At some point, Mark Stoops is going to have to get the Kentucky Wildcats somewhere near the head of the class in the SEC East. He’s brought them to bowl games in each of the last two seasons, but the fact remains that this is a team that hasn’t won a bowl game since 2008 and hasn’t played in a relevant January game since the 1999 Outback Bowl.
Eventually, the same old story isn’t going to be good enough in Stoops’ sixth season. A bowl game is the expectation this year in Lexington and failing to get to that point could see Stoops on the unemployment line in December.
The Wildcats hung around in the SEC East until November in 2017, but the chances of that happening this year are slim. Kentucky is set to +27500 to win the SEC at 5Dimes, with only Vanderbilt listed as a longer shot. Although Kentucky has reached a bowl game in consecutive seasons, the sportsbooks are tipping the team to fail to do so this year with a regular season win total of 5.5 with -125 on the under. Keep in mind that these win total odds do not include conference championship games or bowl games.
|10/6||@ TEXAS A&M||+15|
|11/17||MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE||-4.5|
Stephen Johnson didn’t have a particularly great season last year for the Wildcats, but he definitely showed some flashes both with his arm and his legs. However, after guiding UK to the Music City Bowl last season, Johnson walked away from football and retired, leaving Stoops scrambling to try to find a new quarterback.
The options? Poor. Terry Wilson, Gunnar Hoak, Danny Clark and Walker Wood are the candidates to take snaps this year, but the quartet has combined to take zero FBS snaps. Hoak figured to be Johnson’s backup this season as he was last year, but Wilson, a JUCO transfer, is in the mix as well.
The most likely scenario is that both men will take a tangible amount of snaps this year. Hoak is more of a pocket passer and has gotten praise from Stoops about his accuracy in the spring. Wilson is more of a running quarterback and has already shown that he is likely going to be more of a threat with his legs than his arm.
However, the cupboard isn’t totally barren. Remember that this unit averaged 25.5 points per game last season in spite of the fact that Johnson was often subpar. Benny Snell is already one of the top running backs ever to don the blue and white, and he has a chance to become the Wildcats’ all-time leading rusher with a big season. He ripped off 1,333 yards last season and found the end zone 19 times.
The Wildcats also have one of the best receiving tight ends in the SEC in C.J. Conrad. Conrad is hoping to stay healthy after undergoing four surgeries in his previous three seasons.
All things considered, the Wildcats hung in there defensively last year. Sure, Kentucky allowed at least 20 points in each of its last 10 games, but this was the unit that kept this team in games against opponents like Florida, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Northwestern.
Eight of the 11 starters from last year are back, including the two best players on the unit, Mike Edwards and Josh Allen. These two men figures to be tremendous leaders in their senior season and are two of the projected six senior starters on this unit.
At SEC Media Day, Stoops talked a lot about the team speed that he’s expecting to have this year on the defensive side of the ball. Moving Josh Paschal from outside linebacker to a down lineman should make this hybrid defense look a lot quicker. Blitzing is going to be the name of the game for the Wildcats this year, especially from a secondary that features four seniors who have all logged at least 25 starts for UK coming into this year.
Whomever steps into the role as the kicker for Kentucky is going to have big shoes to fill. Austin MacGinnis was one of the best kickers ever in program history. Now that MacGinnis is gone, it’ll likely be one of the two true freshmen signed to this year’s class, Chance Poore or Max Duffy, who take over the kicking duties.
Matt Panton, who boomed 64 punts for an average of 42.3 yards per boot last season, will be back and could be a real weapon for flipping field position.
Pick: Over 5.5 (-105, 5Dimes)
It’s gutsy to back the Wildcats this year with all of the question marks at the quarterback position. Poor play under center can sink any team, particularly here in the SEC. If Stoops can figure out who his quarterback is in the first few weeks of the year, the Cats should be 2-1 going into big swing home games against Mississippi State and South Carolina.
A win in one of those two games will help get the Wildcats positioned for a spot in another December bowl game. Don’t confuse this club for an SEC contender, but six winnable home games along with manageable road trips at Missouri and Tennessee should provide enough opportunities to get over the total.
