If the 2018 season established a new ceiling for Mark Stoops' program then the 2019 season established a new floor. The 2019 team was handicapped by key injuries, featured some inexperience, and graduated two of the best players to ever wear the Blue and White. The season started bleakly, forcing a new offensive scheme to be installed mid-season, but a winning culture provided a buffer to the hurdles and helped to enable an overachieving season.
We anticipate an even better season in 2020 based on this culture, the return of nearly all starters, confidence in the staff, and a more talented roster top-to-bottom than ever. And yet, progress isn't always linear. Winning more games isn't guaranteed. More talent always helps, but dumb luck can giveth or taketh away. A ball could take a bad bounce, or a starting quarterback could get knocked out for the season.
Kentucky football fans know all about dumb luck. The margins will be tight for dream season. Last season, the secondary and receivers raised the biggest question marks, but this year provides five new factors that could negatively impact the margins between a good or great season.
The Five Storylines This Offseason
First, tackling must improve because poor tackling teams don’t compete for divisional championships let alone win 10 games. It's too early to label the departure of Matt House as the reason for UK's poor tackling this season, but a front seven returning the pieces it did should have performed better. The 2020 linebacker corps will be the best two-deep to ever play for Kentucky, and a safety should not lead UK in tackles for the second year in a row. It can't hurt to have Joey Gatewood running the scout team offense in practice to force improvement.
Second, the defensive line has to replace two important pieces at defensive end and defensive tackle. T.J. Carter and Calvin Taylor Jr. have been consistent players at those positions the last two years, but their backups did not produce the stats to inspire confidence in terms of tackles, tackles for loss, hurries, or sacks. The uneven production implied how heavily UK leaned on these two stalwarts, and how important it is for Phil Hoskins to get a sixth year of eligibility at defensive tackle. It also wouldn't be surprising to see Josh Paschal make the move to defensive end full-time given the depth at outside linebacker. Two things remain in UK's favor: the nose tackle position is anchored by two white dwarf stars Quinton Bohanna and Marquan McCall; and few outside the football offices would have thought a bunch of unknown defensive backs with little prior production could achieve the fifth ranked passing defense in 2019. There is precedent for unknown players taking the leap.
Third, Terry Wilson's improvement is important, but in more ways than just physical recovery. If Wilson's knee allows for a full recovery then his mobility and arm strength return the offense to balance, but Wilson's increased understanding of the game would pay bigger dividends. Wilson had a 134 QBR in seven quarters last season which is what he had for all of 2018 season. There's reason to believe regardless of his physical recovery that he won't take his next evolution until he improves reading defenses, understands route patterns, and anticipates how a defense can be set-up for plays later in the game. In short, continuing his transformation from simply executing plays to being more of an offensive coordinator with a holistic understanding.
Fourth, the field goal kicking must improve to win close games. Chance Poore was five-for-nine in field goals this year, while Matt Ruffolo was four-for-five. With better kicking, Kentucky probably wins both the Florida and Tennessee, and UK's coaches engineer a consecutive nine win regular season which would have made them all hot names in hiring circles. Kentucky boasts a Ray Guy Award winner among its specialists, but needs a field goal kicker to close the loop, and build upon a very promising special teams squads.
Fifth, all three phases will need improvement because the schedule will be very tough. Kentucky hosts Georgia, and travels to Florida, Auburn, and Tennessee which are each unforgiving games. Those teams will probably all be ranked, and Kentucky will need to go 2-2 in those games for a chance at a 10-win season that puts the SEC East in play. Kentucky won't have the talent edge in those games, but Kentucky will have the roster talent and coaching acumen to compete.
That's the season separated into its components. UK is entering into a window - one that's small for all non-blue blood programs - containing promise but also urgency. The roster will have never been this talented, and may not again for another two or three years.