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College football expert believes Kentucky is in the mix for SEC East title

The drive for Atlanta.

Stoops Belk Bowl Trophy Drew Brown - Sea of Blue

Ask anyone around the Joe Craft Football Facility what the goal is for the 2021 season and you’re sure to get one simple answer: “Get to Atlanta.”

In fact, that’s been the battle cry the past few years of the Mark Stoops era as expectations were flipped upside down after a historic 2018 season that saw the Wildcats reach 10 wins for the first time since 1977 to secure the No. 12 spot in the final Associated Press Poll.

Fast-forward to today as Stoops begins his ninth season in Lexington with everyone squarely on the same page, including Kentucky Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart who most likely has December 4th circled on his calendar for The SEC Football Championship Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“We want to get to Atlanta,” said Barnhart during an interview in 2019. “That has long been a dream and a goal. There’s nothing wrong with dreaming big dreams.”

Senior Darian Kinnard double downed on that message at this year’s SEC Media Day when asked what he was looking for in preparation for the upcoming season.

“Looking forward to Atlanta, honestly,” said Kinnard, a preseason All-American at offensive tackle. “Our goal this year is win a lot of games and get to Atlanta.”

The Wildcats certainly have good vibes flowing from fall camp as new quarterback Will Levis, running back Chris Rodriguez and playmaker Wan’Dale Robinson have all adapted to Liam Coen’s pro-style offense while defensive end Josh Paschal, linebacker Deandre Square and safety Yusuf Corker will anchor another solid defense.

But despite high expectations for 2021, there’s no denying that Kentucky has had a rough go of it ever since the SEC went to two divisions (East and West) in 1992. In fact, for all of his success at Kentucky, Stoops is just 24-42 in conference play and has been forced to deal with many of the demons from Kentucky’s dismal SEC past.

However, among those 24 conference victories includes breaking a 32-year losing streak to Florida in 2018 and ending a 17-game road losing streak at Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium in 2020. The next big hurdle for Stoops is beating Georgia for the first time as the Bulldogs have won the last 11 games in a row.

So far, the Wildcats have fallen under the radar in the preseason, failing to get a single vote in the AP Top 25 preseason poll while being picked by the media to finish third in the SEC East behind Georgia and Florida. Missouri was picked fourth, while Tennessee and South Carolina were ranked fifth and sixth, respectively. The Bulldogs open the season as the No. 5 team in the nation with Florida coming in at No. 13.

Despite some tough love early on, at least one college football pundit, ESPN College GameDay’s Chris “The Bear” Fallica, has already jumped on the Kentucky bandwagon after giving the Wildcats “an excellent chance of potentially finishing second in the SEC East” during a recent appearance on the Fringe Element Podcast.

“People just kind of underestimate this program. They just kind of...oh, there’s no way they’re going to keep having guys drafted in the first round off the defensive line, pass-rushers and linebackers. But they’ve recruited really well. So I think of those teams...I think it’s Kentucky who ultimately could challenge Florida for that No. 2 position in the SEC East.”

Fallica added that he’s confident in Levis as the starting quarterback and points to Coen’s new offense as the key to success with a 7-5 record projected as the worst case scenario for the Wildcats in 2021.

“I’m not concerned about Levis being the quarterback there. I think Levis showed in that Ohio State game a couple of years ago he’s got a ton of potential. I think with Wan’Dale Robinson being a game-breaker, I think Mark Stoops has his best offense that he’s had in quite some time in Lexington.”

The Kentucky Wildcats open the season on September 4 against Louisiana-Monroe at Kroger Field.