Finally, college football is back in the Bluegrass!
Saturday night marks the first game of Year 4 in the Mark Stoops era, which has the potential to be the best of his tenure. Thanks to a revamped offense that returns nearly everyone from last year's squad, this should be a team that can go toe-to-toe with the majority of teams on their schedule
However, major questions on defense and Drew Barker still being unproven as a starting QB have many wondering if this is the team to break through into the postseason. Ahead of UK's season opener against Southern Miss, we gathered our staff for their thoughts on how the 2016 season would play out for Kentucky Football.
Jords: I'm optimistic every year but this year, I'm particularly excited. Our running backs are outstanding, we have a QB who's position was never in doubt, and we have a staff I'm over the moon about. (Sorry, Shannon Dawson, I was never a fan.)
And most of all, we have young recruits who have grown up under Mark Stoops' leadership, who are all too aware of how tough it is to win in this conference, and exactly how many eyes are on Kentucky this year. They want to win; they want to silence the doubters, and more than anything they want to shut up every voice who's ever said Kentucky can't compete in football.
My predictions: Southern Miss - Cats win 21-14. It's a knock down, drag-out fight right to the final minute, when Boom does something crazy for the W.
Florida - Cats lose 17-28. The albatross remains firmly in place around Kentucky's neck for yet another year, and even Coleridge is impressed at this point.
New Mexico State: Cats win 32-7. Congrats, all ye who root for the Lobos, you are definitely the most masochistic fans in college football. No bowl game since Eisenhower was in office? That is an impressive albeit painful record.
South Carolina: Cats win 14-9. Muschamp loses his mind a little more on the sidelines, and the SEC Network talks about it for a week straight. (The mental collapse, not the game. Get real; we play in the SEC EAST for God's sake.)
Alabama: The Cats lose horribly (6-54) but live to play another day. Let's hear it for moral victories!
Vanderbilt: Cats win 54-6, because revenge (and symmetry) is awesome that way.
Mississippi State: Cats pull off a stunning upset, winning 21-20 because Special Teams are funny like that.
Missouri: Cats lose 9-21, and the comments section spends an enormous amount of time complaining about the camera angles at Memorial Stadium. Again.
Georgia: Cats lose 21-34 but at least Kirby Smart is thoughtful enough not to run up the score too terribly. Saban grumbles about how his apprentices lack that killer instinct, then wanders off to refill his ever-freeze tank, angry at having shown something as common as human emotion.
Tennessee: Cats go down nobly and in agony (21-24) to the sound of that infernal song YET AGAIN. Panic ensues as every hater screams about another end of season collapse.
Bourbon prices escalate to the point that even Mylan thinks they've gotten out of hand, and start handing out free Epi-Pens en masse.
Austin Peay: The Cats earn both bowl eligibility (Wahoo!) and the reinstatement of their mojo by annihilating the Governors 49-7. Bourbon prices double as the Big Blue Nation goes on a giant bender in celebration. State Street lights itself on fire to save the student body the effort.
Louisville: Cats take the field cocky as hell and stun the plague of Jefferson County with an improbable 28-21 win at PJS. Petrino says foul things and no one is terribly surprised.
The National AutoParts/LittleCaesar's Chicken Bowl of North Central Western Alabama: Kentucky beats Pittsburgh by 7. The ACC shows it on their streaming mobile "channel" and mutters something about basketball and Christian Laettner.
Bourbon prices double again because SEC basketball has begun and Johnny Jones managed to look even more clueless than usual on national television. Cal once again denies rumors he's going to the NBA, at one point banging the microphone at his press conference against the table and asking "Is this thing even ON???"
Ahh, the life of a Kentucky fan!
Bryan Kennedy: Football is back. Thank God. That also means another season of expectations met or unmet for the Kentucky Wildcat football team. For a full breakdown of how I think the season ends up, you can check out a full game-by-game breakdown here.
In short, I see UK finishing 7-5. The for sure losses are Alabama, UGA, Tennessee and UofL (Four).
For sure wins are New Mexico State, Austin Peay and Vandy (Three). That leaves USM MSU, SC, Mizzou and Florida as swing games. They could go either way. I think UK goes 4-1 in these games losing only to Florida. Yes, I know that's uber optimistic. Deal with it.
At the end of the day, the success or lack thereof for this season mostly rides on the shoulders or arm of Drew Barker. Barker holds the key. The season opener against Southern Miss will set the tone for Barker and the Wildcats' season.
