Most of you have not finalized your plans for the TaxSlayer Bowl yet, but it is never too early to start looking ahead to the 2017 Kentucky Wildcats football season. And in taking a first glance at the schedule, next year is going to be a very manageable season for the Wildcats to get to another bowl and to even ... make a run at the SEC East title.
Granted, a lot can happen between now and next season. Boom Williams may leave. Eddie Gran is mentioned as a candidate for various head-coaching jobs, and we have yet to close the book on this recruiting season. This is just a first glance at the 2017 season and my gut feelings on it. It’s not a firm prediction, but more of a "Here is what could happen" look, so don’t take it too literally.
In looking at the schedule, the first big takeaway is that Kentucky gets a huge break in their Western division scheduling. Kentucky gets a huge scheduling break here and ends up with the bottom two teams in the West in 5-7 Mississippi State and Ole Miss. The Wildcats will travel to Starkville and will welcome the Rebels to Lexington. The Wildcats should break even here at the very least, and have a good shot to go 2-0 against the Mississippi schools.
Looking at the rest of the SEC schedule, it is pretty favorable as well. Florida, Missouri, and Tennessee travel to Lexington, and you have to think Kentucky has a realistic shot at going 2-1, if not 3-0 against these teams. The Cats beat Missouri last year, and the other two games will be very intriguing.
If Kentucky is going to have the breakthrough season, they have to win one of the games against Florida or Tennessee. It seems that Florida has been seemingly vulnerable for a while, but that long streak is a dark cloud looming. Tennessee is starting to look vulnerable at this point as well, and this could be a popular choice for Kentucky to knock off the Vols. No matter how you look at it, the SEC East Title will run through Lexington in 2017.
For the first time in seemingly ever, the SEC road games are not a true nightmare, and there is no guaranteed loss on the road. Kentucky has beaten South Carolina three years in a row, but the Gamecocks are much improved since the last time they played. Kentucky also travels to Vanderbilt and even though the Commodores are improved, this is also a winnable game. The last SEC road game is Georgia, and the Wildcats should have beaten the Bulldogs this year. It is not inconceivable to see Kentucky going 2-1 against these teams, if not 3-0.
So let's take a firm stand and have some early predictions. Looking at the home SEC schedule, I have Kentucky beating Florida, Missouri, Ole Miss, and losing to Tennessee. On the road, Kentucky will knock off Vanderbilt and South Carolina. I'm going to give them another win against Mississippi State and have them losing to Georgia. That would give UK a 6-2 SEC schedule and in the running for the East title. Seeing I have UK losing to Tennessee and Georgia, I'm going to pick a second place finish in the East. But the potential to win the East is there.
Now, let's look at the out of conference games. While Kentucky has to travel to South Mississippi, this should be a game that Kentucky wins. The Cats have a motive for revenge, and Nick Mullens will not be the quarterback for the Golden Eagles. Look for easy wins over Eastern Michigan and Eastern Kentucky.
And then it all comes down to Louisville.
By my math, Kentucky will be 9-2. Even with a slipup, they are 8-3 and they have the Cardinals headed into Commonwealth for another dogfight. Unfortunately, Lamar Jackson will still be there, but the majority of this Kentucky team returns as well.
Is it just a dream? Am I being overly optimistic? Is there a possibility at a 10-2 season in the Cards? I'm going to be the usual pessimistic Kentucky fan and say there is one slipup but the possibility of a ten win season is very real.