It’s a hard to know what to make of the Kentucky Wildcats. When last we saw the Bluegrass State Felines they were turning a 5-1 start to the 2014 season into a 5-7 season by losing their last 6 in a row to LSU, Mississippi State, Missouri, Georgia, Tennessee, and Louisville. Granted, the Wildcats fattened up early on a diet that included the UT-Martin Skyhawks and UL-Monroe Warhawks, not to mention a Vanderbilt team that turned out to be epically bad in Derek Mason’s first season. But still. The collapse down the stretch for Mark Stoops’ team was jarring. A team which appeared to be going in the right direction ended the campaign with a close 44-40 defeat at the hands of their instate rivals from Louisville and many of the same old questions that have dogged Kentucky teams for years.
Call me crazy, but I think that Kentucky is still headed in the right direction under Stoops. That being said, it’s important to remember that the fact that you’re driving down the right road doesn’t mean you won’t reach a mammoth tree and/or sinkhole blocking it at some point. That I think was what the Wildcats dealt with in 2014. It’s not that they weren’t better than some of those really bad Kentucky teams that got Stoops the job prior to the 2013 season (a 2-10 affair from which 2014 was a definitive step forward). Kentucky was better in 2014. But they weren’t better than the teams they finished with, most of whom would be judged among the top 40 or so in the country by the time the dust settled on 2014 (4 of them finished in the final AP top 25, and LSU and Tennessee received votes).
Kentucky returns 7 starters on offense, 7 starters on defense, and both its kicker and punter from 2014. Kentucky will be better in 2015 than in 2014. But as always with Kentucky teams that are better than last year, the real question, the question Kentucky fans are concerned with, is whether the Wildcats will be better than at least 3 of the teams in the SEC East, and in doing so be good enough to make it to a bowl game?
I wouldn’t rule it out. The biggest difference between this team and past Kentucky teams? For the first time in recent memory Kentucky has not just experience but depth. In the past the Wildcats would play a bunch of young guys, they would take their lumps for a couple of seasons, and eventually it would all coalesce into a 7-4 season. Then the process would start again. Stoops has now salted away 3 straight recruiting classes ranked among the top 40 in the country, and this is the year when it should show. Quarterback Patrick Towles looks to be the clear starter. And at Kentucky, the notion that someone has taken command of the QB position is not that common. Since Andre Woodson contended for a Heisman nearly a decade ago the Wildcats have rarely had even bare consistency at the position. So this is a huge upgrade.
Towles will also have at his disposal as much offensive playmaking ability as any recent Kentucky signal caller. Former George Walton standout Stanley Williams had over 1100 all-purpose yards from his tailback slot last season and is wickedly explosive. Backup tailback Jojo Kemp showed flashes in 2014, including a solid 131 yard, 3 TD effort against South Carolina. On the outside junior receiver Ryan Timmons struggled with injuries last season but still led the team in receiving with 45 catches for 536 yards and returns to lead that unit. Four starters return on the offensive line to provide some necessary stability up front. Kentucky is still not as imposing along the line of scrimmage, man-for-man, as the Alabamas and LSUs of the SEC. They may never be. But this group is as good as the Wildcats have had in a while.
Defensively it will be a tall order to replace All-SEC performer Bud Dupree. That job will fall to junior Jason Hatcher, who’ll likely play more of an outside linebacker role than Dupree (who spent a fair amount of time with his hand in the dirt). Fred Tiller and Cody Quinn give Stoops a pair of senior starters at corner with a combined 47 starts between them. On the back end A.J. Stamps returns at safety after leading the team with 4 interceptions in 2014. 340 pound senior nose Melvin Lewis will anchor the line of scrimmage
Among specialists, senior punter Landon Foster returns after averaging 42.6 yards per punt in 2014. If Kentucky can consistently control field position with him, some of the close losses of 2014 may turn into wins this season. This year’s slate includes 3 games the Wildcats will definitiely be favored in (9/5 against Louisiana-Lafayette, 10/3 against Eastern Kentucky, and 11/21 against Charlotte). I expect they’ll also be favored on November 14th against Vandy. From there it gets dicey. The ‘Cats get Florida at home on September 19th which will be a key game both for Stoops and the Gators’ Jim McElwain. However 2 of the 3 games I expect to define Kentucky’s season are on the road (9/12 at South Carolina and 10/24 at Mississippi State). Split those, or win both and snatch a victory at home against Missouri on 9/26 and the Bluegrass bunch could be bowling at 6-6. Fail to accomplish that and it’s back to 5-7 and questions about whether the program has again reached a natural ceiling and whether Stoops is the guy to bust through it. I still think he can do that, especially if he continues to bring in solid talent from Ohio and win his share of home state recruiting battles. But now would be an opportune time to prove it to the Wildcat faithful with some solid results. Snatching one from Louisville in the season finale in Lexington wouldn’t hurt, either.
As for the Georgia game specifically, Kentucky will come to Athens on November 7th off a home date with Tennessee, preceded by the above-noted road trip to Starkville. Georgia will be coming back from Jacksonville and the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. Last year Georgia used the Wildcats to exorcise some of the demons of an emasculating loss to the Gators, beating Kentucky 63-31 in Lexington. The challenge for Mark Richt’s team will be to handle the emotional deceleration with focus. At this point in the season Georgia is likely to either be chasing an SEC East title (potentially even locking one up with only one conference game remaining) or trying to find motivation after a season in which they were the consensus pick to play in Atlanta in December has somehow gone wrong. The result may depend on which situation presents itself. If the ‘Dawgs are playing to punch their ticket to Atlanta they will throttle the visitors from Lexington. If they are looking ahead to a matchup with Auburn the next week in Athens, this Kentucky team has enough experience and talent to make things overly-interesting. Score prediction: UGA 41, Kentucky 17.