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Kentucky football season preview roundtable and predictions

How will the Cats fare in their 2021 campaign?

Jason Marcum - Sea of Blue

It’s officially game week for the Kentucky Wildcats as they start the 2021 season Saturday against the Louisiana Monroe Warhawks.

Kentucky is coming off a tough 10-game SEC-only season that saw them finish with a 5-6 record following their 23-21 Gator Bowl win over NC State.

With the season set to kickoff, we gathered our staff for a roundtable on Kentucky’s 2021 season with predictions on the Cats’ record in what will hopefully be a normal schedule.

John Morgan Francis

Throughout my four years of covering Kentucky Football, I don’t recall this much excitement surrounding a season opener. Fans are ecstatic about their new quarterback and Kroger Field is bound to be electric for a noon kickoff on Saturday.

With wins over UL Monroe, Mizzou, Chattanooga and South Carolina all very-likely, a 4-0 start appears to be on the horizon. Kentucky will have four weeks to build in-game chemistry amongst their revamped offensive line, new quarterback and skill position talent.

Under the assumption this team comes together smoothly — again, this is a prediction — they should be well suited for an “upset” win over Florida at Kroger Field. And while that should fuel momentum for another win over LSU, life in the Southeastern Conference isn’t always that easy.

Kentucky could get a pass with LSU still being distracted from the tragedy of Hurricane Ida, but there’s one advantage you simply can’t dispute when it comes to the likes of Alabama/Georgia/LSU — they have NFL bodies across every single position.

Kentucky likely has a rough two-week stretch hosting LSU and turning around to head to Athens. They’ll certainly enjoy a bye week after that three-week nightmare in their schedule.

Kentucky will come out refreshed and likely run the table with wins at Mississippi State, vs. Tennessee, at Vanderbilt, vs. New Mexico and at Louisville. Not the SEC Championship Game season we all are dreaming of, but another 10-win season and another quality bowl appearance under head coach Mark Stoops exceeds expectations.

Wins: UL Monroe — Mizzou — Chattanooga — South Carolina — Florida — Mississippi State — Tennessee — Vanderbilt — New Mexico State — Louisville

Losses: LSU — Georgia

Prediction: 10-2

Adam Haste

The Wildcats have high expectations in 2021, as they are unveiling a new offense with Liam Coen taking over as the offensive coordinator this offseason.

On top of that, the Cats will have a new quarterback, as Penn State transfer Will Levis came in and won the starting job over Beau Allen and Joey Gatewood, the latter of which has since decided to transfer to UCF.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Cats are expected to be just as stout as they have been in recent seasons as they are returning a ton of talent to a defense that held opponents to 25 points per game last season.

The 2021 schedule shapes up very nicely for the Cats, as they have a lot of winnable games and get the toughest opponents, aside from Georgia, at home.

However, I still believe that the Cats will come up short of winning the SEC East and believe they will finish 2nd behind Georgia.

Prediction: 9-3

Ethan DeWitt

Once again expectations are high in Lexington, as Mark Stoops looks to take his team to their sixth straight bowl game.

The main question mark for this season is the offense. With the hire of Liam Coen this offseason, as well as the additions of transfers Will Levis and Wan’Dale Robinson, this team seems poised to take a step forward in what was one of the worst passing offenses for the last three seasons.

Add in bringing back Darrian Kinnard, Luke Fortner, Josh Ali, and still having Chris Rodriguez Jr., we could be looking at the best offensive unit of the Stoops era.

Not much will change on the defensive side of the ball. Brad White’s unit brings back a ton of experience, as well as a good mix of youth to continue to make an impact and continue to be one of the top defenses in the SEC.

This schedule lines up really will for UK. With a lot of winnable games, as well as two of the toughest games being at home, all the parts are there for a special season.

Looking at it overall I think fans can expect a second-place finish in the SEC East and another step forward for this Kentucky program.

Wins: Louisiana Monroe, Missouri, Chattanooga, South Carolina, Florida, Mississippi State, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, New Mexico State, and Louisville

Losses: LSU and Georgia

Prediction: 10-2

Nick Wheatley

The Cats have accumulated more talent under Mark Stoops than maybe any team in Kentucky history. This season might be the ultimate culmination of all the talent...but they do have their fair share of question marks.

The departure of Eddie Gran and arrival of Liam Coen has fans, players, and coaches excited for what’s to come. Couple that with a host of transfers, a lot of returners, and some highly-touted freshman, and all of a sudden, Kentucky is looking dangerous.

