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SEC Season Preview: Kentucky

By Matt Smith
SouthernPigskin.com
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Previewing the 2017 Kentucky Wildcats.

Head Coach: Mark Stoops – fifth year at Kentucky; fourth year overall (19-30 overall, 8-24 SEC)

Offensive Coordinator: Eddie Gran (second season)

Defensive Coordinator: Matt House (first season)

2016 Record: 7-6 (4-4 SEC)

Returning Starters: 17 (8 offense, 9 defense)

2017 Schedule

Sept. 2 – at Southern Miss (4 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network)

Sept. 9 – EASTERN KENTUCKY (Noon ET, SEC Network Alt.)

Sept. 16 – at South Carolina (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network)

Sept. 23 – FLORIDA

Sept. 30 – EASTERN KENTUCKY

Oct. 7 – MISSOURI

Oct. 21 – at Mississippi State

Oct. 28 – TENNESSEE

Nov. 4 – OLE MISS

Nov. 11 – at Vanderbilt

Nov. 18 – at Georgia

Nov. 25 – LOUISVILLE

What We Know

-The running game should be excellent. Yes, two of the top three running backs are gone, but the offensive line returning four starters is what should allow this unit to match 2016’s performance. Kentucky improved by 71 yards per game and 0.7 yards per carry from 2015 to 2016. Benny Snell had a phenomenal freshman season with nearly 1,100 yards and 13 touchdowns, good enough to be named a freshman All-American. Center Jon Toth is a significant loss, but he is all that the Wildcats are replacing on the offensive line.

-I love the linebacking corps. Jordan Jones was a contributor as a freshman, but no one outside of the Kentucky football facility saw his sophomore season coming. Jones led the team in tackles with 109, and added four sacks and four pass breakups. Many top linebackers left the conference after last year, so an All-SEC season could be in the cards for Jones. Senior Courtney Love, a Nebraska transfer who hails from the same hometown as Mark Stoops (Youngstown, Ohio) is a tough run defender and vocal preference. Josh Allen also returns as a starter to complete the trio.

-To paraphrase the band Styx, last year was no Gran illusion. Second-year offensive coordinator Eddie Gran might be the most underrated play-caller in major college football. I mentioned the improvements in the running game above, but let’s look at what happened at his former employer, Cincinnati after he left. The Bearcats offense plummeted from averaging 34 points per game in Gran’s final season to 19. Gran has most of his offense back and an easier schedule with Alabama rotating off. This unit should match last year’s 30 points per game mark.

What We Don’t Know

-Behind Snell, what is there? Boom Williams and Jojo Kemp combined for more than 1,500 yards and 13 touchdowns to complement Snell last year. This year, there isn’t a running back besides Snell who had more than 100 yards last season. Junior Sihiem King leads the way with 80 yards in 2016, but he checks in at only around 175 pounds, so producing between the tackles when Snell needs a breather will be difficult. Redshirt freshman A.J. Rose has some upside, but his next carry will be his first.

-Has the defense plateaued? In four of the last five seasons, the Wildcats have allowed between 31.0 and 31.3 points per game, with 2015’s 27.4 average the lone outlier. There’s still a talent gap between the ‘Cats and the top of the conference, so getting below 25 points per game might just not be realistic. Where Kentucky needs to make hay is in the red zone and by forcing turnovers. They were in the middle of the pack in the league last year in both categories, but moving up a couple slots could mean the difference between five or six wins and eight wins.

-Are the Wildcats ready to end their 15-game skid against Florida, Georgia and Tennessee? Mark Stoops wanted none of it at SEC Media Days, but Kentucky’s program, to Stoops’ credit, has reached the point where another 0-3 record against the division’s bluebloods will make it nearly impossible for Kentucky’s season to be deemed successful. They get the Gators and Volunteers at home, but they’re a combined 1-59 against those two teams since 1987.

X-Factor

QB Stephen Johnson – How have we gone this long without mentioning the quarterback? Johnson wasn’t expected to start last year, but took over for an injured Drew Barker in Week 2 and has never relinquished the role, even with Barker now healthy. Johnson’s a dual-threat quarterback, so the 55 percent completion percentage isn’t all that surprising, especially with averaging nearly 15 yards per completion. If he can improve in the intermediate passing game, this offense could really rock.

Ranking The Units

1.   Offensive Line

2.   Linebackers

3.   Running Backs

4.   Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

5.   Quarterbacks

6.   Defensive Line

7.   Defensive Backs

Season Prediction

Kentucky may be a better team than last season, but I don’t expect that to translate into a better record. A 4-2 start will prevent the Big Blue Nation from switching into basketball mode in mid-October, but the back half of the schedule will be too daunting. The Wildcats will slump to a 1-5 finish and be left home for the holidays for the sixth time in seven years. Stoops will face some heat for falling back to 5-7, but this will be a fun team to watch that will be done in by close losses after going 4-1 in one-score games a year ago.

Overall Record: 5-7

SEC Record: 2-6

Final CFP Ranking: NR

Bowl: None

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.