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Season Preview: Kentucky

By Matt Smith
SouthernPigskin.com
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Matt Smith previews the 2022 Kentucky Wildcats

2022 SEC Season Preview: Kentucky

KENTUCKY WILDCATS

Head Coach: Mark Stoops – tenth season at Kentucky and overall (59-52 overall, 29-45 SEC)

Offensive Coordinator: Rich Scangarello (first season)

Defensive Coordinator: Brad White (fourth season)

2021 Recap: 10-3 (5-3 SEC); defeated Iowa in Citrus Bowl

Kentucky has established itself under Mark Stoops as a program that will bottom out at about 7-5 and max out at about 9-3. 2021 was an up year for the Wildcats, as a bowl win over Iowa gave the program its second 10-win campaign in the last three non-COVID seasons. Penn State transfer quarterback Will Levis combined with speedy receiver and Nebraska transfer WanDale Robinson and offensive coordinator Liam Coen to bring an element of explosiveness to the Kentucky offense. The defense was steady as usual aside from a rough midseason stretch in which the Wildcats’ three losses all came in consecutive games. Apart from the bowl win and another blowout victory over rival Louisville, the highlight was probably the Wildcats’ first home win over Florida in 37 years.

2022 Schedule

Sept. 3 – MIAMI (OH) (7 p.m. ET)

Sept. 10 – at Florida (7 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Sept. 17 – YOUNGSTOWN STATE (Noon ET, SEC Network)

Sept. 24 – NORTHERN ILLINOIS

Oct. 1 – at Ole Miss

Oct. 8 – SOUTH CAROLINA

Oct. 15 – MISSISSIPPI STATE

Oct. 29 – at Tennessee

Nov. 5 – at Missouri

Nov. 12 – VANDERBILT

Nov. 19 – GEORGIA

Nov. 26 – LOUISVILLE

Under Center

Levis was a summer arrival, but he quickly blended with Coen, who had just arrived from the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams. Coen returned to the NFL and Robinson entered the draft, so only Levis returns among the terrific trio. Size and physicality (and eating bananas with the peel still on) are Levis’ greatest strengths, but a progression in his game in 2022 requires him to take better care of the football. He threw 13 interceptions in 2021, recording just three clean sheets in 13 games.

Levis completed 66 percent of his passes, which is winning football, especially with the increase in 20-plus yard completions from just 23 in 2019 to 41 in 2021. Beyond running back Chris Rodriguez, his supporting cast is pretty raw. I don’t buy into the top-10 NFL Draft pick hype with Levis, but he can certainly finish his career as a successful college quarterback that allowed Kentucky to take a step forward as an offense and a program. Sticking with the pro-style system by replacing Coen with Rich Scangarello from the 49ers was a savvy move by Stoops.

In The Trenches

Despite some added balance from Levis and the NFL coaching impact, Kentucky has a pretty clear offensive identity as it enters Year 10 under Stoops. The Wildcats want to impose their will physically. Levis can do much of the dirty work himself, but Rodriguez is a grizzled veteran with more than 400 career carries. If Rodriguez stays healthy, he’ll leave Lexington as the school’s all-time leading rusher. The offensive line has some new faces, including its coach, as Eric Wolford departed for Alabama. Zach Yenser, who worked with Scangarello in San Francisco, replaces Wolford.

Defensive line could make or break the 2022 Wildcats. Gone are second-round NFL Draft pick Josh Paschal at end and plugger Marquan McCall at tackle. Recruiting has been solid, but there’s not much experience. Outside linebacker J.J. Weaver, who pulled off the rare double of leading the team in both sacks and interceptions in 2021, could be the difference-maker for this front seven. Linebackers DeAndre Square, Jacquez Jones and Jordan Wright are all seniors with a ton of experience.

On The Edge

It’s hard to gauge the impact of a loss like Robinson because Kentucky hasn’t had a talent like him in a long time. The receiving corps isn’t completely depleted, but the ‘Cats will be relying on transfers Javon Baker (Alabama) and Tayvion Robinson (Virginia Tech) to contribute immediately. Levis had an advantageous situation last season. At least in the passing game, that is less so the case in 2022. A great quarterback elevates the talent around him. Levis will need to do that with this group for Kentucky to maintain an ideal level of balance.

The secondary took a dip in takeaway production a year ago, as the group produced just four interceptions. Against pass-happy offenses like Mississippi State and Tennessee, Kentucky was torched, allowing 51 of 59 passes to be completed. There will be some time to work out some kinks, but an October stretch of South Carolina, Mississippi State and at Tennessee will be the true test to see if the ‘Cats have shored up the back end of the defense.

Ranking The Units

1.   Running Backs

2.   Linebackers

3.   Quarterbacks

4.   Defensive Backs

5.   Offensive Line

6.  Defensive Line

7.   Receivers

Schedule Analysis

As usual, things are pretty manageable for the Wildcats. There are eight home games, as Kentucky has one of the softest non-conference slates in the country. The issue is that most of the key swing games are all on the road – Florida, Ole Miss and Tennessee. To make the Nov. 19 showdown with Georgia matter, the Wildcats will have to pull a mild upset or two away from home. The off week comes nicely before going to Knoxville, but the Vols get a de facto off week as well, as they host Tennessee-Martin. Getting Mississippi State at home is always a plus, as the road team hasn’t won this annual contest since 2014.

Season Prediction

Kentucky is a low-variance team. You can pretty much guarantee they’ll get to seven wins with how it schedules the non-conference, the division it plays in, and the consistency against teams it should beat. Can the 2022 Wildcats bust through the 9-3 ceiling? I’m not buying it.

The NFL hype with Levis is completely real. The league loves him. Me, less so. The swing games on the road will hurt this team, and I’m not totally sold on this defense being as strong as some past Wildcats units. They’ll fall right within their normal Overton window, but dreams of 11 wins and pushing Georgia for the SEC title are too much of a fairytale.   

Record: 8-4 (4-4 SEC)

Bowl: Liberty Bowl vs. Iowa State

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.