College football season is nearly upon us.
The Wildcats come into 2018 as one of the biggest question marks in the SEC, with a lot of talent returning (Josh Allen, Jordan Jones, Mike Edwards, Benny Snell, Lynn Bowden, the list goes on), but also an unclear picture of whether or not they’ve actually gotten better.
In addition to that, the quarterback battle to replace the graduated Stephen Johnson seems like it’s a sign that Kentucky will have an upgrade at quarterback. Terry Wilson, a former Oregon commit and one of the top junior college players in the country last year, has been named the starter, but Gunnar Hoak is ready and waiting for an opportunity to prove himself.
The goal for this season certainly seems clear: Finish better than 7-6 (or win a bowl game) and this year is a success.
With Week 1 against Central Michigan less than two weeks away, here’s a preview of the season from the A Sea of Blue staff.
John Morgan Francis
This is the year. Kentucky may have their most complete team yet, and if they can hit a home run at quarterback, they’ll be a tough task in the SEC East.
The Cats face their two ranked opponents at home, and their two toughest road games are against teams with new head coaches.
Combine a favorable schedule with a veteran roster, and positive results are on the horizon.
Benny Snell is only getting better while the defensive side of the ball is wiser and hungrier than ever before.
Kentucky should claim victory over Central Michigan, Murray State, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Missouri, Tennessee, Middle Tennessee and Louisville.
That leaves four games against Georgia, Mississippi State, Florida and Texas A&M.
Kentucky will steal at least one of these games, possibly even two.
There’s a real chance the Kentucky Wildcats, led by Terry Wilson at quarterback, could finish 9-3 on the season.
This year has the potential to be Kentucky’s best under head coach Mark Stoops. The Cats were in the Music City Bowl until the very end, and I firmly believe that had Benny Snell not been ejected the Wildcats would’ve won that game.
Yes, I’m still mad about that. However, life goes on, and the best thing about sports is that there’s always next year. Well, next year is here, and it’s time for some picks and predictions, so let’s get to it.
Before I pick the games, I think it’s important to talk about the new starting quarterback, Terry Wilson. I think Wilson offers a ton of upside. He can rip off a 50-yard touchdown scramble, or he could throw a pick-6. For my money, in a season that has the potential to be special, I’m riding with Terry Touchdown. Now, onto the games.
I’m going to go high and predict that the Wildcats will win 8 games this season. I think outside of Georgia and Mississippi State (two of the five SEC teams in Preseason Top 25 rankings) the Wildcats have a fair shot in every game. A win in College Station against Texas A&M is a tall task, but doable. I think the September 29th game against South Carolina will make or break UK’s season.
Kentucky has road games against all their archrivals this season. The Cats go to Knoxville to play the Vols, Gainesville to play the Gators, and Louisville to play the Cardinals. The Cats need to win at least two of those games. Call me super optimistic, but I’m going with a record of 8-4.
Kentucky comes into the season with arguably the most talented roster since 2007. The pieces are there for a potentially special season, although the schedule is a little less favorable than any fan would hope. Benny Snell is arguably the best player in the SEC, CJ Conrad is arguably the best tight end in the SEC, and the defense has NFL-ready talent.
As for the final record, I’ll say the Cats end 7-5 for the third straight season, because they haven’t proven to me that they can win the big games to eclipse 8 wins, but they’re good enough to get seven wins against a difficult schedule. I’m hoping that changes this year, but Kentucky needs to win a couple of the Florida-South Carolina-Mississippi State-Texas A&M-Louisville games to do so.
The Wildcats are set up to have their most experienced and talented team since 2007. With multiple players opting to return instead of heading to the NFL draft, Mark Stoops has the rare position to coach NFL talent. The Cats also have the best running back in the SEC as a junior and multiple options for the quarterback position.
That all sounds great, right?
Here’s the bad news: The schedule is brutal.
With road games at Florida, Texas A&M, Missouri, and Louisville, it’s going to be difficult for the Cats to get some wins away from Kroger Field. While Tennessee continues to tumble, South Carolina and Missouri seem to be making their move in the East. While the Cats have finished in the middle of the pack for the last two seasons, many prognosticators have them finishing near the bottom of the conference.
