As we inch closer to the 2018 season, there’s a lot to be excited about with Kentucky Football.
The Cats are coming off consecutive bowl appearances for the first time since ‘09 and ‘10. After starting his head-coaching career with three straight losing seasons, Mark Stoops has led Kentucky to a 7-6 overall record two years in a row.
Kentucky left a lot to be desired after last season. While UK still achieved another bowl berth and winning season, there were a few loses that felt like they should’ve pulled out. Since all of their stars eligible for the NFL draft opted instead to return for their senior seasons, there must be a feeling of unfinished business inside the locker room.
Kentucky is returning a ton of talent next year. Unfortunately, so is everybody else in the division. After a down year last season, the SEC East looks to be right back to its usual form. Even with this difficult schedule, a third consecutive winning season is entirely possible for the Wildcats.
Here are four reasons why Kentucky will finish next season with a winning record.
1. Star Players
Both tight end C.J. Conrad and linebacker Josh Allen could’ve declared for the draft after last season and most likely, they would’ve been drafted. Instead, the two decided to return for their senior seasons. They are both now listed as the top NFL prospects in their respective positions for next year.
The importance of Conrad and Allen returning should not be undermined, but the biggest returning name is still Benny Snell. He will be back for his junior year at UK. He recorded the first ever back to back 1,000 rushing seasons in UK history, already holds the record for most rushing touchdowns in team history and could also become the career rushing yards leader as well.
Former starting quarterbacks Drew Barker and Stephen Johnson are no longer on the team. Snell and Conrad will play crucial roles in leading the offense with a new quarterback.
On defense, Josh Allen led the team with seven sacks last year. The success of the team will definitely be determined by the contributions of these players.
2. Experienced Defensive Line
The Wildcat’s run defense got off to a hot start in 2017, stifling their first five opponents to a measly 74 rusing yards per game . When facing tougher competition the rest of the season, those numbers dropped significantly to 239 YPG. The defense still finished the year improved over 2016 in per game points allowed, rush yards per game and total sacks.
The D-Line lost grad transfer Denzil Ware while graduating Naquez Pringle and Matt Elam, all of which played significant minutes last year. Even with these losses, this upcoming season will feature the most experienced line under Stoops at UK. All three up front starters from their Music City Bowl appearance will return. They have depth at each position.
Breakout nose guard Quinton Bohanna is back for his sophomore season, as well as last season’s top defensive signee and fellow sophomore Joshua Paschal. Upperclassman Phil Hoskins, Adrian Middleton and TJ Carter all return and will compete for the starting spots alongside Bohanna.
Other than the returning players, UK also added 4-star recruit Marquan McCall. The 6’3 320 pound true freshman could end up making an impact, depending on how they use him.
Kentucky’s defense will face some tough matchups this season, not that it’s ever easy of course. Missouri, Mississippi State and Georgia bring back high-powered offenses led by stellar QB play. They also face Florida, Texas A&M and Tennessee all on the road.
Kentucky needs to utilize their experienced line to win the battle upfront. They’ll have to knock off at least one of these opponents if they want to head to a third consecutive bowl.
3. Returning Offensive Line
Like the defensive line, the offensive line is returning most of their production from last year. They lost starting right tackleKyle Meadows, but bring in USC transfer EJ Price and redshirt freshman Naasir Watkins.
Since UK will begin the season starting a brand new QB, an experienced offensive line is an absolute necessity. Benny Snell will once again be the workhorse of the offense. Even a back as talented as Snell won’t go anywhere without offensive line support.
Most likely, JUCO Transfer Terry Wilson will start at QB eventually. He’s an excellent runner, but like Snell, it won’t mean much without open lanes provided by the line.
The Cats bring back a lot of talent. It’s hard to not be enthusiastic about their offensive potential next year. As always, though, they’ll face some of the toughest defensive lines in the country. This should qualm some of the high expectations for their production on offense.
They’ll be in for a long season if they’re unable to move the ball behind this line.
4. Improved Secondary
With all four starters returning, Kentucky will have one of the most experienced secondary’s in the SEC. They return their leading tackler from 2017 in safety Mike Edwards and third-leading tackler in safety Darius West. Cornerbacks Derrick Baity, Lonnie Johnson and Chris Westry will all be back as well.
Kentucky’s secondary struggled last season. They allowed 252 passing yards per game with a 64.2% opposing completion percentage. The highlight of their struggles being the Florida game blunders in particular. Still, bringing this many seniors back is always positive. They should be much improved with another season under their belt.
The formula for a winning season is the same as it’s been before. Win the games you’re supposed to win, pull off a couple upsets and boom, you’re headed to a bowl game. It will be quite the challenge for the team this year.
The Cats face an absolute gauntlet of a schedule. There’s no room for error. They can’t come out flat Week 1 against Central Michigan like they did in 2016 against Southern Miss if they want to finish bowl eligible.
Even with the tough schedule, the end season goal for this team should still be another bowl-berth. If they sweep their non-conference opponents, beat Missouri, South Carolina and Vanderbilt again, they’re right back at 7-5 and headed to a bowl game for a third-straight season.
Of course, that’s much easier said than done.