It is finally football time in the Bluegrass.
With the Kentucky Wildcats opening up their season with the Miami (OH) Redhawks this Saturday night at Kroger Field, it will be the start of what might be the most hyped up season in recent memory.
There will be plenty of familiar faces that take the field under the lights for Mark Stoops and his staff, but they will also rely on some new faces from this top-20 recruiting class this past season.
Kentucky also will welcome their third offensive coordinator in as many seasons, as Rich Scangarello joins the program after spending the last several with Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers. Will he have immediate success or will it take a few games to gain traction? That is one of the major questions heading into this season, and we will get an answer on Saturday night.
Either way, the party starts this weekend.
As we do before every season, we got the team together here at A Sea of Blue to give their input on how we think the Cats will do this season.
Kentucky is coming off just the fourth 10-plus win season in program history, and just the second of the last 40 years. Yet, expectations are as high as ever with the Wildcats ranked in the preseason AP Top 25 for the first time since 1978.
Kentucky did lose some notable players from last season, including Wan’Dale Robinson and Josh Paschal who could change the outcome of a game, but this roster is not short on talent. On Wednesday, ten seniors were named to the Reese’s Senior Bowl watchlist, in addition to plenty of exciting young talent - Dane Key, Jodan Dingle, and Alex Afari Jr. to name a few.
Obviously, this group is spearheaded by Will Levis, who has already been tabbed as one of the top prospects of the 2023 NFL Draft. His health and performance will be the biggest factors to the success of this season.
Levis looks to have plenty of targets on paper, but most of them are unproven - especially at receiver - and without Chris Rodriguez Jr. to rely on in the first few games, new offensive coordinator Rich Scangerllo and the offense will have to prove themselves.
Defensively, Kentucky has concerns in the secondary and the defensive line. For the latter, there is a talented, albeit inexperienced group to replace the three departing defensive line starters from last season, but questions still remain for the secondary. This is a group that lost three starters from last season and allowed teams to complete 71% of their passes. Then again, the returning and incoming players could prove themselves to be better as the staff have given positive reports from fall camp.
While there is no one game that can be seen as a guaranteed loss, beating a playoff favorite Georgia will be an extremely tough task. I also predict Kentucky to lose at Ole Miss and at Tennessee due to secondary concerns and difficult road environments.
There’s a great deal of optimism surrounding Mark Stoops’ football program this season. A big part of that optimism is the return of Will Levis as quarterback. Mark Stoops has not had a returning QB like Will Levis during his entire tenure of Kentucky.
But while the expectations for Levis are sky high, there are questions surrounding the offense. Just for starters, stud running back Christopher Rodriguez will miss games due to multiple offseason off-field incidents. That means he will miss a massive game at Florida. The offensive line has new faces on it and it’s a banged up unit already as there are multiple nagging injuries as camp ends. Wan’Dale Robinson’s absence will be filled by a wide receiver group that is unproven.
Defense seems to be set up to be one of the better units that Kentucky has had under Stoops. Octavius Oxendine returns to the defensive front while the entire linebacking core is back. Stoops and Brade White are very high on the secondary, a unit that struggled at times last season.
While there are questions abound on offense, it’s time to put full trust in the football program’s ability to replace major pieces once they’re gone. That’s what Stoops has been trying to build at Kentucky and it’s time to show it. Kentucky football is in the top 25 of just about every preseason poll that’s out there. The expectations are there from a fan perspective, a program perspective and a national perspective. There’s no room for underachievement.
The only losses that I expect this season are as follows: at Ole Miss, at Tennessee, and Georgia at home.
Coming off a 10-3 2021 season that saw the Kentucky Wildcats finish inside the top 20 nationally and return a bevy of talent on both sides of the ball, the question on the lips of many UK and SEC fans is simply this; can the Cats make that critical next step up and be a perennial contender in the meat grinder known as the SEC?
Well, there are plenty of reasons pointing to the Cats doing just that. Heck, they even are pegged as an SEC East division favorite to topple Georgia and a College Football Playoff contender.
Yeah, the CFP. The elite of college football elite.
Now before we get to that, we might need to pump the brakes a bit. The Cats are good- really good- but to get to those lofty heights, UK has to survive and thrive in the SEC.
