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SEC Season Preview: Kentucky

By Matt Smith
SouthernPigskin.com
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2016 should be the season when Kentucky finally ends its bowl drought.

Head Coach: Mark Stoops – fourth year at Kentucky; fourth year overall (12-24 overall, 4-20 SEC)

Offensive Coordinator: Eddie Gran (first season)

Defensive Coordinator: D.J. Eliot (fourth season)

2015 Record: 5-7 (2-6 SEC)

Returning Starters: 13 (9 offense, 4 defense)

2016 Schedule

Sept. 3 – SOUTHERN MISS (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU)
Sept. 10 – at Florida (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)
Sept. 17 – NEW MEXICO STATE (4 p.m. ET, SEC Network Alt.)
Sept. 24 – SOUTH CAROLINA

Oct. 1 – at Alabama
Oct. 8 – VANDERBILT
Oct. 22 – MISSISSIPPI STATE
Oct. 29 – at Missouri

Nov. 5 – GEORGIA
Nov. 12 – at Tennessee
Nov. 19 – AUSTIN PEAY
Nov. 26 – at Louisville

What We Know

- This might be the SEC East’s best receiving corps. Every Wildcat player who caught a pass last season returns, led by a trio of juniors in Jeff Badet, Dorian Baker and Garett Johnson. Their biggest issue was the passes that weren’t caught, however, as drops were a consistent issue a year ago. This group should benefit from the addition of Gran as offensive coordinator. Gran’s Cincinnati offense averaged 360 passing yards through the air last season despite having to play multiple quarterbacks.

- This is the best offensive line Stoops has had at Kentucky. Four starters return, led by fourth-year starting center Jon Toth. Replacing left tackle Jordan Swindle is the only hole to fill, but junior Cole Mosier has three starts over the past two season, so he’s not completely green. The running game has improved every year under Stoops, finishing last year with 163 yards per game. The pass blocking needs to be better after allowing 30 sacks in 2015.

- There are plenty of options at running back. Stanley “Boom” Williams is the biggest game-breaker of the unit, but senior Jojo Kemp has the most career yardage, edging Williams by just 19 yards. Neither are true power backs, but 230-pound junior Mikel Horton will get the call when tough yards are needed. The three combined for 15 touchdowns and more than 1,700 yards last season, and give Kentucky a diverse and experienced backfield to complement an equally promising receiving corps.

What We Don’t Know

- Can Drew Barker put the Louisville game behind him? As a redshirt freshman, Barker started the final two games of 2015, completing just six of 22 passes, or 27.3 percent, in a loss to Louisville as the Wildcats let a 21-0 lead and a bowl bid slip away. It’s been nine months of having to deal with the bitter defeat to a rival for Barker – the first big mental hurdle he’s faced as an SEC quarterback. There will be many more to come.

- Will the new-look front seven hold up? Only one of the team’s top eight tacklers from last season return, and that’s free safety Marcus McWilson. The Wildcats were dealt a major blow earlier this month when junior defensive end Regie Meant left the team for personal reasons. Junior Matt Elam and sophomores Kengera Daniel and Denzil Ware must take sizable leaps forwards, with Ware the team’s best pass rusher. Josh Forrest is a big loss at middle linebacker, but Kentucky adds in Nebraska transfer Courtney Love, who attended the same high school as Stoops in Youngstown, Ohio.

- What happens if and when Kentucky gets to five wins? The Wildcats have had either seven or 12 chances (depending on whether or not you already counted last year’s November game against Charlotte as a win) over the past two seasons to clinch a bowl bid, and have gone winless. This team will again reach five wins, but what happens next? Will there be too much pressure to exorcise the demons of the recent past? Stoops can probably survive another 5-7 season, given the mess he inherited, but it’s time for this program to get over the hump and end its five-year bowl drought. 

X-Factor

Defensive Line – The rest of the defense should hold up, but Kentucky needs defensive linemen to emerge against a schedule that is heavy with run-first opponents. It’s time for Elam to live up to the potential with which he arrived in Lexington when he chose the in-state Wildcats over Alabama and man the critical nose tackle position. Kentucky isn’t going to win games 17-14 this year, but the ‘Cats at least need some stops to get its capable offense on the field enough.

Ranking The Units

1.   Wide Receivers

2.   Running Backs

3.   Offensive Line

4.   Defensive Backs

5.   Quarterbacks

6.   Linebackers

7.   Defensive Line


Season Prediction

The breakthrough will finally occur. Despite an 0-4 record in SEC road games, dropping the Wildcats to 1-27 this decade in conference road games, Kentucky will hold serve in Lexington, including mild upsets of Georgia and Mississippi State. The offense will be far better under Gran, and the defense will do just enough to tilt most of the team’s swing games in the right direction. A bowl win would give the Wildcats their first eight-win season since 2007.

Overall Record: 7-5

SEC Record: 4-4

Final CFP Ranking: NR

Bowl: Liberty Bowl vs. West Virginia

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.