Finally, college football is back, and with it comes what hopes to be a special year for the Kentucky Wildcats!
Ahead of the new season, we gathered our staff to make predictions on how Kentucky’s 12-game regular season plays out.
The 2023 Cats might have the most preseason hype of the Mark Stoops era as they brought in arguably the top transfer quarterback in Devin Leary after Will Levis headed off to the NFL.
In addition to bringing in Leary, Stoops brought back Liam Coen as the offensive coordinator, which has everyone excited about the potential of Kentucky’s offense.
We all saw what Coen can do with a stud quarterback (Will Levis) and a stud wide receiver (Wan’Dale Robinson).
Now we will all get a chance to see Coen work with a stud quarterback and multiple stud wide receivers, with Dane Key, Barion Brown, and Tayvion Robinson all lining up for the Cats.
Defensively, the Cats are expected to be stout once again, especially on the defensive line, with sophomore Deone Walker being a force for opposing offensive lines.
Despite a lot of preseason hype, I don’t expect the Cats to beat out Georgia for the SEC East crown and predict that they will finish third in the East behind Georgia and Tennessee.
I predict the Cats will lose to Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama.
No doubt there is a lot to be excited about with this Kentucky Football team, but the Wildcats once again have a tough road to travel in the SEC.
This might be one of the best wide receiver groups Kentucky has had in a long time, and if Devin Leary looks like he did in 2021 and Liam Coen can revive an offense that struggled last season, this might be the best passing attack of the Mark Stoops era.
Combine that with the addition of Vanderbilt running back Ray Davis and a strong tight end room, Kentucky has a lot of weapons. The question will once again be the offensive line. The coaches made building up the O-Line a priority, but only time will tell how that group holds up.
Defensively, there is a lot to like, particularly in the front seven but some questions exist in the secondary.
This has the ability to be a really good Kentucky team but finish with eight wins, which is where I think the Wildcats will land.
Coming off of a disappointing season, Mark Stoops and company are looking for a huge bounce-back season.
Looking at the overall roster... they have a team that could make some serious noise.
With the return of Liam Coen, this UK offense will pair together star receiving talent alongside a star QB in Devin Leary. Not to mention a solid core of running backs and tight ends to bring even more options to this Kentucky offensive unit. If the Big Blue Wall returns to form, the offense could actually become the driving force behind this team winning games this season.
All of the BBN has come to expect a solid defense. Brad White has become one of the best coordinators in the conference, and that expectation should not change heading into the 2023 season.
Are there some question marks? Absolutely. But if there is anyone who can make those become positives, it’s White and Mark Stoops.
The schedule for the Cats is a tough one this season. With games against Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee, they have the opportunity to make some noise in the SEC. Unfortunately, they also head to Starkville, which has been Kryptonite for Kentucky teams over the last several trips.
Despite the tough schedule, this roster is good enough to compete and will push for another 2nd-place finish in the SEC.
This has the potential to be the most complete Kentucky Football team we’ve seen in most of our lifetimes, so long as the Wildcats are able to stay healthy. The Wildcats have the potential to stay in the SEC East and College Football Playoff race for the first eight weeks of the season (including Week 8 bye before playing Tennessee), as Georgia is the only obvious loss during that span, and it’s hard to penalize anyone for losing in Athens.
This brings me to what I believe will be one of the biggest Kentucky vs. Tennessee matchups in program history. Both programs’ schedules set up well for them to enter this matchup at 6-1 overall, as the Vols should drop their Week 7 game at Alabama.
That’s why I believe this game will define the Wildcats’ season.
Win, and it propels the Wildcats to a 10-2 finish, including a monumental win at Mississippi State, where they haven’t won since 2008, and a home loss to Alabama while remaining in the hunt for the SEC East until the very end.
Lose, and it likely ends the Wildcats’ hopes of winning the division, so they end up dropping another game between the road game at Mississippi State and the road game at South Carolina in addition to the home loss to Bama.
As I do in most cases, I side with history, and even Kentucky’s best teams have lost to the Vols, so I’m predicting the same here.
