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Know Thy Enemy: The Kentucky Wildcats

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NCAA Football: Belk Bowl-Virginia Tech vs Kentucky Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

In late October, your Georgia Bulldogs will travel to the Bluegrass state for a precariously-placed contest sandwiched between Bama and the Bye (and Florida, of course)...

The Wildcat File

Location: Lexington, Kentucky: Horse Capital of the World

Home Stadium: Kroger Field (although I still use Commonwealth Stadium, as I imagine much of the UK fanbase does). Capacity: 61,000

Notable Alumni: Well, it wouldn’t be about Kentucky if it didn’t have Ashley Judd, now would it. But don’t forget other notable alums like Miss Elizabeth and Yertle the Turtle.


Over the last decade or so, the Kentucky Wildcats have managed to do what I never thought possible: They’ve successfully raised their expectations about football. Now, that isn’t to say that football and basketball are on anything resembling even footing in Lexington... or that a large portion of the fanbase wouldn’t start camping outside Rupp Arena at the first sign of trouble on the gridiron. But in his time as the head coach at UK, Mark Stoops has done a pretty solid job at shifting the perceptions of not only those on his campus, but around the SEC. That isn’t to say that I worry about a game against the Wildcats like I do against Alabama or Auburn or Florida (or Tennessee a decade ago), but I no longer assume a win either.

Stoops has made consistent progress in his 7 seasons at Kentucky (and man, it really doesn’t feel like it’s been 7 years). That progress culminated in a rare 10 win season for the Wildcats in 2018, including a Citrus Bowl win against that jackleg James Franklin and the Penn State NIttany Lions. 2019 was perhaps a bit of a rebuild as UK went 8-5 but still won it’s bowl game over Virginia Tech (an early season-ending injury to your QB never helps). Stoops hasn’t faired quite as well in-conference as he has overall, but seems to have leveled out at around .500 in the SEC on an average year. And honestly, if you’re Kentucky, you could do a lot worse than 8 or 9 wins a season and .500 in the SEC.

Offense

A big part of the reason 2019 Kentucky may have looked like a rebuild or a regression is that then junior QB, Terry Wilson, went down with an ugly knee injury in early September and did not return. As a sophomore in 2018, Wilson led that impressive UK group I mentioned above and completed just under 68% of his passes. And now he is ready to return to the fray for his senior season and complete a comeback that didn’t always look certain. If Wilson is 100% and the knee holds up, he should be a big part of Kentucky’s success in 2020.

Protecting Wilson will be an offensive line that returns four starters (which I’m sure is just fine with the QB). Darian Kinnard and Landon Young at tackle, Luke Fortner at guard, and Drake Jackson at center will all be returning to protect Wilson and open holes for the Wildcat running game. The lone departure was guard Logan Stenberg, who was drafted by the Lions in the 4th round of the NFL Draft. By the time the Wildcats face Georgia, I have to assume they’ll have this slot filled and the entire group gelling.

In the run game, Kentucky has to replace the production of Lynn Bowden Jr., taken in the 3rd round of the NFL Draft by the Raiders (and since traded to the Dolphins). As you’ll likely recall, following the injury to Terry Wilson last season, Bowden (formerly a WR) took over at QB and basically used the position as his own one-man yardage generator... to the tune of almost 1500 yards on the ground (plus another 350 receiving). Putting a dent in that production hit is a big task.. However, redshirt senior A.J. Rose is hoping to do just that. Rose was the starting RB for the Wildcats last year, but in an offense that leaned heavily on Bowden’s wheels. WIth Terry WIlson back under center, Rose should get most of the run-game workload and he’s certainly capable of handling it. The WR corps is still something of a work in progress without any major individual stars. But I don’t think that’s going to last long once Wilson starts putting the ball in the air. I have to assume that by the time they face Georgia, the Wildcats will have a serviceable WR rotation at the minimum.

Defense

Kentucky’s defense made serious strides in 2019, ending the season as the 21st ranked overall defense in the country. Contributing to this improvement was Kentucky’s tops in the conference passing defense. Considering the the bulk of that production is returning, it should be no surprise that the secondary looks to be the strength of the Wildcat D again. Yusef Corker, Brandon Echols, and Cedrick Dort all return from last year’s impressive group, but what could make this unit particularly effective is that now it has the depth it needs to provide effective rotations.

Where the secondary seems ready to keep clicking on all cylinders, the defensive line has a little bit of work to do. In 2019, they weren’t always so solid against the run (which, if you’ll recall, is kind of Georgia’s jam). Giving up just under 5 yards per carry isn’t going to fly against Georgia or really most teams in the SEC. Senior DT Quinton Bohanna is going to be expected to lead this group and find a way to more effective plug up the running lanes. While the Wildcats, struggled at times against the run, they were significantly more effective in the pass rush. Coming from both the ends and the linebacking core, Kentucky was able to find itself in the backfield early and often in 2019. Hoping to replicate that performance are returning DE Joshua Paschal (3.5 sacks in 2019) and LB Jamar Watson (6.5 sacks in 2019). Despite losing some experience and depth to graduation and the transfer portal, the linebacking corps appears to still have enough experienced veterans to slot in and round out the unit.

Special Teams

One thing is for sure. Kentucky will not have punting issues in 2020. That’s the kind of thing you can definitively say when a team is returning 2019 Ray Guy award winner, Max Duffy. I wouldn’t be shocked to see Duffy compete for and win it again (considering the award has been given to the same punter in back to back years twice in just the last decade — and also Max Duffy is real good at kicking footballs), Placekicking plagued Kentucky last year and until we get into the 2020 season we won’t really know whether Mark Stoops has been able to piece together that particular puzzle.


FINAL THOUGHTS

I worry about this game primarily because of where it falls on the schedule. Coming a week after Bama, the players could be walking on cloud nine, thinking they’re the greatest thing since sliced bread or they could be completely deflated. I’m not sure I’m crazy about either of those options against a Kentucky team that could easily jump up and bite somebody. Couple that with the fact that it’s leading into a bye and then the WLOCP, and this has all the makings of a classic trap game. Of course, I would have been much more concerned about falling face first into that trap in, say, 2010 or so and I’m confident our coaching staff will be able to get the players’ heads in the game.

Of course, who knows... by this point in the season, it could be our 3rd string QB handing off to a walk-on running back behind a makeshift line of whatever Matt Luke can tie together with duct tape and string. And the stands at Commonwealth Stadium could be filled only by socially-distanced thoroughbreds from Churchhill Downs.

I guess we’ll just have to wait and find out.

Georgia 28 - Kentucky 20

Until next time...

GOOOO DAWGS!!!