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2021 SEC Football Season Preview: Kentucky Wildcats

Kentucky took a step backward in the shortened 2020 season. Will 2021 fare any different for the Cats?

TaxSlayer Gator Bowl - North Carolina State v Kentucky Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

2020 at a Glance

Record: 5-6
SRS: 6.12
SOS: 6.94

2021 Schedule

(All times are Eastern)

9/4: ULM (Noon, SEC Network)
9/11: Mizzou (7:30 p.m., SEC Network)
9/18: Chattanooga (Noon, ESPN+/SEC Network+)
9/25: at South Carolina Gamecocks
10/2: Florida Gators
10/9: LSU Tigers
10/16: at Georgia Bulldogs
10/30: at Mississippi State Bulldogs
11/6: Tennessee Volunteers
11/13: at Vanderbilt Commodores
11/20: New Mexico State
11/27: at Louisville Cardinals

Overview

Under Mark Stoops, Kentucky had been enjoying a lot of continual achievement. Relatively speaking, UK had rarely seen year-over-year success since the tail end of the Rich Brooks era. Stoops led UK to four straight winning seasons from 2016-19, including a rare 10-win season in 2018. They were ranked as high as 11th in the AP Poll and finished the year ranked 12th. Those types of things just don’t happen at Kentucky.

Perhaps that’s what makes last year’s 5-6 finish a bit of a surprise. The Wildcats hadn’t finished under .500 since 2015 when they went 5-7. The team certainly had a tougher schedule than lately, but that was mostly due to the nature of last year’s abbreviated season.

So are we to throw that out because of the situation? Or is this a sign of things to come? The answers to those questions will likely come this year. We do know that Kentucky’s defense is pretty rich with experience. It’s a senior-laden squad led by Josh Paschal on the front line, and then Yusuf Corker in the secondary. Offensively, running back Chris Rodriguez is the premier player, as is offensive lineman Darian Kinnard, who made the Preseason All-SEC First Team. The quarterback situation is kind of up in the air, but an experience grouped led by redshirt senior Josh Ali should provide whomever’s at QB with plenty of good options to toss the rock to.

Off-field issues are also providing a bit of a myriad of issues for Kentucky. Now, what type of impact the burglary arrests have on this team is yet to really be seen. But they are issues in the present time. If it results in dismissals, then Kentucky may be dealing with a shorter hand than anticipated going into the year. It’s a variable, but it will be something to consider when looking at this team going forward in 2021.

Biggest Questions

1. Who steps up at QB?

Quarterback play at Kentucky has been a strong variable over the last few years, or if you’re willing to take it back this far: Since Andre Woodson was around. Consistency has been the key, and for better or worse, there’s been a lot of square pegs and round holes. I would suspect that whether it’s Will Levis or Liam Coen at QB, they’ll have their work cut out for them at first. The positive side is that the schedule is pretty soft before the Florida game to lead off October. They do face a good Mizzou team, but the game is in Lexington. They’ll have to go to Columbia, South Carolina, but the Gamecocks are dealing with a lot of retooling and issues themselves. Assuming they get their act together by then, going through this schedule may make it a little bit easier for them. For me, the history is a bit too hard to ignore, and thus, quarterbacking on this team remains a bit of a concern.

2. What will we make of this secondary?

Gone from the UK secondary is Kelvin Joseph, who made a serious impact for this team last year (he was the leader in interceptions in the SEC, after all). Granted, UK has the benefit of having a lot of familiar names in the mix still. Yusuf Corker, a third-team Preseason All-SEC selection, is one of the DBs who’ll be leading the charge. Fellow seniors Cedrick Dort Jr., Quandre Mosely, and Tyrell Ajian will be hanging around the block as well. Perhaps the only concern will be sophomore Carrington Valentine, the youngest of the bunch, but he’ll have experience surrounding him. QB play around the SEC is expected to take a bit of a hit this year, and as of now if I were UK, I would probably only worry about J.T. Daniels and Emory Jones. But we’ll see if they are able to hold to the standard that they were able to get to these past few years.

3. Can Chris Rodriguez be the bell cow?

Kentucky has done a good job the past few years of having a stout running game. Chris Rodriguez figures to be next in line to attempt to make that happen. Last year, he had 785 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground. All the while, he averaged 6.6 yards per carry, giving himself quite a solid season amid so much mess that occurred a year ago. In what will be his third full season taking carries for the Wildcats, Rodriguez should figure to have a good season again. The only thing that may stop him is defensive attention, but if trends are to be continued, then Rodriguez could be poised for another strong effort.

Projection

There’s optimism for this team to have a bounceback season. That optimism is compounded by the fact that their home schedule greatly favors them. That they host Mizzou, LSU, and Florida is a big-time benefit for them. A 4-0 start for this team isn’t really out of the question due to the nature of their schedule. For me, I think the team finishes at 8-4 and behind UF and Georgia. I don’t think they’re quite on the level of those teams, but I do think that they are at a level where they can be ahead of everyone in the SEC East right now. A bowl win would give them nine wins, and such a season would be enough to keep things very even-keeled in Lexington right now.