Even so, 8-4 is nothing to bat an eye at. In fact, Kentucky has never finished a regular season with an 8-4 mark, so a bit of history will be made this season!
Last season, many fans believed Kentucky could have won at least nine games last year or more, but they were not successful in their expectations after taking a bad loss to Vanderbilt and South Carolina at home.
Now after firing offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello and UK returning Liam Coen, Kentucky hopes to rebound after their tough performance.
There are many tough games on the schedule with Georgia, Mississippi State, and South Carolina all on the road, plus playing Alabama and Tennessee at home that could equate to five losses, but due to the return of Coen, I believe he could fix the offensive struggles for UK this upcoming year.
I believe Kentucky starts out 5-0 but takes their first loss to Georgia, and they start 5-1 but struggle to the finish line by going 3-3 in their last six games with wins to Missouri, South Carolina, and Louisville but losses to Tennessee at home, Mississippi State away, and Alabama at home.
Although one more win may not look impressive due to Coen returning with this tough schedule, many fans would be ecstatic to win eight or more games this year.
Last season the Cats entered into the season with a lot of hype, most of it centering around future early draft pick Will Levis. At one point, the team made it to being ranked as high as number seven early on. but after a few injuries, including one to Will Levis, and not having offense coordinator Liam Coen, the team didn't do as as well as expected and finished 7-6.
Well, this season, the Cats enter the year unranked. Will Levis is gone, but offensive coordinator Liam Coen is back, and the Cats may have brought in the best transfer QB in Devin Leary in the entire country.
So I personally think the Cats are set to be even better this season, despite the preseason rankings. But the schedule is a lot harder this season. They bring Alabama to Lexington, South Carolina is slated to be better, they’re going to Starkville (a place you have lost six straight times), they get Tennessee at home, and of course, they’ll face Georgia on the road.
With that being said, I think the team is going to put a significantly better product on the field this season but only come out with one more win in the regular season. I think the Cats will finish 8-4 with losses to Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, and one of the South Carolina or Mississippi State games.
Heading into the 2023 season, it’s hard to really hard for me to peg down what expectations I even have for Mark Stoops and this Kentucky Football program.
In the transfer portal era, there are so many things to rejuvenate and create excitement while also littering the off-season with question marks.
After a disappointing 7-6 (3-5) season that ended with being shut out in the Music City Bowl, the Cats will aim to right the ship with Devin Leary taking over under center.
It’s amazing to live in a world where Kentucky can lose their quarterback to the NFL and seemingly roll right into the next season without skipping a beat.
To lay it on even thicker, it’s not crazy to think Leary puts up improved numbers with the return of offensive coordinator Liam Coen.
The NC State transfer will also have the luxury of throwing to elite talents like Barion Brown and Dane Key, both of whom now have a year of SEC football under their belts.
When Kentucky opens the season on Saturday, September 2nd, I’ll be keeping a close eye on Ray Davis and the running back position to see who’s bolstering the workload.
It’s hard to imagine a Mark Stoops-coached team that doesn’t have “the guy” in the backfield. So I’m anxiously awaiting to see if Davis or another player quickly sets himself apart or if a committee approach emerges as the best option.
At this point, we all pretty much know what we’re getting with a Brad White-coached defensive unit, and that’s a tough, consistent effort that allows for UK to typically always remain within striking distance.
As always, I’m expecting a monster season out of senior leader J.J. Weaver. If he can play a full 12 games, it’ll go a long way defensively.
The Big Blue Nation will get to congregate a few more times this season with only five away games total. Winning on the road in the SEC is tough business, so I’m always keeping a close watchful eye for now the schedule shakes down and if it looks favorable for the Cats or not.
In 2023 the home game split is great, but bringing Alabama to Lexington may not pack that same homefield advantage fuzzy feeling in terms of an expected victory.
That being said, I do like the schedule, particularly getting Tennessee and Florida at home.
Ultimately, I’m predicting Kentucky will finish the season with an 8-4 record finishing strong winning their last two games on the road against South Carolina and Louisville.
