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Kentucky Wildcats Football: Measuring Expectations in 2017

What should UK fans expect from Stoops and Co. after posting the program's first winning season since 2009?

NCAA Football: Kentucky at Louisville
Kentucky Wildcats quarterback Stephen Johnson (15) runs the ball against the Louisville Cardinals during the first quarter at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium. Kentucky defeated Louisville 41-38.
Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Coming off the first winning season of his four-year career, Kentucky Wildcats coach Mark Stoops looks to build off 2016’s momentum with 15 returning starters from last year’s Taxslayer Bowl team and more depth of talent than we’ve seen in a long time at Kentucky.

After narrowly missing the postseason in 2014 and 2015, UK fans needed to see Coach Stoops reach the six-win mark last season. When the Cats lost their home opener to Southern Miss and followed it with a soul-crushing road loss at Florida, six wins appeared to be a long shot for Stoops and company. Fortunately, Kentucky turned it around, finishing 4-4 in SEC play and ending the regular season with a road win at Louisville, making for one of the biggest upsets of the 2016 season. The 7-5 record tied the record for most wins in a UK regular season since 1984.

So, what should fans realistically expect from this football team and its coaching staff?

My take

I’ll be pleased with another 7-5 record, so long as Kentucky is competitive in each and every game, meaning no blowout losses like what we saw against Florida and Tennessee, and no choke jobs like we saw against Southern Miss in 2016. That, in my eyes, is improvement. It would also be nice to win the bowl game to finish 8-5 rather than 7-6.

Finishing 6-6 would feel like regression, considering what I keep hearing about the talent, depth and experience that Kentucky is playing with entering this season. A 6-6 record is not grounds for hitting the panic button on Stoops, but it would be a bit of a disappointment for most fans. Finishing 5-7 would be extremely frustrating, so let’s just say that doesn’t happen for sake of this exercise.

An optimistic, but also realistic goal for Kentucky Football fans in 2017 would be an eight-win regular season, something no Kentucky team has accomplished since Coach Jerry Claiborne’s 1984 Cats went on to win the Hall of Fame Bowl over Wisconsin. Eight wins probably means either Kentucky beats Louisville at home in the season finale, or that Kentucky goes 5-3 in the SEC. Kentucky hasn’t posted a winning record in conference play since 1984, either.

So how do we get there? It won’t be easy. But here is my logical path to eight wins for Kentucky in 2017:

First things first: Revenge in Hattiesburg

Kentucky must avenge last season’s opening loss to Golden Eagles. Southern Miss was inconsistent throughout the rest of its 2016 season and lost 11 (five offensive and six defensive) starters from a year ago. The first road opener for most every player on this UK squad will not be a friendly environment, but M. M. Roberts Stadium in Hattiesburg is no Swamp, either. Southern Miss’ home venue holds about 36,000 fans, which should be nothing compared to most of the SEC road environments Kentucky saw last season. I need to see confidence and poise from the jump. No three-and-outs or offensive turnovers in the first possession. These guys have been there before. Go out and get it done.

1-0.

Win these three home games: EKU, Eastern Michigan, Mizzou

The Cats need to take care of business against lesser opponents in Eastern Kentucky, Eastern Michigan, and Missouri. After defeating Missouri handily on the road last season, the Cats should be able to take care of business at home. The Tigers return 10 starters to their high-powered offense from last season, which could give the Cats defense problems up front. But Mizzou lost five defensive starters from last season, which already had big problems containing the Cats’ run attack as a unit in last year’s meeting.

Win all three of these, plus Southern Miss, and we’re at four wins already.

Extend one streak or end another: Gamecocks or Gators

Kentucky will try to make it four straight wins over South Carolina when it travels to Columbia on September 16. The Gamecocks return 10 offensive starters from a unit that was second-to-last in terms of SEC offensive production in 2016. Kentucky’s defense held South Carolina to just 268 yards of total offense in their meeting in Lexington in 2016, good for UK’s best defensive performance of the year.

On September 23, Kentucky will host Florida (likely the Wildcats’ first ranked opponent), with a chance to end the nation’s longest-running losing streak. While Florida’s 2016 offense ranked 14th and last in the SEC in total yards last year, the Gators tallied a season-high 564 yards against the Cats in last-year’s meeting at the Swamp. The Gators lose three offensive starters and seven defensive starters from a year ago. All seven defensive starters were taken in the 2017 NFL Draft. Florida enters the season ranked 17th in the AP Poll.

I’m sure if fans had to pick one win out of these two, it would be ending the treacherous, 30-year losing streak to the Gators, but I still say South Carolina is more likely.

Win one of these two, plus the other four mentioned, and we’re looking at 5-1 through the first six games.

Win one of two: Derail State or Rocky Top Flop

On October 21, Kentucky travels to Starkville to take on a Mississippi State squad that comes off only its second losing season in the eight-year, Dan Mullen era. The Bulldogs return 13 starters from a team that lost on a last second-field goal in Lexington in 2016. The Cats have not taken a game from Mississippi State in Starkville since 2008.

