#SECPreviews- East: #5 Kentucky Wildcats
The words ‘fun’, ‘Kentucky’, and ‘football’ don’t normally belong in the same paragraph, let alone sentence. But I’m here to tell you: they were entertaining and explosive last year. They return enough on offense (and possibly enough competency on defense, outside the loss of Bud Dupree) to compete for a bowl.
What Happened Last Year?
Mark Stoops’ second season saw continued improvement from their year 1 results, as they snapped a 17-game SEC losing streak early against Vanderbilt and followed it up with a shootout win against South Carolina. Matter of fact, they took Florida to triple OT in The Swamp before those two successes, so they just narrowly missed a 6-0 start.
The wheels then came off in a 41-3 loss at LSU, but they held their own in the SEC’s weirdest possible 3:30 CBS kickoff: #1 Mississippi State at Kentucky. The 45-31 loss was more competitive than the final score would indicate. They were then competitive in road losses to Mizzou and Louisville…but not so much against Georgia and Tennessee.
Put it all together, and you have 9 games in which the Wildcats were competitive. They return 7 starters on each side of the ball, including a much-improved QB Patrick Towles.
Three Key Games
First off, their nonconference schedule includes Louisiana-Lafayette, Eastern Kentucky, and Charlotte in the 49ers’ first power-5 game. Find three wins between the SEC and Louisville, and the ‘Cats are bowling for the first time since 2010.
Sept. 19, Florida: Fresh off taking the Gators to triple OT last year, Kentucky has the good fortune of drawing the Gators early, before their new offense is battle-tested.
Sept. 26, Missouri: Had this as a key for Mizzou as well, but it should shape up as a shakedown for middle-of-the-pack versus towards-the-bottom in the SEC East. That’s right, if Kentucky holds serve in September, they should be able to comfortably hit the 6-win plateau.
Nov. 28, Louisville: Assuming losses at South Carolina, home against Auburn, and at Mississippi State and Georgia, the two above and Tennessee become their swing games. They played the fighting Petrinos close in Louisville last year, and both the four-game losing streak to their rivals and the dangling carrot of 15 extra bowl practices should serve as proper motivation.
Five Key Players:
Melvin Lewis, DT: He held his starting NT job over the very large and very hyped Matt Elam last year, and responded as a pretty good two-gap stuffer. If he fails, the nose grows from 342 to 365 in this form:
Jon Toth, C: The only Kentucky OL among 4 returning starters on any of Phil Steele’s All-SEC teams, Toth has anchored the line for the entire Stoops era.
Patrick Towles, QB: Already the best offensive back at Kentucky since Andre Woodson, Towles started strong but finished with relatively pedestrian numbers: 14 TD, 9 Int, 57.3% completions. Given the fact that the team had its highest scoring output since 2010 with those numbers, any improvement should prove huge for the Wildcats.
Josh Forrest, MLB: Takes over as the most recognizable defensive player on the team, and they’re going to need his production. He actually led the team (Dupree included) with 7 tackles for loss and 110 total.
Dorian Baker/Garrett Johnson, WR: Slated to take over two of the three starting spots, both put up around 20 catches for 200 yards and a couple TD’s as true freshmen. If one of them can step up opposite leading receiver Ryan Timmons, the O should take the next step.
In case you haven’t noticed, Kentucky’s success in 2015 will be defined strictly by whether they’re playing a 13th game. I think it’s time for them to do just that.