTUCKY
2018 Win-Loss Record: 10-3 (5-3 SEC)
2018 S&P+ Rankings: 25th (Overall), 64th (Offense), 15th (Defense)
Look at the Kentucky Wildcats!
Long relegated to a basketball school and an SEC punching bag, Mark Stoops’ bunch won 10 games last season for the first time since 1977, picked up a bowl win for the first time in a decade, and had a shot at the SEC East championship all the way into early November. It was an astonishingly successful season for the Wildcats.
Will they be able to keep that going this year?
Well... let’s take a look.
A big part of Kentucky’s success on offense the past couple years has been related to running back Benny Snell. Snell recorded three straight 1,000 yard seasons, double-digit touchdowns each season (including an SEC-best 19 in 2017), and he led the conference in rushing attempts last season with 289. Snell was a focal point in Kentucky’s offense from the second he stepped on the field.
And now, as you probably already know, he’s gone. Snell forewent his senior season in favor of the NFL, where he was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Who will pick up the carries Snell leaves behind? That’s the big question for Stoops to figure out. Kentucky’s second-leading rusher last season was quarterback Terry Wilson. Wilson will likely continue to run the ball with some frequency this season, but speaking strictly about running backs, AJ Rose (71 carries, 442 yards, 5 TDs in 2018) will likely get the brunt of the work, but Stoops also spoke highly of Kavosley Smoke and Chris Rodriguez last week.
As is so often the case in college football, it will likely be a split backfield. Rose will get most of the work, but, with nearly 300 carries up for grabs with Snell’s departure, Kentucky will be utilizing all their assets.
The departure of Snell as the offense’s focal point means one other thing: Terry Wilson will need to take the next step in his development.
Wilson’s first year at Kentucky was fairly up-and-down, as he had 11 touchdowns and eight interceptions, though he recorded an additional four rushing touchdowns. With Snell doing so much for the offense, Wilson was in more of a game manager role where he didn’t have to win games with his arm. That likely won’t be the case in his second season.
Could Wilson break out this year? Pro Football Focus seems to think so. They ranked him #46 of 129 quarterbacks in the nation, putting him in the upper 35% of signal callers.
Wide receiver Lynn Bowden returns for his junior season after a strong sophomore campaign with a team-high 67 catches and 745 yards. He also had two punt return touchdowns. The speedster adds a dynamic to Kentucky’s offense, as you never know when he could break off a big play.
While UK’s offense could struggle to find itself early in the season, if things start to click, they certainly have the pieces necessary to reach a fourth straight bowl game.
The offense, however, likely won’t be the team’s biggest X-Factor.
Unanimous All-American. Bednarik Award. Lott Trophy. Nagurski Trophy. SEC Defensive Player of the Year. SEC single-season record 17 sacks.
By now you’re figured out these accolades all belong to Wildcats linebacker Josh Allen, all attained in the 2018 season. Allen’s final year at Kentucky was clearly one for the ages, as he was off-the-charts good and became Kentucky’s first top 10 NFL Draft pick since DeWayne Robertson went fourth in 2003.
Just as was the case mentioned above with Kentucky’s offense, the Wildcats lost their best defensive player in Allen.
It goes without saying that nobody on the current roster will be able to single-handedly replace the generational talent in Allen, but can the Wildcats at least maximize their remaining pieces to make the loss less severe? That’s the big question.
The answer? Probably not. Linebacker Kash Daniel was the only Kentucky player on any of the preseason All-SEC defensive teams, and he was on the third team. Daniel had 84 tackles last season (7.5 TFLs), which is most among returning Wildcats.
Linebacker Jamar Watson also returns and looks to build upon a five sack sophomore season.
It will be an uphill battle for Kentucky’s defense this season, though.
2019 Kentucky Wildcats Football Schedule
|4||@ Mississippi St|
|5||@ South Carolina|
Much of this preview has been focused on the fact that Kentucky lost their two best players, but it’s also worth pointing out that, for the most part, the rest of the SEC East either stayed good or got better. Tennessee and Arkansas are wild cards and Vanderbilt is bad, but Georgia is Georgia, Florida is Florida, South Carolina returns a lot of talent, and Missouri improved. Kentucky went 3-1 against those four teams last season.
The Wildcats likely won’t lose a nonconference game in 2019. The schedule is easy enough that they can roll through. That means they need just two SEC wins to make it to a bowl game. As noted, Tennessee and Arkansas are wild cards, but I think Kentucky can beat at least one of them to go along with a win over Vanderbilt and finish the season 6-6.
Prediction: 6-6 (2-6 SEC)