UK has to do whatever they can to avoid dropping three games in a row at any point during the season.
- Ball State - Win
- EKU - Win
- Akron - Win
- Vanderbilt - Win
- Florida - Win
- Georgia - Loss
- Missouri - Loss
- Tennessee - Win
- Mississippi State - Loss
- Alabama -Loss
- South Carolina - Win
- Louisville - Win
Kentucky is absolutely loaded with talent this season, but they have a difficult road ahead of them and a few question marks.
The departure of Rich Scangarello and the return 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 freshmen, and all of a sudden, Kentucky is looking dangerous.
Will Levis is headed to the NFL, but former NC State quarterback, Devin Leary, is looking ahead to a big bounceback season as he takes the reins of the offense. Leary was nothing short of awesome in 2021, but last season, he wasn’t great before getting injured. He was adjusting to a new offensive scheme and lacked talent around him, but he definitely took a step back.
However, Coen locked in on him before his return was even announced, and the No. 1 QB transfer on the market is expected to have a big year. Plus, he’ll have Barion Brown and Dane Key, who are looking to build on their standout freshmen performances, and the tight end room is stacked.
Chris Rodriguez is gone, and that’s a huge loss. The Cats don’t have a clearcut bell cow in the backfield, but they have a ton of options. Ray Davis is the starter, and he surpassed 1,000 yards last season at Vandy, but he hasn’t taken ahold of the starting job quite as expected.
The running back room also consists of Jutahn McClain, Lavell Wright, Ramon Jefferson, who played just two snaps last year before suffering a season-ending injury, and NC State transfer Demie Sumo-Karngbaye. Jamarion Wilcox, arguably the top running back recruit signed under Stoops, also figures to be in the mix. There’s no shortage of options, but who do the Cats go to on a third or fourth and short or inside the five-yard line? That remains to be seen.
The Big Blue Wall is looking to return to its former glory, as the unit was one of the worst in all of Power Five football last season. Northern Illinois transfer Marques Cox is a huge addition and allows Kenneth Horsey to slide back to his natural guard position. Jager Burton is taking over at center, which also Eli Cox to slide back over to his natural guard position, where he performed at an All-American level in 2021.
Despite adding USC transfer Courtland Ford, it appears Jeremy Flax will start again, at least for now, at right tackle, where he struggled mightily last season. In short, this unit is the biggest question mark heading into the season. Not only is it difficult to have offensive success with as poor of play as they had last season, but Leary has dealt with injury issues throughout his career, and keeping him upright is imperative.
As for the defensive side of the ball, the Cats will surely miss the veteran presence of stars like Deandre Square, Jacquez Jones, and Carrington Valentine, but Brad White still looks like he has that side of the ball ready to roll. The return of J.J. Weaver should significantly help the pass rush, and Deone Walker looks like a future NFL Draft pick. The defensive line room as a whole is loaded.
At linebacker, Trevin Wallace has first round potential, and D’Eryk Jackson is a veteran thumper.
Finally, cornerback isn’t the safest position unit on the roster, but they’ve still got talent. Andru Phillips and Maxwell Hairston will start, but JQ Hardaway may just be biding his time for a starting role.
At safety, it’s arguably the deepest group on the roster with Zion Childress, who’s poised for a massive breakout season, to go with Jalen Geiger, Alex Afari, and Jordan Lovett looking to contribute.
While I think every game on UK’s schedule is winnable other than Georgia, I expect them to drop a couple of others. I expect the Cats to open the season 5-0 with wins over Ball State, EKU, Akron, Vandy, and Florida.
Then, there’s the dreaded road matchup with the Bulldogs. The Cats should be able to beat Missouri at home. Tennessee in Lexington is winnable, but I’m not going to pick them to beat the Vols until they do so consistently. I’m also not going to pick Stoops to win on the road against Mississippi State, despite them being down this year, because Stoops hasn’t won on the road against an SEC West team during his tenure at UK, and the home team has won every matchup in this series since 2015.
