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2019 SEC Preview: Kentucky Wildcats

By Matt Smith
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Matt Smith breaks down everything you need to know about the 2019 Kentucky Wildcats.

Head Coach: Mark Stoops – seventh year at Kentucky and overall (36-39 overall, 17-31 SEC)

Offensive Coordinator: Eddie Gran (fourth season)

Defensive Coordinator: Brad White (first season)

2018 Record: 10-3 (5-3 SEC); defeated Penn State in Citrus Bowl

Returning Starters: 8 (4 offense, 4 defense)

2019 Schedule

Aug. 31 – TOLEDO (Noon ET, SEC Network)
Sept. 7 – EASTERN MICHIGAN (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU/SEC Network Alt.)
Sept. 14 – FLORIDA (7 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Sept. 21 – at Mississippi State
Sept. 28 – at South Carolina

Oct. 12 – ARKANSAS
Oct. 19 – at Georgia
Oct. 26 – MISSOURI

Nov. 16 – at Vanderbilt

What We Know

-Benny Snell is now in Pittsburgh, but it’s far from a guarantee that the Wildcats running game will collapse. Asim (A.J.) Rose is a much different back than Snell. Rose is more likely to break a 60-yard run than Snell was, but Snell excelled at avoiding negative plays in the running game. That level of efficiency on early downs kept the ‘Cats out of an excess of obvious passing situations and propelled them to 10 wins. Sophomore Kavosiey Smoke is more in the mold of Snell with a short, sturdy frame. It’s impossible to replace Snell, but the Rose-Smoke (also good name for a Kentucky bourbon) tandem is a solid complementary pairing.

-The other element of the running game will be a strength. The preseason loss of left tackle Landon Young to a knee injury last year was a big blow, but Young is back to join a pair of other returning starters up front. The right side of the line has some questions, but the left side is rock-solid with Young, guard Logan Stenberg (26 career starts) and center Drake Jackson (20 career starts). This group has been very consistent in pass protection, allowing between 28 and 31 sacks in each of the last four seasons.

-The defensive front is loaded with experience. Between tackles Quinton Bohanna and Calvin Taylor and end T.J. Carter, the Wildcats have 38 career starts. Aside from the effect now-departed edge rusher Josh Allen had against the pass, Kentucky dropping its yards allowed per carry from 4.9 in 2017 to 4.3 in 2018 may have been the biggest factor in the jump from 7-6 to 10-3. Maintaining that production against the run is a must this season with all of the new faces along the second and third levels of the defense.

What We Don’t Know

-Does Terry Wilson have room to grow? He doesn’t have to match last year’s 67 percent completion percentage, but his 7.0 yards per attempt was alarmingly low for how efficient he was in 2018. Not having tight end C.J. Conrad will likely impact both of those statistics, as Conrad was a reliable target in the short passing game for Wilson. In 2018, Kentucky won SEC games in which Wilson threw for 71 and 18 yards. That won’t happen again this year. Wilson almost certainly won’t hit 67 percent again, but that might not be a bad thing if the passing attack can discover a long-lost downfield element.

-You won’t find a larger loss of experience than Kentucky is dealing with in the secondary. Five seniors, part of the early Stoops recruiting surge in 2014 and 2015, are gone, and projected safety starter Davonte Robinson was lost for the season in July. Strong safety Jordan Griffin, who has starting experience in sub-packages, is the most talented player in a young unit. Likely cornerback starters Cedrick Dort and Brandin Echols did not play for the Wildcats last season – Dort redshirted, and Echols was in junior college. In a strong year for quarterback play in the SEC, this unit may be the most concerning of any in the conference.

-Was this program simply built for one big year in 2018? Or can it become a consistent No. 3 program in the SEC East? History would certainly suggest the former, but Stoops has done a wonderful at job in a slow but steady build at one of the few jobs in the SEC that actually allows for some patience. 2019 could be a telling year for the future of this program. There’s going to be a dip, but if it’s only by one or two wins, that’s a great sign that this program will be an annual bowl team as long as Stoops is around.

Ranking The Units

1. Offensive Line
2. Linebackers
3. Defensive Line
4. Running Backs
5. Receivers
6. Quarterbacks
7. Defensive Backs

Schedule Analysis

National Ranking: 43
SEC Ranking: 11
Swing Game: Sept. 21 at Mississippi State
Trap Game: Sept. 7 vs. Eastern Michigan

It’s a beautiful schedule for the Wildcats. There are eight home games. The two SEC West opponents are Arkansas and Mississippi State. The idle weeks are spaced out nicely with one in early October and another in early November. The early September road trips to Mississippi State and South Carolina in back-to-back weeks will be telling. Get one of those, and there’s a great chance at getting to at least 4-4 or 5-3 before a pretty light November, meaning another 9-3 campaign isn’t all that crazy.

Season Prediction

After doubting the Wildcats a year ago, I’m now a Stoops believer. 2019 is going to be a fourth straight season with a .500 or better record in SEC play. The winning streak over Florida will end at one, but Kentucky will pull a mild surprise against Mississippi State and score a big win over Missouri to help build a solid 8-4 season. They won’t be flashy, of course, but the ‘Cats will win more one-score games than they lose once again to set up a pretty fun bowl matchup between teams with contrasting styles.

Overall Record: 8-4
SEC Record: 4-4
Final CFP Ranking: NR
Bowl: Belk Bowl vs. Syracuse

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.