A rebuild towards the end of its arc - one way or the other - enters 2016 with high stakes and slim margins. This campaign serves as Mark Stoops' fourth year at the helm in Lexington, and has been the season long targeted for programmatic redemption.
Maybe the team was lucky to have won five games in 2014. Maybe the team was unlucky to only win five games in 2015. No matter. The 2016 season is where the Stoops regime finally meets its destiny: righteous fortune or life support.
Realistically speaking, any basic progress largely hinges on five games: Southern Mississippi, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Missouri, and Mississippi State. Four of those five games are in Lexington, but those SEC teams have been UK's peer the last two seasons (including two competitive losses in Stoops' first season).
UK has gone 4-2 against these SEC East teams the last two seasons with a total points scored being 136 to 127 in UK's ever-so-slight favor. These have been competitive contests, and going 4-1 in these games practically assures UK a six win season.
If UK goes 3-1 in these games (and 2-1 against these SEC East teams as they have the last two years) the 'Cats will probably have to score an upset at some point to make up lost ground for their bowl hopes. Early candidates attracting the spotlight online include: Georgia and, as ever, Louisville.
These aspirations are both optimistic, but also the bare minimum required in Year Four.
Success in 2016 will depend on both new factors being positive, and old reliable factors continuing to be steady...
Kentucky's offensive staff lost three assistants from last year's dismal offense, including its offensive coordinator. The 2016 team features a new offensive coordinator/running back coach, quarterback coach, and receiver coach. The team went from averaging 29 points per game in 2014 to 24.7 points in 2015. Across the board, these hires all seem like upgrades.
Eddie Gran brings to Lexington a hybrid "pro-style" scheme formally ending the Air Raid Renaissance. Darin Hinshaw will coach the quarterbacks, and hopes to succeed where Shannon Dawson blatantly failed in that position's development. Lamar Thomas will attempt to get the most out of a receiver corps that has one more season to avoid a widespread "underachievers" label.
The fundamental hope is these new coaches provide a systemic jolt to the most athletically gifted offensive personnel UK has ever fielded. This season's success largely hinges on an offensive turnaround.
The skill players remain athletically gifted, the interior offensive line is comprised of grizzled vets, but the offensive tackle depth remains poor. Play-calling will have to scheme to highlight the former attributes while minimizing the latter. Mimicking 2015's offensive predictability would be "completely bonkers" to use technical terms. The hope is the offensive line develops as the season progresses, and UK's skill players stay healthy. If that happens, UK's offense will be improved over last season.
The defense lost a secondary coach to Alabama, and the outside linebacker coach departed to be the defensive coordinator at Maryland. The defense improved from allowing 31 points per game in 2014 to allowing 27 points per game in 2015. Points per game allowed was the only noticeable improvement, but aye, that is the all-important one.
The defense lost six of its top seven tacklers off a statistically unremarkable squad that finished 12th in the SEC in yards per play allowing 5.55 yards, and tied for 12th in scoring defense. In fact, UK ranks 122nd in the country only returning 41.43% of its tackling production. There will be many new faces called up from the reserves. These will be faces with impressive high school careers - but many will be new to unforgiving college competition. Potentially, these are gaping holes. Much will depend on how quickly, if at all, they adjust to being major contributors against SEC competition.
If the front seven will be featuring many new faces, the secondary returns three starters at: boundary corner, nickel, and strong safety. By the end of the season, a true freshman was starting at field corner as well, and a redshirt freshman started several games at the free safety position.
Their work will be cut out for them in pass coverage, because this will be the second preseason in a row without reliable pass-rushing prospects. UK needs at least two pass-rushers, and preferably one comes from the interior. This would make what seems like a slightly above average secondary in a vacuum, much better at its job.
The Special Teams
Kentucky's special teams brings a new coordinator, Matt House, from Florida International. House is not officially listed as coaching special teams last year, but FIU had one of the best special teams units in FBS last season, according to FEI. Let's hope he was part of the reason. House will also coach the inside linebackers moving defensive coordinator DJ Eliot to outside linebackers.
After having the same punter for four seasons, UK will be breaking in a new one. Additionally, there will be new skill players hoping to make a difference in the return game. Hopefully new bodies and a new special teams coordinator don't disrupt the progress UK made in terms of its kick-off and punt coverage units last season.
Austin MacGinnis is the best damn place kicker in the SEC. He's going to be three-and-done. I'm joking - sorta.
This season is extremely important, and the schedule may help counter to the lamentations from last winter. UK will have fewer home games relative to 2015, but the home games in 2016 would appear to be against UK's weakest competition.
The offense and secondary must ally to buy development time for what may well be the team's soft underbelly at the defensive line and linebacker positions. The offense needs to chew clock and yardage both during games, but especially the first half of the season as the front seven figures itself out; meanwhile, the secondary needs to pick up some of the slack by forcing turnovers, tackling in space, and preventing big plays.
The stakes are high. Another 5-7 season would very likely wreak havoc on the 2017 signing class, and probably the 2018 class too as Stoops' hot seat bakes for an entire off-season. Furthermore, another third 5-7 season in a mediocre SEC East becomes increasingly unacceptable as Stoops has flipped the roster, and his signature 2014 signing become upperclassmen. Questions of player development will justifiably be floated.
A lot hinges on a revamped offense, a defense that at least holds steady, and also MacGinnis staying healthy. The mid-tier of the SEC East is there for the taking. Will the opportunity be seized?
ASoB will preview each positional unit for the next few weeks - probably publishing them on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Stay tuned for Thursday.