Kentucky plays host to Tennessee on October 28, and the Vols just barely made it into the AP Preseason Top 25, coming in at 25th. Tennessee returns 14 starters from a team that went 9-4 in 2016, which ended in a Music City Bowl victory over Nebraska. One key Tennessee starter not returning is mobile quarterback Josh Dobbs, who accounted for 10 passing touchdowns and six running touchdowns over the last four meetings between the Vols and the Cats. As of August 29, the Vols had not named a starting quarterback. The two apparent finalists for the position, Junior Quinten Dormady and Redshirt Freshman Jarrett Guarantano, are listed as pro-style quarterbacks on 247Sports.com, and hopefully will not pose as big of a dual-threat to Kentucky’s defense as did Dobbs.

Knock off the Vols at home or the Bulldogs on the road, and that would put the Cats at 6-2, hypothetically speaking.

Win two of the last four: Ole Miss, at Vandy, at UGA, U of L

A team in turmoil with the dismissal of head coach Hugh Freeze in the offseason, Ole Miss comes to Kroger Field to take on the Cats on November 4. The Rebels return just 11 total starters from 2016’s disappointing squad. The University of Mississippi has self-imposed sanctions on its football program that will prevent the Rebels from participating in postseason play in 2017, so it is truly a team with nothing to lose. That can be both a good thing and a bad thing, but I think the Cats have a pretty solid shot at knocking them off here.

The Cats travel to Nashville to take on Vanderbilt on November 11. The Commodores’ bowl hopes looked grim entering their last two games of 2016 needing to win both against Ole Miss and Tennessee, and they did just that, perhaps saving Coach Derek Mason’s job in the process. The ‘Dores return 16 starters (nine offensive and seven defensive) from last year. This will not be an easy road game for the Cats, but it is certainly doable.

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Kentucky
Kentucky Wildcats running back Benny Snell (26) runs the ball against Vanderbilt Commodores defensive Jonathan Wynn (49) in the second half at Commonwealth Stadium. Kentucky defeated Vanderbilt 20-13.
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Kentucky closes its season with probably its two toughest opponents: Georgia on the road on November 18, and Louisville at home on Nov. 25.

Carrying an AP Preseason Ranking of 15th, Georgia returns 17 starters from last season, and several analysts have the Dawgs heading to Atlanta as the 2017 SEC East champs. Their offense has some serious weapons in the backfield with Nick Chubb and Sony Michel both returning as seniors, and sophomore quarterback Jacob Eason is expected to be one of the league’s best in 2017. It will take a huge effort for the Cats to be able to knock off the Dawgs in Athens, but don’t forget, Kentucky was very close to upsetting Georgia last season, losing only by a field goal. It’s not inconceivable for the Cats to pull off this upset, is it?

Finally, Kentucky will host archrival Louisville in the regular season finale, hoping to extend the UK win streak against the Cards to two. Last year’s upset of Louisville at Papa John’s Stadium was statistically one of the biggest upsets of the season in all of college football. Louisville returns just five offensive starters from a year ago, but one of those is Heisman Trophy-winner Lamar Jackson. Dangerous as he may be, Jackson lost his top three receivers from 2016, as well as three of his starting offensive linemen. It is hard to say if Jackson can have a repeat, Heisman-caliber season in 2017, but either way, this will be no easy opponent for the Wildcats.

NCAA Football: Kentucky at Louisville
Louisville Cardinals quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) scrambles to recover his fumbled football with Kentucky Wildcats linebacker Josh Allen (41) during the second half at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium. Kentucky defeated Louisville 41-38.
Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

I think the most likely two wins from these four games come in the first two: Ole Miss and at Vanderbilt. Not saying Kentucky can’t win one or both of the other two, just saying it’s not as likely.

But if Kentucky can keep consistent and find wins in these scenarios, we are looking at an 8-4 regular season. Will that be enough to win the SEC East? Probably not. Will it be the first time Kentucky has posted an eight-win regular season in my lifetime (I’m almost 30)? Yes. Could it be the first time in my life Kentucky has a winning record in SEC play? Potentially so.

This is about as excited as I’ve ever been for Kentucky Football. The depth is there. The experience is there. The talent is abundant. Even if Kentucky goes 7-5 again, that is still something that can be celebrated. And, who knows? Is 9-3 out of the realm of possibility? I don’t think so.

CoxTalks optimistic preseason predictions:

  • Sep. 2 at Southern Miss - WIN
  • Sep. 11 vs. EKU - WIN
  • Sep. 16 at South Carolina - WIN
  • Sep. 23 vs. Florida - LOSE
  • Sep. 30 vs. E. Michigan - WIN
  • Oct. 7 vs. Missouri - WIN
  • Oct. 21 vs. Mississippi State - WIN
  • Oct. 28 vs. Tennessee - LOSE
  • Nov. 4 vs. Ole Miss - WIN
  • Nov. 11 at Vanderbilt - WIN
  • Nov. 18 at Georgia - LOSE
  • Nov. 25 vs. Louisville - WIN