Of course, Will Levis is set to take over the offense and Wan’Dale Robinson should make his job a lot easier. However, while Levis has the arm talent, it’s fair to question how he’ll adjust to the SEC and a starting role. Meanwhile, Josh Ali is back on the outside joined by Chris Rodriguez, one of the best running backs in the country, in the backfield.

The Big Blue Wall will feel the losses of Landon Young and Drake Jackson, but the addition of Dare Rosenthal at left tackle is a huge addition, while Darian Kinnard is working his way into being a first-round pick at right tackle. With Luke Fortner sliding over to center, Kenneth Horsey and Eli Cox manning the guard positions, and a ton of depth, Kentucky’s offensive line is poised to be one of the best units in the nation.

As for the defensive side of the ball, there are questions at all three levels, including nose tackle, edge rusher/linebacker, and cornerback. The return of JJ Weaver could significantly help the pass rush, but the Cats are banking on significant improvements from the likes of Marquan McCall, Carrington Valentine, and Abule Abadi-Fitzgerald. UK is also depending on two newcomers in Ole Miss transfer Jacquez Jones and freshman Trevin Wallace to man the middle linebacker position.

All in all, Kentucky has a ton of talent. There are at least six or seven potential NFL Draft picks, which is huge at UK. Despite a few question marks, the Cats should feel good.

While I think every game on UK’s schedule is winnable other than Georgia, I expect them to drop a couple others. ULM, Chattanooga, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, New Mexico State, and Louisville are all games I’m extremely confident Kentucky wins. Mississippi State won’t be easy on the road and Missouri is a lot better than people realize, but I still expect those to be wins. Florida and LSU are the two that concern me. I think they’re both toss-ups, but the Cats will fall just short in both.

Prediction: 9-3

Jason Marcum

While there’s no question this Kentucky team has the overall talent of a top 15-20 team, the number of unanswered questions keep me from picking them to win 9+ games.

Is Will Levis the real deal? And Liam Coen for that matter?

What about the revamped wide receiver group, which also includes another new receivers coach in Scott Woodward?

Does the offensive line remain dominant with three new starters (though one is Luke Fortner moving from guard to center) and a new o-line coach?

Who steps up in the pass-rushing department?

How big a dropoff is the punting situation now that Ray Guy-winner Max Duffy is gone (and Wilson Berry has been injured in camp)?

Are all the off-field distractions affecting the team?

All told, the schedule sets up nicely for Kentucky to win at least six games even if they struggle to answer all of these questions. Louisville, Tennessee, Missouri, Mississippi State and South Carolina are full of unanswered questions themselves, but I don’t see the Wildcats sweeping all five like many are projecting them to do.

In the end, I think Kentucky manages to win eight games in the regular season and finish third in the division behind Georgia and Florida.

Did you know Kentucky hasn’t won eaxctly eight games in the regular season since 1984?

Also, talk about a season of streaks this would be, as I’m predicting Kentucy to start 4-0, lose four straight, then win four straight to end the regular season.

Life in the SEC.

Wins: Louisiana-Monroe, Missouri, Tennessee-Chattanooga, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, New Mexico State, Louisville.

Losses: Florida, LSU, Georgia, Missisiippi State.

Prediction: 8-4

Samuel Hahn

In writing previews for all UK’s games over the course of the offseason I’ve gotten to consider each of their games in detail, and I’ve settled on a set of predictions that I think aren’t too pie-in-the-sky but aren’t underestimating them either.

UL Monroe is an easy win. Missouri is at home and at night, which portends victory. They’ll roll over Chattanooga because that’s why they scheduled them. The road game against South Carolina will be mildly difficult, but they should be expected to take care of business on the road against the Gamecocks to hit 4-0. I have a lot of confidence they’ll hit 4-0.

Florida is the wild card; the variable; the coin-flip. Nobody knows what’ll happen October 2nd, but I’m pretty convinced that the opposite outcome of this game will follow a week later vs LSU. UK will beat one team but not the other and reach 5-1.

Georgia is a loss, unless UK enters the game 4-2 and something crazy happens. Regardless, I’ll put them at 5-2 going into their bye week. Then they face Mississippi State on the road. If I know Kentucky then I know they’ll lose in Starkville, but this should be the year it’s different, right?

Well...let’s say that after MSU, Tennessee, and Vandy they’re 7-3.