Speaking of which, let’s get into some predictions. That’s what you’re here for anyways, right?
Week 1- Miami (Ohio). The Redhawks come to Lexington as a preseason MAC favorite. The Hawks will be well-coached, but I think the Cats have too much SEC-type talent. And there is a difference between top MAC talent and top SEC talent.
PREDICTION- Win. (1-0)
Week 2- at Florida. If there was ever a time to catch Florida at home, this is it. The Gators are rebuilding behind new coach Billy Napier and his staff of a thousand (see their team pic.) I’ll take the Cats staff all day and twice on Sunday.
PREDICTION- Win. (2-0)
Week 3- Youngstown State. Wildcat coach Mark Stoops and ace assistant Vince Marrow are from the Youngstown Ohio area and recruit the area heavily, which has helped lead to the Cats’ meteoric rise. I like Penguins, the Youngstown mascot, too. But it will be way too much Kentucky in this one.
PREDICTION- Win (3-0)
Week 4- Northern Illinois. The other MAC favorite makes a trip to the LEX. Not going to lie, this one will be a very close game I think. The Huskies are tough and solid. The Cats don’t put them away until the fourth quarter.
PREDICTION- Win (4-0)
Week 5- Ole Miss. The next SEC test comes to town in the form of Lane Kiffin and the Ole Miss Rebels. The last time they came to the house, quarterback Matt Corral went off and offensive coordinator Jeff Lebbe called a near-perfect game and the Rebels won in a shootout. Corral has made his way to the NFL now, Lebbe is at Oklahoma, but the Rebs will be a lot of the same. However, I think the Cats will be able to adjust defensively and the offense makes enough plays to win.
PREDICTION- Win (5-0)
Week 6- South Carolina. Don’t buy into this Mark Stoops versus Gamecock coach Shane Beamer hype. USC is good and the Cats know it. They have a very good quarterback in Spencer Rattler and SEC talent scattered across its roster. However, the Cats have their own stud signal caller in Will Levis, and he lives for this type of hyped matchup. Plus, at this point all-conference back Chris Rodriguez Jr. should be rounding into form from his suspension by now. Give me the Cats at home.
PREDICTION- Win (6-0)
Week 7- Mississippi State. The Cats should be rolling by now obviously. They’ve seen high-level offenses in Ole Miss and South Carolina that is pass heavy, so the Air Raid of Mike Leach and quarterback Will Rogers shouldn’t be a shock. Plus this game isn’t at Starkville and those awful cowbells rattling endlessly.
PREDICTION- Win (7-0)
Week 8- at Tennessee. Here it is folks. If the Cats are 7-0 and the Vols are 5-2 or better, this game is ESPN College Gameday-type material and the most anticipated UK-UT matchup ever. It is well known the struggles of the Cats in Neyland Stadium, but this isn’t your father’s or grandfather’s Cats and the last time UK was there they blistered the Vols 35-7. That said, the Cats are primed for a setback, and the Vols can deliver it. Give me the Vols in a nailbiter and I’ll have to watch it at home in safety.
PREDICTION- Loss (7-1)
Week 9- at Missouri. If by the chance the Cats go to Columbia undefeated and beat the Vols then this game has trap written all over it. The Cats have struggled there as much as any place in the SEC. But I’m thinking the Cats lose in Knoxville and are an angry bunch going to Mizzou. The Cats were pushed around the last time there; that’s not happening again. A physical Kentucky does the pushing this time.
PREDICTION- Win (8-1)
Week 10- Vanderbilt. It could be said that this game is the trap game with Georgia coming to town next, and that could be a possibility. But to be a trap game, the team doing the upsetting has to be comparable to the team being upset usually. Unless the Cats literally fall on their face, I don’t see it.
PREDICTION- Win (9-1)
Week 11- Georgia. The Dawgs are the defending national champs and are not ready to give up the ghost and go away quietly. They heard at length how teams like Kentucky are closing the gap on them. Thing is, the division is closing the gap. UGA is still loaded with talent, albeit not like the group that pretty much were NFL Draft picks in 2021. They are the kings of the hill that the Cats must topple. I think UK has closed the gap, but just not enough to win.