I never thought in a million years I’d say this, but I think following a disappointing loss to MSU, Kentucky will return to Lexington with a chip on their shoulder to knock off the Alabama Crimson Tide. Nick Saban’s squad just has too much uncertainty at quarterback.
Finally, I expect road wins against South Carolina and Louisville.
I think UK is in store for a solid season. But after drinking the Big Blue Kool-Aid last fall, I’m leaning into a more grounded projection for 2023.
Last year, UK entered the season with sizable expectations for a program with an all-time winning percentage hovering around .500. Per ESPN’s SP+ Ratings, Kentucky had its highest preseason ranking EVER. Plus, the majority of our round table panelists predicted a ten-win campaign, which of course, didn’t come close to happening.
Despite finishing with one of the stingiest defenses in the game, the offensive transition from Sean McVay’s to Kyle Shannahan’s scheme stumbled from the start. UK went from the SEC’s most successful offenses (50.1%) to the 3rd-least (39.9%). Stagnant and frustrating, the offense fell well short of aspirations and capped the final product.
Now, Rich Scangarello is gone. Liam Coen is back. The Cats turned to the transfer portal to bolster key positions, and buzz is once again growing within the Bluegrass.
The strength of the offense is in the passing game. Back in May, I donned Devin Leary as a top-100 player in the country in addition to being QB2 within the SEC. His accuracy shines. Even with an injury-marred 2022, Leary excelled at hitting tight windows and soundly connected on his midrange targets. When your job is throwing the football, placement skills are at a premium. UK’s passer checks that box, which in turn should allow the unit to capture more consistency.
Captain Obvious wanted to chime in with the fact completions come easier when passes are on target. And while his predecessor flashed with high-end throws, the more slight Leary‘s tape has multiple balls top 50 yards past the line of scrimmage. As the season approaches, his stock continues to soar. He’s a dark horse all-conference pick and the primary catalyst for why UK could exceed expectations. Need more convincing? Click HERE.
That said, the pass catcher Leary will have at his disposal raises UK’s ceiling as well. Playing into his ability to find tight window victories, sophomore Dane Key returns as one of the conference’s best bang-for-buck options in such spots.
Only one SECer rocks a preferable 63.2% Catch Rate and 57.9% Success Rate on such targets when omitting uncatchable throws. Overall, the youngster sports a top-3 First Down+TD Rate. Barion Brown’s jets made him a freshman All-American and a player defenses cannot afford to take their eye off of.
Only four returning SECers can boast a preferable yards-after-the-catch average than his 8.2 clip. Though both freshmen had drop issues — an ailment Leary suffered from in Raleigh — the consensus is that butterfingers should occur less often for the Cats this year.
Old man in the middle Tayvion Robinson rounds out the starters from the slot. Like before his injury, he should be a nice matchup weapon against backers and provide UK’s passer with relatively easy targets underneath. Dekel Crowdus and true freshman Anthony Brown are also in the rotation and could provide some additional potency.
That said, as a player with an injury history, UK won’t do jack unless the O-Line can keep Leary clean. He has pretty nice feet and can manipulate throwing lanes. But it’s just inherently more challenging for shorter dudes to see over girthy blockers. Obstructed vision can result in errancy or, worse, turnovers. Though UK has some new bricks upfront, replicating last year’s 40% Pressure Rate Allowed would be disastrous and clearly counterproductive to righting this ship.
Moreover, the present stable of backs cannot erase errors quite like C-Rod. Along with rocking the league’s best Broken Tackle Rate, UK’s all-time leader in 100-yard performances was the only SEC player since 2018 to log at least 60 carries and top a 3.9 YAC average in back-to-back seasons – he did it FOUR times.
Plus, when looking at instances where he was hit behind the line, over half of these tries across his career went for a positive gain. The SEC average is in the high 30s. Replacing that zeal is unlikely. So, the line must make up the difference.
UK’s OL doesn’t have to compete for the Joe Moore Award, but they cannot set up their skill players for failure and expect the team to beat their Vegas under/over-win total projection. At least, there’s nowhere else to go but up in terms of providing a cushion for rushers. UK’s 1.4 rush yard before contact average was literally the worst in the country last year. Ugly stuff.