New Mexico State will be a cinch and the Governor’s Cup will stay home. The ‘Cats will finish 2nd in the SEC East standings if they beat Florida and 3rd if they don’t.

Prediction: 9-3

Ian Teasley

You smell that? I love the smell of fall, fresh-cut grass, and football season in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. And so goes another season under coach Mark Stoops, his ninth to be exact, with Kentucky looking to re-capture the lightning in the bottle that they had in 2018.

I think the first game or two will be a learning experience for Will Levis and Liam Coen, it may take some time for both to get their legs warm. Levis may struggled to hit throws, make a wrong read, Coen might call a bad play or two, but when all is said and done, I think Levis has the potential to be the best quarterback at this university since Andre Woodson.

If Will Levis can throw for around 200-225 yards per game, I think Kentucky is in prime position to make some noise.

With big play-makers on offense, Wan’Dale Robinson, Josh Ali, Chris Rodriguez Jr., it feels like the Wildcats have actual weapons at their disposal for the first time in a few seasons.

A big question mark on the defensive side of the ball is the secondary, who loses a lot from last year, including the leader in interceptions in the SEC, Kelvin Joseph. If the young secondary, headlined by Yusuf Corker, Cedric Dort, and Carrington Valentine, can keep the lockdown, no-fly-zone style of defense that has been UK’s mantra for the past two seasons, combined with the QB play from Levis, CRJ’s rushing attack, and Robinson and Ali’s big pass catching ability, Kentucky can most certainly contend for the Eastern division crown in 2021.

The biggest game of the season, to start, is week 2 against Missouri in Lexington, if Kentucky wins that, they set themselves up very nicely. I think the Cats take that one, but suffers losses to LSU, Georgia, and Mississippi State.

The Cayts have not faired well in Starkville, no matter the circumstance.

Prediction: 9-3

James Streble

Well... I guess I have to be Mr. Negativity here, but many of you may be used to that by now.

I am very excited about this football season but I am tempering that excitement because, outside of a couple of seasons at UK, Mark Stoops has been consistently a 6-6 or 7-5 football coach.

Eddie Gran has been relieved of his duties and Liam Coen is the new kid on the block. Everything that we are hearing from Stoops and the players leads me to believe that Coen knows what he is doing and he can succeed in building a very good offense at UK. But the question remains: does he have the pieces to get that offense going this year?

Will Levis is the starting quarterback, but it’s not like there’s a real Will Levis expert out there. He played sparingly at Penn State and couldn’t win the job outright in Happy Valley. While I have no doubt that the hype about his arm strength is legit, I have no idea how accurate he is and accuracy is what he struggled with at his previous stop.

QB development has been an issue at UK, so I’m still not sold that he’s going to be lights out right from the start. It could be a situation where he needs this year to get his bearings and take some lumps before he shines in his second season.

The receivers have been an issue as well. The unit has a new coach after the previous one was let go due to some off-field circumstances. While I think Wan’Dale Robinson and Josh Ali will be good, do they have anyone else that can provide consistency along with them? How will they adjust with the abrupt coaching change?

I think these are fair questions as Kentucky has had little to no consistency at the position from the players to the coaches.

The defense is going to be good to go. I have no questions about that side of the ball or what Brad White can do as a coach. The looming questions all come from the offensive side of the ball and the most important position on the field: the quarterback.

I think the Cats lose four in a row to Florida, LSU, Georgia and Mississippi State (we always struggle to win there no matter what). I also think they drop one they shouldn’t to either Missouri or Tennessee. That also seems to be par for the course, historically speaking.

I expect the offense to be better than it was but there are going to be some roadblocks along the way. But I do think what we see will be enough to really set some high expectations for Liam Coen Year 2.

Prediction: 7-5

Clark Brooks

UK has one of the easiest schedules in the Power 5 and unequivocally the least-challenging slate in the SEC. According to ESPN’s SP+, five of the Cats’ opponents are ranked 90th or worse; that’s excluding FCS opponent UT Chattanooga.

Assuming Kentucky takes care of business in those games, toss-ups against Missouri, LSU, Mississippi State, Tennessee, and arch-rival Louisville will likely determine whether or not UK bests its preseason expectations.

If the Cats sweep these games, they’ll be a dark horse for Atlanta. If they go o’fer, UK will likely don consecutive losing seasons for the first time since 2014-2015. Currently, the Cats under/over win total is set at seven. Meaning in order for backers of Big Blue to cash in, they have to win all five of their favorable matchups in addition to three of those five one-score projections.