-END OF 2018 PREVIEW-
Big Blue Nation had more to root for than just a basketball team last season. The Kentucky Wildcats were already bowl-eligible, but it certainly didn’t hurt to knock off in-state rival Louisville during that crazy final weekend of the regular season. Now, it’s all about how the Wildcats build on that success. There was something to watch on a field instead of a court in December for the first time since 2010 for Kentucky fans. That’s certainly something that Mark Stoops and the players would like to do again this year.
Perhaps simply getting to a bowl game isn’t enough, since the Wildcats haven’t won a bowl game since 2008, but it’s about baby steps for a program that just had its first winning season since 2009. Most of the core remains in place with 17 starters, so the Wildcats are certainly set up for a run at back-to-back bowl-eligible seasons. The building process has been long and arduous in Lexington, but the future that everybody has been waiting for seems to finally be here.
With stability at the quarterback position in what seems like the first time in forever, the season win total line at 5Dimes Sportsbook is sitting at 7, with the under heavily juiced at -155. Keep in mind that the number does not include conference championships or bowl games. It only applies to the regular season.
|Date||Opponent||Projected Line||Expected Wins|
|9/2||@ Southern Miss||-13.5||0.84|
|9/16||@ South Carolina||+4||0.38|
|10/21||@ Mississippi State||+4.5||0.37|
Total Expected Wins: 6.25
JUCO transfer Stephen Johnson stepped in and pretty quickly erased the memories of Drew Barker and Patrick Towles. Barker was still on the roster, but he only threw 36 passes. It was Johnson that threw for 2,037 yards with a 13/6 TD/INT ratio and ran for another 327 with three touchdowns. The numbers weren’t eye-popping, but the passing game was enough to create balance. The running game was the bread-and-butter for the ‘Cats. Stanley “Boom” Williams and Benny Snell both rushed for over 1,000 yards, making them the only FBS team to have two guys crack that mark last season. Snell did it as a true freshman and the 5-foot-11, 223-pound battering ram will serve as the feature back this season.
That is one area of concern for the Wildcats. With Williams out of the equation and top receiver by yardage, Jeff Badet, also out of eligibility, depth at the skill positions could be a problem. The next leading rusher after Snell and Johnson was junior Sihiem King with just 82 rushing yards. The offensive line returns four starters, though that also requires a little bit of position shifting. It would be a big surprise to see the ‘Cats run for 5.4 yards per pop this season and the lack of a two-headed monster at running back may mean the ball will be in Johnson’s hands a little bit more.
Mark Stoops was supposed to establish a defensive presence in Lexington. The former defensive coordinator at Florida State and Arizona hasn’t really done that during his tenure. Dating back to his first year in 2013, the Wildcats have given up more than 31 points per game in three of his four seasons. Last season, the Wildcats gave up 5.1 yards per carry. This year, they’ll have a new defensive coordinator in Matt House, who was previously at Pitt and FIU, as he replaces DJ Eliot.
The Wildcats have their top four tacklers back and nine starters overall on defense, but they’re changing schemes again, so that may cut into the experience factor a little bit. You would think that a Stoops defense would have a little bit more big play potential, but the Wildcats have only managed 88 sacks in four years. The Wildcats do have starting corners that stand 6-foot-3 and 6-foot-4 in Chris Westry and Derrick Baity, so that is a nice luxury to have, but teams ran the rock down UK’s throat last season. Until that changes, length in the secondary doesn’t mean quite as much.
Kentucky avoids Alabama, LSU, and Auburn on the schedule. The two crossover games come against the teams projected to finish last and second-last in the SEC West with Mississippi and Mississippi State on the schedule. This is actually one of the weakest schedules for an SEC team, so that had a lot of influence on the season win total odds and where the juice has gone.
Win Total Pick: Under 7
The juice on this win total means that the number is more like 6.5, which means that we don’t have a ton of margin on my projected number of wins. The Wildcats were outscored by a touchdown per game on average in SEC play last season, yet managed to go 4-4. They scored that stunning win over Louisville in a crazy game when neither defense could stop anything. The Wildcats may, indeed, make it back to a bowl, but doing so with seven wins in the regular season seems like a stretch and going 8-4 seems like an even bigger reach.