Win, and you're rolling with confidence into a game that can go either way in the Swamp. Lose and you're likely losing to UF as well and headed home for a gimme win against New Mexico State.
Will Marshall: I said last week my prediction is a 6-6 record. Allow to me expound. I've long said UK was a bit lucky to win five games in 2014, and a bit unlucky to only win five games in 2015. After writing this post, I think UK was actually a deserved five-win team in 2015 (being unlucky against Vandy was canceled out by being lucky against EKU). So, what we have is steady progress if not painfully incremental.
This rate of progress partly tempers my enthusiasm for 2016 and prevents a 7-5 prediction. I wrote in March I was optimistic about this team, and I certainly stand by that, this will almost certainly be Mark Stoops' best team in Lexington; however, unlike last year I won't assume a new offensive coordinator will automatically jump start an offense that has inherent weapons.
I also was not impressed with the front seven in the two (anecdotal!) occasions I watched them in the spring. They could be average by the end of the season, but need to be average throughout for UK to pickup a road win at a place like Missouri or beat tough teams like Georgia and Mississippi State.
On the plus side, this will be a good six win team. If last year's team squeaked its way to six wins, it would have just gotten dusted in a bowl game. And this team better make a bowl game! As I wrote in March, the SEC East is mediocre and has been for a while.
If Stoops can't get this, his most experienced and talented squad to date, to beat the likes of Missouri, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt (4-2 against them the last two years) then this program is treading water with him at the helm. Forever fighting tooth and nail to get to the six-win plateau despite better recruiting than Missouri and Vanderbilt most years.
He won't get fired due to contractual issues, which is fine, but the program won't be a Top 25 program with him at the helm. I have lofty standards.
Jamie Boggs: I am not saying that Kentucky will never get over the hump and become a successful football program. I am not even saying that it will not happen this year. However, I will need to see some results before I commit to such a prediction. At this point, I feel like we have heard all of this before.
"Stoops finally has a roster full of his guys."
"Drew Barker (or Patrick Towles or Maxwell Smith) has made major strides this summer and is ready to be the man."
"Eddie Gran (or Shannon Dawson or Neal Brown) knows how to put points on the board."
"There is a different feel in the locker room this fall."
"This is the year."
When you combine the heightened expectations with the unfortunately difficult schedule the Cats have in front of them, I have a hard time believing that "this is the year" until I see a 6 or 7 in the win column. In being optimistic, I see the season going down like this:
Wins: Southern Miss., New Mexico State, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Missouri, Austin Peay
Losses: Florida, Alabama, Mississippi State, Georgia, Tennessee, Louisville
Southern Miss and Vanderbilt are, by no means, gimme games. One or both of those could turn into losses. Could the Cats upset Mississippi State or Louisville? It's possible, but not likely.
I think this team tops out at six wins. That does send them to a bowl game, and it is definitely a step in the right direction. But I do not see this season ending with a "we have arrived" feeling for Cats fans.
Brad Martinez: I'm more of a football fan than an analyst, but I see a team whose strengths and weaknesses, if quantified, basically cancel each other out. Therefore, I'm just going to go with a .500 tally -- 6-6. I think the 'Cats will win the five games I expect them to be favored in (vs. USM, vs. NMSU, vs. USC, vs. Vandy, and vs. Austin Peay) and steal either a home win against Mississippi State or a road win at Missouri.
For the second year in a row, I'm predicting a legitimate breakthrough year for WR Garrett Johnson. I also think C Jon Toth will anchor the OL well enough to be a mid-round NFL Draft selection next year, and LB/DE Denzil Ware puts the foundation together for an All-SEC campaign in 2017. Further, I wouldn't be surprised if the first-team JuCo DL (Courtney Miggins and Alvonte Bell) perform better than people are expecting. Finally, my favorite 'Cat to watch will be CB Chris Westry (another future pro) again.
Zac Oakes: So here's my game-to-game prediction, which has about a 0.01 percent chance of being completely accurate, but here it goes.
Southern Miss: W I'm expecting a lot of points in this one, but the Cats pull out the victory to start the season. The defense will be tested pretty extensively in the season opener.
@Florida: L I just don't like the idea of Drew Barker's first career road start coming in the Swamp against a talented and super athletic Gators defense. I expect another close game, but Kentucky falls just short again. 30 years. Sigh...
New Mexico St: W A feel-good win where the team gets back on track and gains some confidence.