PREDICTION- Loss (9-2).
Week 12- Louisville. Oh, Louisville. You always open every season full of hope, full of love, and full of…well, you get the meaning. Yes, you have a good signal caller in Malik Cunningham and recruited a very good class to the Ville. But the Cats will be waiting and Bobby Petrino isn’t walking through the door (or is he- just kidding). The Cats prove a point that they are the flagship football program in this state.
PREDICTION- Win (10-2).
There you have it. The Cats go 10-2 and play on New Year’s Day. The gap is indeed closing for Kentucky to get to elite status, and actually, all 12 games are winnable. If one of those two losses are wins, the Cats could be in Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game. Win there and everything is on the table.
Just like 2021, the Cats have high expectations in 2022 and will have a new offensive coordinator for the second straight year. However, I expect the offense to look a lot like it did last year schematically.
A big difference between this season and last is the fact that Will Levis already has one year under his belt and isn’t coming in as a first-time starter. He has experience and a much better understanding of this offense.
We will be seeing a lot of new names catching passes, but this is the most excited I have been about Kentucky’s wide receivers’ room maybe in the Mark Stoops era.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Cats should be very stout once again. Despite there being some new names up front, the defensive line has the potential to be very good.
Behind them is maybe the deepest room on the entire roster as they are returning key starters, like DeAndre Square, Jacquez Jones, and Jordan Wright at linebacker.
On top of that, they bring back Trevin Wallace who played a lot last year in a backup role and brought in talented freshman Keaten Wade who has been a standout performer in camp.
The Cats have the talent and schedule to put together a special season and really compete for the SEC East.
However, I believe that they will once again come up just short of making it to Atlanta and will finish 2nd in the East behind Georgia.
I predict the Cats will lose to Georgia and one of at Florida, at Ole Miss, or at Tennessee.
The Cats are coming off their second 10-win season in the last four, but the hype for the 2022-23 season might be the greatest of them all.
Let’s start with the offense. This is Will Levis’ team, and they will go as far as he can take them. If he lives up to his potential, and showcases an elite NFL skillset then it is going to be a fun season for the Big Blue Nation.
A sneaky piece to this equation is going to be how effective the running backs will be in the absence of Chris Rodriguez. If Ramon Jefferson, JuTahn McClain, and others can contribute it will allow Rich Scangarello to utilize the backs as they are meant to be in this 49ers style offense.
For the defense, they have quite possibly raised the ceiling in my eyes through fall camp. After being praised by Mark Stoops and Brad White over and over, it is clear that this is an experienced and a very talented group.
The biggest question mark for everyone heading into camp was the secondary, and do they have enough playmakers once you get to the corner position. It sounds like those players in the CB room have taken a huge step forward, led by Carrington Valentine, and Ole Miss transfer Keidron Smith. If they continue to trend in an upward direction it will absolutely help the sting of losing Vito Tisdale for the year.
Overall the hype for this team is real, and very well could be the best team Mark Stoops has had position-by-position since he took over in Lexington. Add that in with a favorable schedule and the stars are aligning for what could be a special season for the Cats.
When you look at the schedule overall yes the road games are scary, but it is that three week stretch of Ole Miss, South Carolina, and Mississippi State that will determine where this season goes.
They win all three and they could be heading to Knoxville with the chance to play Georgia at home for the East. They lose a few of those, and this season ultimately winds up in the 7-5 or 8-4 range.
For me I think the Cats will end up sweeping those three games, and will head into the bye week 7-0, with a date with the Volunteers in Knoxville on Halloween weekend.
Overall it is that last month of the season that will cause a little slip up for Kentucky, as I think they will ultimately come up just short at Tennessee and against Georgia.
Kentucky is coming into this season with their best team yet under Stoops. Will Levis is the best UK quarterback since Tim Couch, the defense and O-line have had to replace some guys but should still be their dominant selves, and the special teams unit is returning its solid core.
The running back and wide receiver rooms are filled with stars, even with Wan‘Dale gone and Rodriguez’s playing status in limbo. The team is ready to go out and win almost all their games because in most of those games they will be the better team.
