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SEC Season Preview: Kentucky

By Matt Smith
SouthernPigskin.com
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Matt Smith takes an in-depth look at the Kentucky Wildcats.

SEC Season Preview: Kentucky
Head Coach: Mark Stoops – ninth season at Kentucky and overall (49-50 overall, 24-42 SEC)
Offensive Coordinator: Liam Coen (first season)
Defensive Coordinator: Brad White (third season)
2020 Recap: 5-6 (4-6 SEC); defeated N.C. State in Gator Bowl
Kentucky beat the teams it should have beaten in the SEC and lost to six teams that finished .500 or better. Of Kentucky’s four SEC wins in 2020, only Mississippi State did not change coaches after the season. The Wildcats lost two games it probably should have won against Auburn and Ole Miss, so the first losing season since 2015 needs context. Chris Rodriguez emerged as the next quality running back in Lexington with 785 yards and 11 touchdowns, while the defense really only had significant issues with Alabama and Ole Miss. The bowl win over a solid N.C. State team was a nice finish to a quirky season.

2021 Schedule
Sept. 4 – LOUISIANA-MONROE (Noon ET, SEC Network)
Sept. 11 – MISSOURI (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network)
Sept. 18 – CHATTANOOGA (Noon, ESPN+)
Sept. 25 – at South Carolina
Oct. 2 – FLORIDA
Oct. 9 – LSU
Oct. 16 – at Georgia
Oct. 30 – at Mississippi State
Nov. 6 – TENNESSEE
Nov. 13 – at Vanderbilt
Nov. 20 – NEW MEXICO STATE
Nov. 27 – at Louisville

Under Center
Terry Wilson has departed for New Mexico after starting parts of the past three seasons. Three candidates will battle during preseason camp to determine who Wilson’s replacement will be. Junior Joey Gatewood has the most experience with the team, including a start in a loss to Georgia last season. Redshirt freshman Beau Allen and Penn State transfer Will Levis are also in the mix to run new coordinator Liam Coen’s offense.

The goal is to expand the passing game after an overreliance on the running game throughout most of the Mark Stoops era. In Stoops’ eight seasons, Kentucky has only completed 60 percent of its pass attempts in one season – its 10-win 2018 season.

In The Trenches
Stoops has given his program an identity with quality play at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Kentucky did suffer two major losses on the offensive line with left tackle Landon Young and guard Drake Jackson, but adding in LSU’s Dare Rosenthal out of the transfer portal to complement stud Darian Kinnard as bookends sets the Wildcats up nicely. Kentucky ranked in the middle of the pack in both run and pass blocking in 2020, so there is room for improvement despite losing Young and Jackson.

On defense, the Wildcats need a pass rush. The next Bud Dupree or Josh Allen doesn’t appear to be on the roster, so Stoops and coordinator Brad White will need to get creative to improve on last year’s struggles with just 15 sacks in 11 games. Josh Paschal leads the way as a well-rounded defensive end, while there is some promise with nose guard Marquan McCall. Kentucky filled a major hole at inside linebacker earlier in the summer in landing Ole Miss transfer Jacquez Jones to pair with DeAndre Square.

On The Edge
Rodriguez is the established No. 1 running back, but, in a theme you may have noticed, Kentucky was active in the transfer portal, and brought home Nebraska transfer Wan’dale Robinson, who spurned the in-state Wildcats coming out of high school. Robinson is a speed-in-space player who can line up both in the backfield and out wide. The ‘Cats need all the pass catchers they can find, as depth is lacking behind leading receiver Josh Ali and emerging tight end Keaton Upshaw, the team leaders in yards and touchdowns respectively in 2020.

The secondary welcomes back three starters from a unit that finished third in the nation in 2020 with 16 interceptions. They’ll need to fill one opening at cornerback, but this is a pretty solid group that held up well outside of a couple games where they were simply out-talented. Stoops made his mark early in his career as a defensive backs coach, so this unit is usually adequate at worst.

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

Schedule Analysis
SEC Rank: 14
National Rank: 53
The Wildcats have their usual three lay-ups in the non-conference, as New Mexico State and Louisiana-Monroe could be two of the worst teams in the FBS. LSU rotates on to the schedule and makes its first trip to Lexington since Kentucky’s big upset of the No. 1 Tigers in 2007. The Week 2 home game with Missouri is huge, as the winner will have a legitimate shot to finish second in the division. An idle week before going to Mississippi State is a plus. Overall, this is about as soft as an SEC schedule can get.

Season Prediction
Kentucky is a low-variance team. You can pretty much guarantee they’ll get to six wins, but without some that 2018 magic, eight regular-season wins is probably the ceiling. Home games with Missouri and LSU and road trips to Louisville and Mississippi State should define the season. I’ll call for 1-3 in that quartet, which means the Wildcats will be leaving a win or two on the table this season.

The running game will some have huge days, but with the new-look passing game, I’ll believe it’ll be effective when I see it. This will be a very Kentucky season, which is always a safe prediction given the stability Stoops has brought to this program.
Record: 7-5 (3-5 SEC)
CFP Ranking: NR
Bowl: Liberty Bowl vs. Oklahoma 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.