Kentucky football was drifting along in the 2016 season, successfully scrambling to get a bowl bid but lacking the kind of big win that would get fans excited about the program. Beating Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, and Missouri are necessary parts of getting to a bowl game. Yet, those achievements are very modest. No one will think that a program is turning a corner based on those results. Then something happened to make people notice Kentucky football. It has changed the way this team is viewed heading into 2017.
How Did They End 2016
The Wildcats were 6-5 after 11 games in 2016, enough to make a bowl game but not enough to change the belief that this program was basically treading water under head coach Mark Stoops. Then came a visit to Louisville, which boasted Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Lamar Jackson. The Wildcats seemed hopelessly outgunned on paper, but Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson played his best game of the year, and the defense managed to create several turnovers on a day when Jackson was far from his best. Kentucky pulled off the huge upset, knocking Louisville out of the Orange Bowl and enabling Florida State – where Mark Stoops used to be defensive coordinator – to play Michigan instead. Kentucky would have received a fraction of the offseason publicity it has gained if it had lost to Louisville. That one win makes it realistic to think this team can achieve at a high level in 2017.
Defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot went to Colorado, replaced by Matt House. How well this transition will unfold could have some importance for the Wildcats, who were throttled by Tennessee’s offense last season and were a step behind Georgia Tech’s offense in the TaxSlayer Bowl. The main thing for Kentucky is to contain opposing offenses more than shut them down. The SEC should involve a lot of high-scoring games this season, since the quarterbacks are a lot better than they were last season. Kentucky has to prevent opponents from scoring in the high 30s and low 40s. The offense could be good enough to win games by scores of 38-35 or 35-30.
Quarterback Stephen Johnson is, like a lot of quarterbacks in the SEC, the key player on his team this season. It is felt that SEC quarterbacks will be a lot better throughout the league, so any quarterback who has an especially bad or outstanding season – well above or below average, well above or below expectations – will dramatically reshape his team’s fortunes and likely results this season. Johnson fits into that category. If the guy who beat Lamar Jackson shows up throughout the 2017 season, Kentucky could win 10 games. If he is average, Kentucky could win only five or six.
What To Expect From The Wildcats This Year
Kentucky is a team whose ceiling and floor have a large degree of variance between them. Some teams seem very likely to win six or seven games, or perhaps eight or nine, with the best-case and worst-case scenarios being close to each other. Kentucky is the opposite – the season could soar or be a total disaster.
Record Last 5 Seasons
Schedule and Outlook
Kentucky has the opportunity to start 2-0 but going to Southern Miss won’t be a breeze for this team. The Golden Eagles were a bowl team last season and it seems like road games – of any type – are an uphill battle for the Wildcats. They should handle Eastern Kentucky at home in Week 2, though. Eastern Michigan at home should also be a win. Beyond that, though, it’s hard to find some surefire wins. They do get Florida at home, which is a good thing because that figures to be their toughest game.
Was the win over Louisville an indicator, or a one-time success story? Kentucky will have to play Vanderbilt on the road this year, which makes it harder to beat the Commodores, as UK did last year. Moreover, Louisville will want revenge. The positive developments from 2016 feel like aberrations more than true signs of a turnaround. Be skeptical of Kentucky for now.
Regular Season Win Total Prediction: Under 7
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