I think Kentucky starts 5-0, loses its next three against the meat of its schedule, and mostly coasts after the bye week. Since four of UK’s last six games are on the road, the Cats could be a bit gassed and potentially stumble in Starkville or allow the Vols to leave Lexington victorious. Though UK has a very good chance to beat both and reach nine wins, history tells us a slip up is probable.

Presently, the SP+ likes UofL more than UK. But frankly speaking, that metric always does early in the season. And of course, the Cats have won the previous two meetings by a combined score of 101-23.

The switch to an outside zone foundation will bring about a more balanced approach where play actions will be much more prevalent than in years past. Generally speaking, the Cats will be trading deliberateness for deception. And since the Cats have three bonafide play makers, new OC Liam Coen should have enough ingredients to cook up something spicy. UK will still be led by is ground game and the nation’s most efficient ball carrier in Chris Rodriguez. But if Will Levis, Wan’Dale Robinson, and Josh Ali can at least generate a mediocre performance through the air, the Cats will be right in the thick of things within the SEC East. For me, that translates to at least a 45% passing success rate and 12% explosive pass rate (20+).

Mark Stoops’ defense can be seen as a passive unit when it’s not generating sacks with its downs or coming up with takeaways on the backend. Last year in SEC play, the Cats’ success rate, 3rd-down conversion rate, 1st-down+TD rate, havoc rate, and turnover rate were average at best in league play.

Plus, the Cats’ 3-and-out rate fell into the conference’s bottom five. If you’ve only been paying attention to a few volume figures, that news might be a tad be alarming. But UK will be starting a good amount of veterans; and trust is high his gelled unit can start the season on the right foot.

Though UK’s defense is set to face four top-20 offenses, it’s presumed to meet just as many ranked in the triple digits. The bend-don’t-break style won’t always be pretty. But if the Cats can finish inside the SECs top four in scoring drive rate and top two in 15+ play rate for the second-straight year, this offense should have enough support to prevail in most of its toss-ups.

Prediction: 8-4

Greg Goins

What a difference a year makes?

After struggling a year ago during an all-SEC schedule, Kentucky coach Mark Stoops flipped the script on the status quo, cutting ties with an old friend (Eddie Gran), launching a new pro-style offense (Liam Coen) and winning the transfer portal (Wan’Dale Robinson, Will Levis, Jacquez Jones and Dare Rosenthal).

This new formula has brought an exciting buzz to fall camp as the Wildcats now have their sights set on making the program’s first trip to Atlanta for the SEC title game. But the big question remains: “Can Kentucky football finally break the glass ceiling in 2021?”

Without question, the biggest change this fall will be a new-look offense as Penn State transfer Will Levis brings a big arm and enough moxie to keep defensive coordinators up at night.

Once again, Chris Rodriguez will be a load behind one of the nation’s top offensive lines and Robinson and fellow receiver Josh Ali bring a legitimate deep threat to the passing game. Add to the mix an underrated tight ends room with Justin Rigg, Brenden Bates, Izayah Cummings and Jordan Dingle and Levis will have numerous targets to keep the chains moving.

Brad White’s defense is anchored by a deep secondary that will allow the Cats to play small and fast in a nickel defense, while Deandre Square leads a solid core of linebackers, where the Wildcats are short on depth but big on raw talent and athleticism. If Kentucky can improve its pass rush, the defense could once again be among the best in the SEC.

The real test will be a three-game stretch that includes back-to-back home games against (No. 13) Florida and (No. 16) LSU before making a trip to Athens to take on (No. 5) Georgia. The Bulldogs are riding an 11-game winning streak against the Wildcats, who last beat Georgia 34-27 during the 2009 season.

If 2021 is truly a rebuild of the Kentucky offense, expect a few bumps along the way, especially against the big three – Florida, LSU and Georgia. Most likely, this means that the Wildcats will finish 9-3 on the season with plenty of momentum for Year 2 of the Liam Coen offense.

The good news is that a 10-win season is a real possibility, and the Wildcats will have a chance to extend its three-game winning streak in bowl games. To put things in perspective, Kentucky football has had just three 10-win seasons in school history (1950, 1977, 2018) so this just might be another historic season in Lexington.

Wins: Louisiana-Monroe, Missouri, Tennessee-Chattanooga, South Carolina, Mississippi State, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, New Mexico State, Louisville.

Losses: Florida, LSU, Georgia.

Prediction: 9-3

Now, we wanna hear your thoughts and predictions in the comments section!