There are still three weeks to go until the Kentucky Wildcats travel to Hattiesburg, Mississippi to take the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles. Southern Miss, a Conference USA team, came into the stadium formally known as Commonwealth and erased a 35-17 halftime deficit to win 44-35.
Kentucky bounced back from an 0-2 start to go on to win seven games and appear in a bowl game in year four of the Mark Stoops Era. Transfer JUCO quarterback Stephen Johnson was the starter for all seven of those wins and was largely responsible for three of them, which came vs. New Mexico State, vs. Mississippi State, at Louisville.
But the coaching staff at Kentucky would have us all believe that there is a legit competition between him and former starter Drew Barker. Barker was sidelined in the third game of the season due to a back injury, and he didn’t play another down.
We have seen Drew Barker play in multiple games at UK, as the starter, and as the backup, with minimal success. In all honesty, Barker has played one good half of football as the Kentucky QB, and that was the first half against Southern Miss. After that, there isn’t much to brag about in regards to his play.
So why are people buying that there is a competition at quarterback?
The QB Competition is Smoke and Mirrors
At the open practice that took place during Fan Day, Stephen Johnson took the bulk of the reps at quarterback. He was in control of the offense and was more accurate with the football that he was last season. The players around him look to him as the leader of the team.
Barker was relegated to second team reps. He wasn’t as accurate as Johnson, and his deep ball was coming up short while Johnson was connecting as is he usually does with that particular pass. if you left Fan Day thinking there really is a QB competition, then you weren’t paying attention.
Johnson is the better player right now. He’s proven more. He’s won more games than Barker has at Kentucky. And yet former Kentucky quarterback Patrick Towles went on KSTV and said that he thinks Barker will play eight games for Kentucky this season (5:21 mark):
If Barker is starting that many games for Kentucky, then something has gone terribly wrong. I’m not convinced that Barker has the makeup of a successful college quarterback. The sample size that we have may be small, but it’s not good. If he is starting that many games, then either Johnson is injured, or he’s been a complete disaster at quarterback.
Stephen Johnson isn’t perfect, but he has the talent and the leadership to win. So why are the coaches continuing to tell us all that Barker has a shot to win the job? Let’s not forget that Barker was a highly regarded recruit coming out of high school and they built that class around him. It’s hard to lose your job because of an injury, so I do think there is a little bit of catering to Barker’s ego going on here. Having a decent backup is important to a football team, and Barker needs to be just that right now.
Johnson will be the starting quarterback in game one of the season, and if Kentucky is going to win seven or more games this season, he better be the starter for more than just that.
7 or 8 WIns Isn’t a Lock
This is the time of year when we all start getting a little frisky with our predictions. There is a lot of hype around this team and rightfully so. The ‘Cats are returning more experience than ever with Stoops as the head coach, and they ended 2016 on a high note beating the hated Louisville Cardinals on their field.
To repeat a seven win total or to eclipse that with an eighth win, Kentucky football is going to have to do some things that haven’t been done in a long time. They will have to beat Tennessee or Florida, or both, or win win multiple SEC games on the road this season. The last time Kentucky beat the Vols was in 2011, and the last time they beat the Gators was in 1986. Mark Stoops as a head coach has won two games on the road in the SEC.
Looking on the positive side, both Tennessee and Florida are at home this season, and I do think at least one of those teams (Tennessee) is ripe for the picking. Also, three out of the four SEC road games aren’t that daunting. The ‘Cats have to go to South Carolina, to Vanderbilt, to Mississippi State, and to Georgia. Out of those four games, I think Kentucky will be favored in two of them (at South Carolina, at Vanderbilt).
But even with the best team in my lifetime, which was the 2009 team, Kentucky underachieved by going 7-6. They went 0-2 vs. Tennessee and Florida and went 3-1 on the road but then dropped a clunker at home against a bad Mississippi State team and lost on the road by two points against South Carolina.
Winning eight games at UK just doesn’t happen. I’m not saying it can’t happen, but in order to do so, this team will have to fight the tides of history to do it.
It’s Put Up or Shut Up for the Receivers
Garrett Johnson and Jeff Badet was a pretty damn good one-two punch for Stephen Johnson last season, especially in the case of the deep bomb. But Badet is now an Oklahoma Sooner and now Johnson, who had a fantastic 2016 season, will be the primary target, but he’s going to need someone else for the defense to focus on.
Dorian Baker and Blake Bone were both big time recruits for Mark Stoops. Neither guy has had what one would call a successful career at Kentucky. Both players are entering their senior season at UK. Last year bone had five receptions for 82 yards and no touchdowns. Baker had 14 receptions for 208 yards and two touchdowns.
While Stephen Johnson had his struggles completing the short to intermediate passes last season, he wasn’t helped by the multiple drops by the wide receivers. Both Bone and Baker have the talent to be the Robin to Juice Johnson’s Batman, but if neither player wants to step up and do it, then there are some younger guys that will be happy to take their place.
Sophomore Tavin Richardson, freshman Zy’Aire Hughes, and freshman Clevan Thomas are all itching to get their chance to show out and make their own mark for Kentucky football.
While the running game is fantastic for the ‘Cats, the passing game needs to be better to offer a viable threat for the offense.
Pump the Brakes on Lynn Bowden
The biggest recruit in the 2017 class was four-star athlete Lynn Bowden. He had to sit out the first week of camp while the NCAA had to clear up some academic issues. He is cleared to play and was a focal point for the media and the fans at the open practice. He is looked to be the next Randall Cobb for Kentucky.
While Bowden’s athletic prowess is without question, it’s going to be difficult for him to come in and make an immediate impact. It happened last season with Benny Snell, but if Barker had not gone down, would we have seen that rushing attack headed by Snell and Boom Williams.
Bowden will have to prove himself returning kickoffs and punts. While I am sure, Eddie Gran will have packages for him on offense, let’s not be too disappointed if the freshman doesn’t light up the world right off the jump. It’s going to be difficult. There will be times when he will make amazing plays, and there will be times when he makes us all slap our foreheads.
The future of Lynn Bowden is more exciting than the present.