Here is how I have the win/loss totals for the season:
- vs. Central Michigan (W)
- at Florida (L - I may never pick UK to beat Florida ever again)
- vs. Murray State (W)
- vs. Mississippi State (W)
- vs. South Carolina (L)
- at Texas A&M (L)
- vs. Vanderbilt (W)
- at Missouri (W)
- vs. Georgia (L)
- at Tennessee (L)
- vs. Middle Tennessee (W)
- at Louisville (W)
7-5 would be on par with what they’ve been doing in the last two seasons. But will it feel hollow knowing that next year may be a bridge year in terms of experience and depth?
This is a make or break year for Kentucky football. Their defense consists of mostly seniors. If Benny Snell puts up the numbers he has over his first two seasons, he’ll likely be heading to the NFL. And the team has a chance to kick Florida and Tennessee while they’re already down.
It seems Terry Wilson is the better fit to guide Kentucky through this critical season. He is excellent on his feet and has a strong and accurate arm. He has the potential to be an upgrade over Stephen Johnson who did some wonderful things as quarterback for the Cats.
Looking at UK’s schedule, they should be able to take down each of their non-conference opponents, which would give them four wins including the second in three years over Louisville.
Looking into the SEC, the games that seem out of reach are Georgia, Texas A&M, and Mississippi State. They should be able to defeat Vanderbilt, a rebuilding Tennessee, and Missouri. The two toss-ups are at Florida and home against South Carolina.
Florida is coming off a terrible season but still holds their 31-year winning streak against Kentucky. This is an early season game, and both teams will be trying to figure each other out. However, it just doesn’t feel like this is the year for the Cats. Will go with Florida there.
As for South Carolina at home, the Cats own a four-game win streak against the Gamecocks. However, South Carolina played great football after their loss to Kentucky in Columbia last year. This game will be tight but a rocking parents weekend crowd in Lexington should help the Cats to victory.
Kentucky finishes 8-4 and would be in play for a bigger bowl game like the Outback Bowl.
2018 has to be the year that Stoops and his staff can hang their hats on some tangible progress of the program. I believe that most people would agree that Kentucky Football, as a whole, is better off now than when Stoops arrived in Lexington over 5 years ago.
That being said, there is still a feeling that the program is not quite where fans expected it to be this far along in the Stoops era.
In my opinion, the biggest questions surrounding UK football this season is, what defines success? Is it a winning a bowl game, tallying 8+ wins, beating Louisville?
This is a question that you must answer for yourself, and the answer is not going to be the same for everyone.
To me, the clear-cut definition of a successful 2018 season is absolutely winning a bowl game. The Cats have all of the pieces to accomplish that, and I believe they will.
Benny Snell may be the best running back in America, and will obviously be heavily leaned on for production. His ability to carry such a heavy workload in the SEC while staying injury free is a major determining factor in Kentucky’s quest to contend in the SEC East and get a bowl victory.
While Snell is one incredible asset on the offense, Eddie Gran cannot just hand him the ball 50 times a game, no matter how badly he may want to do so. The Cats need other players like Dorian Baker and Lynn Bowden to step up and become reliable skill position producers.
Terry “Touchdown” Wilson, who has been named the starting quarterback for Week 1, will keep the job all season. It just seems apparent that for UK to reach their full potential, they will need Wilson to be the guy under center.
The schedule for Kentucky is set up favorably this season. However, it is difficult for me to see a path where Kentucky accumulates 8 wins. I think it is possible, and I surely hope they do, but my guess would be a 7-5 regular season with a bowl win to cap it off.
Stoops and UK really need a big signature victory this season. Whether it is beating Florida in the swamp, or taking care of Mississippi State at home, an unexpected win would go a long way with the fan base and help the Cats potentially hit that 8-win mark.
Admittedly, I’ve gone back and forth on Kentucky this year as to making a bowl or not. I love the defensive potential of this team, as they have talent and depth at every position for the first time in the Mark Stoops era.
They’ve always had talent but never enough depth to last a full season, as evidenced by their usual strong defensive play to begin each season before falling off a cliff over the final 4-6 games.
In 18 November games vs FBS schools at UK, Mark Stoops' defenses have allowed 37+ points 11 times. 3 times they didn't were against Vanderbilt. 8 times they allowed 42+ points.— Jason Marcum (@marcum89) November 29, 2017
Another big concern for me is the left tackle spot. Losing Landon Young was a massive blow to this offensive line, especially when we have no idea what Nassir Watkins and EJ Price will bring to the table. They rarely got any first-teams reps this offseason while Young had that spot locked down, so this position is arguably the biggest unknown going into the season.
