The 2019 college football season is approaching fast, and the Kentucky Wildcats will look to continue their ascension up the SEC hierarchy following their first 10-win season in four decades.
But in order to do so, there are some major questions that must be answered within the first month of the season if the Cats are going to continue their rise to heights rarely seen before in program history. There are the biggest questions facing the 2019 Wildcats as the new season is set to begin:
Who is the most important player on offense this season?
After everything Kentucky lost on defense from last season, it’s going to be up to the offense to pick up the slack and become the strength of this team in 2019. But with all-time leading rusher Benny Snell now with the Steelers, who will be Kentucky’s most valuable offensive player this year?
Many will point to Lynn Bowden, a do-it-all receiver with game-breaking ability who could be drafted within the first three rounds of the 2020 NFL Draft.
But while Bowden may be Kentucky’s best player, the guy throwing him the ball will be the most important. That would be one Terry Wilson, who looked like a rising star through the first three games of 2018, including a magnificent performance in the Wildcats’ 27-16 win at Florida, ending a nearly-four-decade long losing streak to the Gators.
However, a knee injury suffered in Game 4 vs. Mississippi State kept Wilson hobbled for much of the remaining schedule. As he got healthier, Wilson found his groove and ended the season on a high note, completing 36 of 52 passes (69%) with four touchdowns vs. just one pick while also rushing for 135 yards and another score.
Now having a full year of starting Division I experience under his belt, it’s time for Wilson to step up and be the MVP of Kentucky’s offense.
Who is the most important player on defense?
You’d be hard-pressed to find a Division I team that lost more defensively than Kentucky did from last year, especially with rising star Davonte Robinson now out for the season due to injury.
But amid all the defensive losses, Kentucky did manage to keep one key player: Kash Daniel.
As a junior in 2018, Daniel became the vocal leader of a defense that ranked 10th in adjusted defense. He was also a force in the middle of Kentucky’s front seven, racking up 84 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss.
As good as Daniel was, there was definitely room for improvement, especially as a sideline-to-sideline backer in need of more speed. He made it a point to trim down this offseason in hopes of becoming a complete linebacker that can do everything Kentucky needs from him and more.
And with Benny Snell, Josh Allen, Jordan Jones and Mike Edwards now in the pros, there’s no question Daniel is the leader of the 2019 Wildcats.
What should be the biggest change between last year and this year?
With so many losses on offense, especially in the secondary, it’s reasonable to expect a big regression from last year’s top-10 unit. It will be up to a stacked defensive line and a promising group of linebackers to help overcome the major deficiencies Kentucky has in the secondary.
Offensively, Kentucky returns Terry Wilson, Lynn Bowden, AJ Rose and most of the offensive line, so they should take a big step this year and become the strength of this team. Of Kentucky’s seven wins vs. Power 5 teams in 2018, six of them came while scoring under 30 points. Four of them saw Kentucky score just three offensive touchdowns.
I’d expect most of Kentucky’s wins in 2019 will see them scoring 30+ points.
What is the most important game on this schedule?
You can answer this question in one of two ways.
In terms of which win would be the most impactful, there’s no question it’s Georgia. The Bulldogs are loaded again and look like a legitimate College Football Playoff contender, and the Cats have to face them in Athens this year. A win here would be one of the biggest in program history and show the program is still trending upwards, despite losing so much talent from last season.
But realistically, Kentucky is still a year or two away from being able to go toe to toe with the immense amount of talent the Bulldogs have, and I don’t see any college team winning in Athens this season.
So, I’m going with Florida. Yes, Kentucky ended that dreaded streak last year, but getting a win over a likely top-10 Florida team at Kroger Field would be a massive win and all but guarantee the Wildcats make it to another big-time bowl game.
And yes, Florida is also loaded and will be a major challenge, but they also lost a lot on defense and have had an onslaught of losses in the secondary via injury and transfer, and Kentucky has typically played well vs. the Gators in Lexington under Mark Stoops, even when there was a major talent discrepancy.
If Kentucky’s passing game takes a big step forward, that Week 3 matchup will turn into a shootout that the Wildcats have a real chance to win
How will the Wildcats finish the 2019 college football season?
Kentucky has enough returning firepower to keep this from being a rebuilding year, but too many losses on defense coupled with a dangerously thin secondary will prevent the Cats from winning 10 games again.
I expect the Cats to beat Toledo, Eastern Michigan, EKU, Louisville and Arkansas, while Missouri, at Vanderbilt, Tennessee, at South Carolina and at Mississippi State should be toss-ups.
Kentucky did great winning the toss-up games last season, this group doesn’t have the same kind of closers on defense and Benny Snell to run out the clock, so I think Kentucky goes 2-3 in those toss-up games and finishes 7-5, then wins their bowl game and gets to eight wins for the 11th time in program history and just the second time since 2008.