After enduring two seasons of 5-7 records, the Kentucky Wildcats broke through with a 7-5 regular season that culminated in their first bowl game under Mark Stoops.
While this was the season many Cats fans had been hoping for, Stoops and his players aren’t satisfied with stopping there. Talk after the Blue-White game was of fighting for a SEC Championship and national title. For the LTSUKFF (Long Time Suffering UK Football Fan), this seems to be a whopper of ideas that are far fetched.
Looking ahead to the 2017 season, maybe this isn’t the craziest thought process out there. Let's look at some of the best-case scenarios for the Cats this year. Later, we’ll check on the worst case.
The reason for optimism starts with the layout and teams throughout the schedule. The condensed version is this: The best teams UK will face are coming to Kroger Field, save one. The big rivals of Florida, Tennessee, and Louisville come to Big Blue Nation. Southern Miss is a revenge game on the road, and Mississippi State is historically tough. Indeed it appears that Georgia may be the only roadblock between UK and the SEC East title.
By placing an emphasis on a strong O-Line in his first 4 seasons, Stoops and his staff have assembled arguably the best O-Line in the entire conference. While losing Jon Toth is a big blow, there are players waiting on deck to take his place.
Drake Jackson was the top rated center coming out of high school, and Toth’s play allowed Jackson to redshirt his freshman year. Bunchy Stallings spent last year banging heads as a guard and has been groomed for the center job as well.
Every other position on the line was a two man rotation, which is rare of any previous Kentucky team. The luxury of being two deep and having all of them, save Toth, returning, puts UK on solid ground.
This leads to the success of the playmakers that Stoops and Eddie Gran have assembled. Stephen Johnson settled down with each game and made himself a star at UofL. All he seems to do is win. Correcting early fumbles and improved accuracy led to bigger scoreboard numbers.
This, in turn, opens up the field for UK’s version of a sledgehammer, Benny Snell. For someone that didn’t play the first two weeks of the season, Snell was a stud for the Cats once he cracked the lineup. Pairing him with A.J. Rose and Sihiem King, Snell looks to have an even bigger 2017 season in his sights.
C.J. Conrad and a host of different WR should reek havoc on opposing defenses this year. The Cats receiving core, along with the punishing O-Line, Johnson’s leadership, and Snell’s group of running backs, could potentially light up the scoreboard.
No Fly Zone
The Cats return one of the best linebackers in the SEC. Jordan Jones led the entire league with 109 tackles in 2016. Paired up with Courtney Love, Jones is free to pound people into the ground. Denzil Ware and Josh Allen are beasts on the outside of Kentucky’s 4-3 scheme. This intense group filters opposing teams into the strength of UK’s defense, the secondary.
Derrick Baity, Darius West, Mike Edwards, and Chris Westry not only cover the field well, they punish those who enter it. Edwards was second on the team with 100 tackles and led the Cats with three interceptions. With all four players being juniors, they not only possess talent, but also experience. Don’t look for many big plays going over the heads of UK’s four headed monster.
It’s not inconceivable that UK can start the season off 6-0. By ending the drought against Florida, the Cats could be headed to Starkville to face the Bulldogs with a perfect record on the line. With Kentucky having a clock control offense, and an improving defense, this could be the year they gather steam as they roll downhill.
This may seem like an overly optimistic view, but not totally out of the woods. If the Cats maintain last season's momentum and garner a break here and there, the Cats first trip to Atlanta as SEC East Champions could be within reach.
I believe the Cats will win a game or two that they shouldn’t, and drop one that they should win, but today it’s all about the Best Case. With that in mind, UK’s final regular-season record will be 11-1.
Return later where we’ll have the completely opposite point of view, and one that has been par for the course over the years of the LTSUKFF.