The good thing is Terry Wilson is a mobile quarterback who will be able to escape pressure far more than Gunnar Hoak would have. If Hoak was the starter, I’d feel a lot more nervous about this position, as he’s a pocket passer who needs his blindside protection much more than Wilson.
Saying this, another big question is at quarterback. While everyone loves the potential of Wilson, it’s hard to put too much stock into a JUCO quarterback before he even plays a down of football. He also didn’t look particularly great in the spring game or summer workouts, but he really cranked it up a notch in fall camp and left no doubt he was the guy to start.
For Mark Stoops to call Wilson the starter and not even say if Gunnar Hoak would play in Week 1 speaks to how good the staff feels about Wilson now. After all, just last year, the staff wanted to get Drew Barker a chance early in the season, even though Stephen Johnson had the spot seemingly locked down.
They’re not doing this with Wilson and Hoak, which tells me they feel pretty good about the former leading this team to its full potential. If this defense can play at a high level for 12 games and the quarterback play is solid, this team will definitely get at least six wins.
Kentucky tends to win the games it’s supposed to (at least when they’re favored), but looking at the schedule, I think they’ll only be favored four times. I think they’ll be slight underdogs vs. South Carolina, Tennessee and Missouri.
To make a bowl, they’ll need to win two of those, but don’t count out them pulling an upset over a team favored by a touchdown-plus like at Florida, at Texas A&M or home vs. Mississippi State. All three of those teams have new coaches and will have the usual growing pains that come with it.
Remember, Nick Saban went 6-6 in his first year at Alabama and lost to Louisiana Monroe of all teams. Kentucky can absolutely pull an upset over one of these supposedly more talented teams with new coaches, especially since they all come within the first six games before Kentucky even hits the bye week.
In the end, I feel good about Kentucky making it back to the postseason, but I’m not ready to say they’ll have a big breakthrough win. It does feel like Florida is ripe for the upset, but we say that almost every year these days.
Wins: Central Michigan, Murray State, Vanderbilt, Middle Tennessee, South Carolina, Tennessee
Losses: Florida, Texas A&M, Missouri, Georgia, Mississippi State, Louisville
Bonus: Kentucky beats Duke in the Independence Bowl one month after beating them on the hardwood in Indy.
Mark Stoops is entering his sixth year as head coach of UK football. In that time, we have seen some gradual improvement, including posting back-to-back 7-win seasons each ending in a bowl game. And last season, Kentucky was just a few snaps away from adding a couple extra wins.
This year, I’m cautiously hopeful. I was excited last season and ended up a little disappointed with the Cats’ performance. However, with the return of C.J. Conrad, Mike Edwards, and Jordan Jones, as well as a strong Benny Snell, Jr. and yet another veteran offensive line, this year could be special.
For me it will come down to the defense playing to its potential and the starting quarterback playing consistently excellent football. It appears Terry Wilson will be the guy this year after being named the Week 1 starter.
If the defense can improve on the past couple of seasons and the quarterback can produce solid play, I think this team can do some good things. Wildcats fans will see another bowl game this year and a potential 8-win season.
Wins: Central Michigan, Murray State, Vanderbilt, Middle Tennessee, Florida, Texas A&M, Missouri, Tennessee
Losses: South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi State, Louisville
Kentucky football will never meet the expectations of many fans, but in my opinion, the program is right where it needs to be. Winning half of the SEC slate and going to a bowl each year is success for this program, and while I understand the desire to win more, I am not sure it will ever be in the cards on a consistent basis.
For this season, the defense should be much improved, and the offensive line will have more experience under its belt. Benny Snell is a year older and presumably a year better. There are two quality quarterbacks in line to throw passes to an improved receiving crew.
Given all of that improvement, the program should take a step forward in the coming year, right?
Unfortunately, Kentucky’s opponents from a year ago have improved at a clip at least equal to that of Kentucky. South Carolina, Missouri, Florida, Mississippi State, and Tennessee should all be much better. And there isn’t really anybody on the schedule that is taking a large step back.
When all is said and done, I see Kentucky getting to just six regular-season wins by achieving the following results:
Wins: Central Michigan, Murray State, Vanderbilt, Missouri, Tennessee, and Middle Tennessee.
Losses: Florida, Mississippi State, South Carolina, Texas A&M, Georgia, and Louisville.
Of course, the Cats could pull off an upset or two, but they could also drop a few of those that I predicted they should win. Regardless, I see seven wins as the ceiling for this group, maybe grabbing that elusive eighth win in a bowl game.