That makes me very optimistic but I want to separate my expectations from my predictions, because like last season I’m predicting that UK will exceed expectations so long as the initial expectations are not set too high. I expect them to lose no more than 4 total games including the bowl, and to have at least one victory against the group of Georgia, Tennessee, Florida, and Ole Miss. This group is too good to finish 8-5 or worse—that would be a disappointment. 9-4 would not be, and certainly not another 10-3 campaign. Now, for my predictions:
Cats win big in opener and pull off close on in Swamp to start 2-0 and get the Gators out of the SEC East picture. Finishing September with two more easy non-conference wins, they lose twice in October. Out of the group of Ole Miss, South Carolina, Mississippi State, and Tennessee they beat two of the teams and lose to the other two. Bouncing back with wins over Mizzou and Vandy they enter the Georgia showdown 8-2 and win their first game against the Bulldogs under Stoops.
Following it up with the annual Louisville pounding, they finish 10-2 and hopefully play in their first ever SEC Championship game but I don’t think Georgia will have any other conference losses unfortunately. 10-2 though is my regular season prediction.
Coach Mark Stoops is headed into his 10th season with his best recruiting class ever, greater depth at all key positions, and a “franchise quarterback” in Will Levis as the Wildcats enter the 2022 season hoping to finally break the glass ceiling and get to Atlanta.
However, the elephant in the room remains the same as Stoops has never beat defending national champion Georgia in his tenure at Kentucky, going 0-9 with the closest contest coming in a 27-24 loss during the 2016 season. In fact, Kentucky has only defeated the Bulldogs twice since 1997 (2006, 2009) with Georgia winning the last 12 games on its way to claiming the SEC East title in four of the last five seasons.
But could this be the year that Stoops and the Wildcats finally get the best of the Bulldogs, who will make the trip to Lexington on November 19th? Assuming the Cats can beat Florida and Tennessee on the road, the Bluegrass could be rockin’ in mid-November with a potential showdown to see who will head to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game.
Kentucky, ranked No. 20 in the first college football poll, should be in a great position in 2022, playing eight of its 12 games at Kroger Field. The four road games – Florida, Ole Miss, Tennessee, and Missouri – will certainly be interesting, but Brad White’s defense may be the best it’s been since the 2018 season, giving Kentucky’s offense plenty of opportunity to get things rolling under new offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello.
Stoops has already made history at UK, recording two 10-3 seasons (2018, 2021) to get to double figures for the first time since 1977. The Cats have only reached the 11-win mark once in school history, an 11-1 season in 1950 under Bear Bryant that included a Sugar Bowl win over the No. 1-ranked Oklahoma Sooners.
Another 10-win season is a very real possibility, assuming Levis can remain healthy, and if an unknown set of receivers can make enough big plays to open things up for a strong running back room that’s led by all-conference performer Chris Rodriguez.
In the end, the reality is that No. 3-ranked Georgia is still the most dominant team in the East and the Wildcats will most likely lose at least one of its four road games -perhaps at Ole Miss where Coach Lane Kiffin has the Rebels ranked No. 21 in the first AP Poll. That means a 10-2 regular season and a second place finish in the division for the Wildcats in 2022.
The good news is that Kentucky will have another golden opportunity to win a bowl game (they enter the year on a four-game winning streak) which might just lead to the first 11-win season in more than 70 years.
The Big Blue Nation is certainly full of buzz ahead of 2022. Along with a back who potentially will rush for more yards than anyone else in school history, a bonafide first-round prospect of a passer, and a stout front seven, UK enters this fall with the most respect on paper in the modern era.
The Cats are ranked inside the nation’s top 25 in both the Coaches and AP Poll, which is undeniably a singularity in these parts. But, the preseason clout doesn’t stop there. Both of ESPN’s major analytic figures — the SP+ and Football Power Index — have Stoops’ Troops ranked in the teens. According to the latter, UK hasn’t been rated this high at any point in the season since 1977.
Needless to say, the positive attention has raised expectations in Lexington, and a large chunk of folks are confident the Cats will be the East Division’s second-best team. That said, the Dudes in the Desert have settled on an under/over win total of 8 games — a pretty reasonable number that will force bettors out of their comfort zones when prospecting the Cats’ futures.