But hopefully, that’s in the past.
Entering Week 1, the front five (left to right) consists of Northern Illinois transfer Marquis Cox, Ken Horsey, Jagar Burton, Eli Cox, and Jeremy Flax, along with former USC Trojan Courtland Ford being the next man up.
Ray Davis isn’t a slouch, but I would be cautious considering him more than anything but a replacement-level SEC back. Yes, he managed to eclipse 1,000 yards behind a bad line. But 45% of them came in the four games against Hawaii, South Carolina, Florida, and Elon. The FCS outlier should speak for itself, but the remaining defenses ranked in the triple-digits in Expected Points Added/Run.
Behind a poor line, his efficiencies finished squarely near the league’s cellar. But even his rushing stable metrics — aspects largely under his control — were no more than average within the SEC last year. With no other proven ball carrier, either Davis has to considerably up his might, or the O-Line needs to provide enhanced cushion than what he’s used to seeing. Jutahn McClain and super-duper senior Ramon Jefferson will also be in the rotation fighting for touches.
Demie Sumo-Karngbaye, another NC State transfer and New Jersey native like Leary, is a wildcard at running back. For a group needing some pop, he presents to have the most juice.
As a pass catcher out of the backfield and a rusher with sturdy size, his versatility could see him seize more and more snaps as the year progresses. Though his workload was inconsistent as his previous stop, BBNers will hope the Millsap Doctrine plays out with DSK — or a theory in sports statistics where players that log desirable efficiencies in limited but consistent workloads ought to maintain similar output with increased usage. FWIW, he owned a 3.9 YAC average, 36.6% missed tackles forced rate, and 20% Explosive Run Rate, all while averaging 9.8 yards/target.
The strength of UK’s defense is in its interior and secondary. UK’s three main “defensive tackles” all weigh at least 309 pounds and are very skilled at taking up space, which allows UK’s backenders to sit back and keep everything in front of them. This style might not result in a massive amount of havoc defending the run, but Kentucky’s big bodies can clog lanes and cave in blockers with their sheer size.
Octavious Oxidine, Josaih Hayes, and KeShawn Silver are set to be useful in their own rights. But the most impact stands to be sensational sophomore Deone Walker. At 6’6, 345, he’s a mobile Friesian horse denying avenues to opponents, casting shade on passers, and collapsing pockets. Capable of lining up anywhere on the line, he was an obvious inclusion for my Top 5 SEC Freaks at SEC Media Days. Walker will undoubtedly command attention, which should help someone else come free.
To that point, UK led SEC play in creating turnover-worthy plays last fall. Let me say that again, UK led SEC play in creating turnover-worthy plays. And the Cats’ 6.4% such clip also earned the gold medal. And wouldn’t you know it, more such opportunities resulted in the Cats cracking the conference’s top three in total takeaways and such rate vs. league foes. Being able to put more players into coverage and attempt to confuse passers clearly worked out. And while UK’s Sack Rate finished in the SEC’s bottom four, Brad White’s defense notched a top-five Pressure Rate. Pass rushers didn’t always get home, but they often forced mistakes.
And like how UK’s downs have advantageous size, the secondary is stretchy and lengthy themselves. Fulfilling the Stoops prototypical build at the position, all five backenders stand over 6-feet tall. Jordan Lovett and Zion Childress are the two safeties and are two frugal coveragemen. Childress, in particular, had the position’s second-lowest Yards/Coverage Snaps Allowed last fall. Alex Afari will help on the inside and pull double duty at strongside linebacker. His ability to lock down the wing is an underrated aspect of UK’s scheme. Corner is strong but unproven. Among the four top options, the group has totaled only four starts, which all belong to Andru Phillips.
On the other side, Maxwell Harrison will start the year with the first team. Their collective size ought to help squeeze windows and force opposing passers to be careful with their placement.
