I will go ahead and admit it; last season I bought into the hype... hook, line, and sinker. I drank the Kool-Aid; I thought the 2014 Kentucky Football Wildcats were going to win seven games and shock everyone. I rationalized stretch possibilities because I so badly wanted it to happen.
I incorporated emotion instead of rationale, but in my defense, we were a delay of game penalty (Florida) and a dropped interception (Louisville) away from going 7-5... so maybe predicting seven wins was not that far fetched.
This season I have adjusted my blue tint, I have fought urges to make decisions based on hating a certain team and I have come up with a fair assessment of the coming season, in my opinion. In fairness though, my opinion is probably worth exactly what you paid to get it.
I like the Wildcats to go 7-5 in the regular season and head to a solid bowl for all of Big Blue Nation to rejoice and remember the fun that used to be reserved for the Rich Brooks era.
I will cover the game-by-game prediction a little later but the biggest point is that I feel strongly that this group is somehow getting to seven wins for the debut of the new Commonwealth Stadium.
I am sure you are wondering how it is that we are going to improve our win total by 40% in the nightmarish SEC; this is how I believe we will be able to make that jump:
The Quarterback Position
Patrick Towles is coming into his junior season with a year's worth of SEC successes and failures under his belt. The jump he has made from this time last season to now should be exponential. Add to that, he now has some real competition behind him, last year it was pretty much Patrick or bust.
I am not saying Towles knew he would not lose his job and may have gotten complacent, but I am saying that competition breeds excellence. Drew Barker is likely chomping at the bit to prove that it is his time in Lexington and I would imagine Towles is feeling every puff of breath on his neck.
Last season Kentucky supposedly had a stable of running backs from which to choose. While the talent was there in the form of JoJo Kemp, Braylon Heard, Josh Clemons, Mikel Horton, and Stanley Williams, the fact of the matter is nobody was able to separate himself as the man of the backfield. In fact, the leading rusher was Quarterback Patrick Towles.
This season it is not a question as to who is the man leading our backfield. Stanley "Boom" Williams will likely be the first two downs back and likely be in on third down quite a bit. Williams was one of the most explosive runners in the SEC last season, being the feature back this year will only enhance his potential Sportscenter Top 10s.
I firmly believe that UK will benefit greatly from two things; 1) Boom Williams being a year older and stronger, and 2) knowing whom the feature back is from day 1. I think there certainly needs to be balance and more than one good running back, but I think it hurt the running game last year with the perpetual revolving door.
This group may be the most improved over last season, even though DeMarco Robinson and Javess Blue have graduated. A healthy Ryan Timmons leading a group of Alex Montgomery, Jeff Badet, Garrett Johnson, Blake Bone, Dorian Baker, T.V. Williams, and Thaddeus Snodgrass is as deep and talented of a core of ball catchers as UK has seen in years.
The biggest upgrade to the receiving corps is undoubtedly freshman C.J. Conrad. Conrad is a 4-star tight end who turned down Ohio State and enrolled early at UK. Conrad made waves in the spring and looks to be our most dangerous weapon at the position since a guy named Jacob Tamme.
The Offensive Line
The big uglies up front return mostly intact from last season. While the loss of Darrian Miller will hurt, the ‘Cats have a plethora of strong young talent coming off redshirts that will more than make up for the loss. The line will be anchored by junior Center Jon Toth. Toth is already considered one of the best centers in America and under his leadership; this season should be one of strength for this unit.
The Defensive Line
Kentucky has big shoes to fill in with the loss of Za'Darius Smith, but they have a strong candidate in Senior Farington Huguenin. Huguenin had a strong spring and look for him to step right in and not miss much of a beat. The rest of the line will be strong and deep in the form of Melvin Lewis, Matt Elam, CJ Johnson, and Reggie Meant. Even with the loss of Big Z, the D-line should be improved and deep.
The Second Tier
No question, losing Bud Dupree is going to sting in this area, which is understood. However, Jason Hatcher and redshirt freshman Denzel Ware are both SEC level talents that will soften the blow significantly. Josh Forrest and his 110 tackles are back in the middle for UK as well.
I think we will hear so much about Forrest during games that the phrase "Did you know Josh Forrest is a converted wide receiver!" to be the new version of "Did you know Willie Cauley-Stein played wide receiver in high school!" for 2015.
Alongside Forrest is most likely going to be Ryan Flannigan. Flannigan really came on late last season (only Forrest and Dupree had more tackles in the final two games) and could have a similar impact as the 2014 version of Josh Forrest. Kentucky also has some talented redshirt freshman mixed in with veteran backups to make the position deeper than it has been in years.
The Defensive Backfield
The secondary is going to be strong in 2 out of 3 areas for sure... but the third one could be a real killer. I LOVE our safeties this season; we have senior A.J. Stamps returning along with uber-talented redshirt freshmen Mike Edwards and Darius West to go with veteran Marcus McWilson.
The nickleback position should be strong as well with sophomore Kendall Randolph and junior Blake McClain reprising their roles from last season.
The cornerback positions are where it gets dicey for the ‘Cats. They have everyone returning from last season, but just because you are a year older does not correlate to a year better.
I think you will end up seeing seniors Cody Quinn and Fred Tiller supplanted by the youthful talent behind them. My concern is the in-between transition of that happening plus the learning curve of being a corner in the SEC could spell problems for D.J. Eliot and crew.
This is an easy unit to predict success; you have senior Landon Foster returning for the punting duties and sophomore Austin MacGinnis for the kicking duties. Foster has the ability to be one of the conference's best at his position with confidence and consistency.
I think Austin MacGinnis will end up as the all-time great kicker at UK before he leaves. Last season, as a freshman, he hit 21 out of 27 field goals and made several 50+ yarders. MacGinnis was also named first team All-SEC by the Associated Press and the coaches last season.
It is refreshing to have a kicker that gives you the confidence to know that if you get to the 35-yard line you have a great chance of scoring points on that possession.
Watch former Prattville star Austin MacGinnis kick school-record 54-yard field goal for Kentucky http://t.co/inyGht5mfc— KeithGarrett (@_KeithGarrett) July 4, 2015
Here is how I think the season will play out, if I am right we are in for one heck of a rollercoaster. Two separate 3-game winning streaks with a 4-game losing streak sandwiched in the middle is enough to turn your hair grey.
I initially looked at the games independent of where they fell on the schedule and I will admit, I now have reservations about my picks. However, the 2014 ‘Cats did win 5 out 6 before losing six straight so maybe we are a team of streaks.
I do believe there are a few games that are interchangeable to get to seven wins. We could just as easily win at South Carolina as lose to Missouri at home. We could end up upsetting the Vols in Lexington but losing the finale to Louisville.
We could even lose at home to Florida for the 28th season in a row, and then end up riding the electric atmosphere to an improbable win over Auburn on that Thursday night extravaganza.
If you were to put each game into a tier ranking of winnable or not games, I think it would go something like this:
No Matter how it happens, I think the Big Blue Nation is in for a fun year of football that extends through December. The unveiling of the New Commonwealth stadium and being a year closer to SEC depth to go along with its SEC talent should make for a great 2015, Enjoy.