Last year, a balanced-driven approach with healthy deception tactics begat a SEC-high offensive Success Rate (50.7%) and First-Down Rate (29.5%). Plus, Kentucky’s marvelous maulers upfront ensured the operation faced as little adversity as possible. Only Tennessee averaged more rush yards before contact.
The Cats also cracked the conference’s top five in Havoc Rate, Broken Play Rate, and Pressure Rate allowed. Only the two schools from Mississippi topped the Cats’ 3-and-Out Rate. UK also placed inside the top-four in Points/Play and TD Rate. Those bullish on Big Blue will hone in on the aforementioned optimism.
Likewise, according the SP+, UK will face the SEC’s third-easiest slate of opposing defenses. So, replicating those down-to-down results isn’t a crazy ask. Rich Scangarello’s squad might not earn the top spot again in any category, but even with some new offensive linemen and pass catchers in the starting lineup presenting unknowns, confidence is firm in replicating those returns.
Down-to-down consistency is important, but no metric has a greater correlation to victory in today’s game than explosive plays. And since passes tend to have larger upsides than runs, boosting Kentucky’s bottom line in this respect will be needed if expectations are to be beaten. And that means at least one raw receiver will have to answer the call.
UK’s “Robinson Role” is in good hands as Virginia Tech-transfer Tayvion Robinson is a proven underneath YAC weapon. Against top-70 defenses at his former school when omitting uncatchable chances, he posted a sterling 2.7% Drop Rate and 4.2% Creation Rate (or percentage of targets where he went above and beyond to generate a reception). The respective SEC averages in league play last year were 10.2% and 2.4%. Not to mention, the former Hokie has shown skill to win in tight windows or on contested targets despite his 5’11 frame. His contested and inaccurate pass Catch Rates in those 21 games against “competitive” opponents finished 20 percentage points over last year’s intraconference mean. The consensus is he’ll be Will Levis’ top target.
But two youngsters are turning heads this summer. I can tell you had On3 created multiple Freshman All-American Teams both Barion Brown and Dane Key would have been selections. Expected to see volume as first-years, UK squarely needs them to win downfield and open up their normal operation in the box. Play Action will still be a vital part to the Cats’ attack, and deep two-man patterns tend to work best when the offense has two guys who can get open on their own merits.
Case in point: don’t forget what happened to Levis’ verticality in the middle of last season. Despite starting strong and owning the SEC’s best Explosive Pass Rate to start the year, he went six full weeks without completing a pass beyond 20 yards downfield. From South Carolina to Miss State, Levis was 0/10 with 2 INTs and 8 uncatchables on a 7.9% Makeup.
While the Cats played tougher opponents, this was the stretch where Josh Ali was on the mend. When Ali was good-to-go and UK had its two wideouts handy, Levis’ figures improved to 20/38 with 4 TDs, 4 INTs, 11 uncatchables on a 16.8% Makeup.
Leaning into the Shannahan offense, tight ends and full backs will continue to see plenty of usage. But despite some formational tweaks, this shouldn’t be much of a year-over-year change. After all, UK already was one of the most prone SEC offenses to deploy two tight ends under Liam Coen.
That being said, I’m expecting more versatility out of this lot in 2022. Brenden Bates and Izayah Cummings return. Plus, Keaton Upshaw is back in the fold. As a hoss, he could be used in iso ball situations or as an additional vertical option line up out wide. Jordan Dingle seemingly has accumulated nothing but glowing reviews and extended playing time seems eminent. And 6’5 Tennessee-transfer and converted running back Dee Beckwith could be an interesting toy for Scangarello to utilize.
But while the pass game will drive most conversations, the run game will remain Kentucky’s identity. And you cannot talk about UK’s rushing without bringing up the best back in the SEC, Chris Rodriguez. As someone who has charted every SEC offensive snap since 2018, I can tell you the efficiency and scope at which he operates is not normal. And frankly, it’s downright criminally under-appreciated by analysts, media members, and casual fans alike.
Yes, in terms of volume, Rodriguez checks those basic boxes. Again, he has a legit shot at walking out of Lexington with more rushing yards than anyone else to don the Blue and White. But he was also the only SEC running back last year with at least 50 carries who finished inside the top 10 in Success Rate, YAC average, Broken Tackle Rate, Negative Rate, Explosive Run Rate, and Gumption Conversion Rate.