South Carolina: W Kentucky makes it three in a row versus the Gamecocks. Will Muschamp has South Carolina on the right track, but Spurrier didn't leave much for him to work with.
@Alabama: L I'm hoping the Cats keep it close, but Kentucky just isn't on the same level as the Tide. Hopefully, they don't dwell on this game.
Vanderbilt: W This is really a toss-up game. Kentucky SHOULD HAVE won last year in Nashville, but failed to execute on the goal line. Although Vandy should be better offensively this season, I still like the Cats in this one.
Mississippi State: L Another toss-up game and arguably one of the most important games on the schedule. The game is at Commonwealth Stadium, and the Bulldogs are down this year after losing Dak Prescott and a host of other talented seniors. All the ingredients are there for Kentucky to pull off a big win at home against a solid conference opponent, but I'm not sold yet. This is a game where I wouldn't be surprised to see it go the other way.
@Missouri: W This game will come down to Kentucky's O-line against Missouri's D-line. Charles Johnson caused problems against the Wildcats last year, and he will look to do the same again this year. If Kentucky can keep Drew Barker on his feet, I think Kentucky escapes out of Columbia with a win.
Georgia: L If the Georgia running backs (Nick Chubb and Sony Michel) stay healthy-and that's a big if- Georgia wins this game. If the running backs continue to have injury issues and true freshman quarterback Jacob Eason has to lead an offense with few established playmakers, Kentucky has a chance. Otherwise, Chubb and Michel will give the Wildcats defense fits.
@Tennessee: L As bad as I would love to see a victory in Neyland, I don't see any way it happens minus some crazy circumstances. The Vols have playmakers at each level of their defense and Josh Dobbs and Jalen Hurd lead a potent offense. Kentucky will need to regroup and focus on the next two weeks following this game.
Austin Peay: W This should be an easy victory for the Wildcats, and if the season were to come out like I have predicted, this would be the Wildcats' sixth win. I think that is what most fans are looking for this year. Ideally, Kentucky would love to have that sixth win wrapped up before going on the road for the final game of the regular season.
@Louisville: L I want so badly to mark this a win. It nearly makes me sick noting that game as a loss. Maybe Kentucky has learned how to stop a running quarterback this offseason with Stephen Johnson in the fold as the second-string quarterback, but I'm not holding my breath. I really hope I'm wrong on this pick.
There are plenty of reasons for optimism for this season: talent and depth at the skill positions, a more experienced and deep offensive line, new coaches, a secondary that is one of the best at UK in a while, and winnable home games.
There are also reasons for concern: Inexperience at the QB position, lack of depth and inexperience at defensive line and linebacker, uncertainty with special teams, and an overall more difficult schedule.
My final prediction is 6-6, and the Wildcats finally return to a bowl game. While it's not a major improvement, it gives Kentucky some much-needed momentum in recruiting and on the field as well.
James Streble: Before I pontificate a bit, here are my predictions for the season:
vs. Southern Mississippi- W
at Florida- L
vs. New Mexico State- W
vs. South Carolina- W
at. Alabama- L
vs. Vanderbilt- W
vs. Mississippi State- L
at Missouri- W
vs. Georgia- L
at. Tennessee- L
vs. Austin Peay- W
at. Louisville- L
With a mark of 6-6, the ‘Cats will go bowling. I have them winning in every game they should be favored to win with no upsets over teams they should be favored to lose to this season. The combination of South Carolina, Missouri, Vanderbilt, and Mississippi State are the most winnable games on the SEC schedule. They cannot afford to go 2-2 without having to upset Louisville, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, or Florida in order to qualify for a bowl bid.
The Florida and Georgia games are not impossible to win by any stretch of the imagination. Both teams have big time issues at quarterback and on offense overall. But the talent/depth gap is still there, so it’s still going to be tough to knock either team off.
Alabama, Tennessee, and Louisville are three games in which I don’t see any scenario winning. All three are on the road, and all three are against teams that figure to be in the top 25 when the ‘Cats play them. The Tide and the Vols are going to be the class of their respective divisions while Louisville is just better right now, no two ways about it.
The other three games on the schedule are considered the "gimme games." Southern Miss is going to be a great test for the ‘Cats on opening day, but Austin Peay and New Mexico State should be blowouts.
I talked myself into six wins, but I cannot go past that. Until Mark Stoops and his staff and prove to me they are capable of putting together solid game plans on both sides of the ball, I can’t go too overboard on my predictions.