J.J. Weaver is the Cats’ top dawg getting after the QB. However, relative to SEC standards, he’s a moderate option. Nationally, his 9.7% Pressure Rate was average. Though a solid backer at tallying defensive stops and being reliable in coverage, his primary skill needs sharpened since Kentucky doesn’t have any other specialists in this department. If he’s the one relied on to get a takedown, being only a mediocre pressure cooker won’t cut it in the hell’s kitchen of the SEC.
Because of that, I worry the Cats’ rush won’t have enough gas to be productive game-in and game-out. White has a history of scheming and being prudent with stunts and blitzes. So this roster shortcoming is not the end of the world if the team pulls together for another worthwhile effort. Northern Illinois transfer and reserve LB Daveren Rayborn might be able to be an option in certain packages based on his past showings. But experienced part-time starters Trevin Wallace and D’Eryk Jackson will be the primary anchor on the inside at linebacker.
The season starts with immense obvious potential for the Cats to snatch wins across the first stanza. According to ESPN’s SP+, UK enters this year as the nation’s 24th-best team with the sixth-best defense. Since the offense is being perceived as a mediocre unit, there is an opportunity for an upsell analytically.
As is, Kentucky is supposed to prevail by at least 30 points in its first three games while being favored to defeat the ‘Dores by over two touchdowns per the metric. If you missed the game over the weekend, Vanderbilt seems to have some issues on the offensive line and defensive backend. Barring catastrophe, most tend to concur the Cats will be 4-0 when Florida comes to town to close out September.
UK’s staunch defensive line will be needed to upend a hungry Florida team looking for payback. As an offense driven by its run game, the Cats’ chances will be all the better if the Gators have to overly rely on Graham Mertz. As of now, the SP+ likes UK to prevail by about a field goal thanks to the homefield advantage of Fort Kroger.
Assuming the projections are accurate, the Cats will then head to Athens for a brightly-lit matchup. Since the Bulldogs stand to be the nation’s best team, an unbeaten and likely-ranked UK team presents to be a fair game, especially considering the relative – and I do mean relative – success Stoops’ defense has had slowing down UGA of late. But like common sense and the Good Ole Fashioned Eye Test hint, the Dawgs are the easy favorite. ESPN’s FPI only gives UK a 12% chance of winning.
The Cats won’t get any further opportunities to lick their wounds. From this point on, the schedule is full of potholes. Ultimately, the SP+ determined the Cats to have the nation’s 13th-most challenging schedule. And of their final six games, five track to be decided by less than a touchdown – the home tilt against Alabama being the lone exception where the Tide are favored by about 12 points.
I like how UK’s defense matches up with Missouri. If the Cats’ are built to disrupt poor lines and alter average passers, the Tigers seem vulnerable. Plus, the secondary’s length should disrupt some of the speedsters Missouri plans to lean on. And while Blake Baker’s defense is one of the more underrated groups in the game, the Cats’ roster appears to be better at logging explosive plays, which can easily turn closely contested rock fights.
Kentucky should match up with Tennessee well to where it should at least be competitive. Plus, the Cats get to play at home following a bye week after the Vols travel to Tuscaloosa. Sadly, I feel Joe Milton will outgun Leary, and UT’s depth will tilt the scales, which will lead to a three-game skid.
I firmly believe UK is better all the way around when compared to Mississippi State. And even though Zach Arnett is a rookie head coach, Stoops is yet to win in Starkville. With the Tide coming to town the following week, it’s an easy trap game for the Cats if they look ahead. UK was run off the field the last time they met Nick Saban. And even though Alabama presents to have its own flaws, few view Kentucky as an upset option in mid-November.
While that skid will sting, the BBN will be uplifted by back-to-back wins to close out the year. Analytically, both the South Carolina and Louisville games are considered true tossups. The SP+ figures the games will be decided by a point. But even though the Cats will be on the road in both, I don’t trust South Carolina’s run game on either side of the ball to box out the Cats, nor do I trust the Cards to instantly regain their mojo in a series that has been decided 179-56 over the last four meetings.
The Cats could bottom out or – like last year – drop a couple of clunkers. But I remain optimistic Big Blue beats expectations set by the dudes in the desert and wins eight games.