That last one is a fancy way of honing in on runs where first defensive contact occurs in the backfield but a positive gain was still made. Rodriguez is the only SECer with a such clip over 50% each of the last two seasons. While it’s easy to credit the Big Blue Wall for paving run lanes, C-Rod runs as well as anyone in college football.
Additionally, exactly zero SECers over the last five years have averaged at least 3.9 rush yards after contact consecutive seasons — except for Rodriguez who has accomplished that feat three years in a row.
Yes, the fumbles killed his profile. But analytically speaking, those shouldn’t carryover to this season — unless he’s the next Tiki Barber. He is a stud and even with the looming suspension, my pick for SEC RB1 for yet another season; and the SEC coaches tended to agree with that assessment.
Not to dismiss the situation around Rodriguez, but snatching former FCS All-American Ramon Jefferson as a counterpunch this offseason may have been one of the most quietly impactful additions of any team in the league. Having a veteran ball carrier with a career 4.5 YAC average and 42.9% Broken Tackle Rate — even if it’s against lesser foes — is one helluva ointment for that unfortunate sting.
While some have affinity for the other backs in UK’s stable, statistically and situationally, none of them stand out or appear ready to be the standard bearer ball carrier. Though this was penned prior to Jefferson’s arrival, this piece should articulate the importance of his and Rodriguez’s special output relative to his peers.
On Brad White’s side of the ball, the approach should remain rock steady. Not that White never blitzes, but it’s clear Stoops’ greater defensive philosophy involves bringing four, dropping eight into coverage, and running a myriad of looks on the backend in an attempt to confuse passers into mistakes. UK will hope to keep opponents in front of them and force long drives with rinky-dink gains. This tends to translate to the Cats banking on winning situationally (ie on 3rd downs or in the red zone) and the unit typically dons a forgettable Success Rate and 1D+TD Rate.
The unit’s strength lies in UK’s linebackers. JJ Weaver is the day-one alpha edge rusher. Jordan Wright, Jaquez Jones, Tevin Wallace, and DeAndre Square round out the rest. Underclassman Octavian Oxidine, Justin Rogers, and Freshman All-American Deone Walker are a well-rounded group up front on the interior.
Having a quality pass rush is the only way for UK to create more margin of error; especially considering the relative talent level of the secondary. Overall, the depth might be laudable, but looking around the conference, that group is not in the top half of the SEC.
White’s guys are set to face the SEC’s EASIEST slate of opposing offenses. So even though it’s a nice time to dunk on Mitch Barnhart and some recent snafus, perhaps throw him a bone scheduling cupcakes for the Cats to mash.
The SP+ projects five one-score games with three “toss-ups” (or games expected to be decided by four points or less). The closest matchup will occur in Week 2 in the Swamp, where the Cats will presumably be without their Bell Cow. Per Bill Connolly’s metric, that game against the Gators will be a pure pick ‘em that can go either way.
Road games at Ole Miss and Tennessee are the other two. Assuming the rest of the schedule goes to plan — meaning the Cats beat who they’re supposed and visa versa — Big Blue only has to prevail in one of these games to beat its eight-game win total mark. Sign me up for those odds.
While Tennessee could be a sleeping giant with a juggernaut offense, Ole Miss and Florida are much more vulnerable due to starting new QBs, skill players, and listening to new defensive play callers.
Sure, the Cats could slip up against South Carolina, Missouri, Mississippi State, or Louisville, but having three of those contests at Kroger Field is a big bonus. And even though the Cats are clear underdogs against Georgia, both the SP+ and FPI like their chances to upend the defending champs more than any other team this regular season.
Stoops has done a wonderful job building his brand and changing expectations in the Bluegrass. I mean, he’s the only guy since Blanton Collier was fired in 1964 to have a winning record coaching the Wildcats. Even life-long cynics and jaded fans are caught up in the recent momentum. So forgive me for forgoing my normal skeptical tone in lieu of one rosy-eyed and full of whimsey: I love the Cats to win nine games this year.
Now we want to hear your predictions in the comment section below!