Big Blue buildup

jsmith3@herald-leader.comAugust 24, 2013 

The Season

Start with a $40,000 news conference to introduce Coach Mark Stoops, then add upcoming renovations at Commonwealth Stadium and some recent big-time recruiting coups, and interest has never been higher in Kentucky football. But Stoops and staff have a lot of work to do on the field if they want to keep the interest from waning and the recruiting classes from bolting. It's likely there will be a necessary honeymoon period this season and maybe next, but fans will expect better effort and better football by the end of the season, with maybe even a Southeastern Conference upset or two. Kentucky is going to need to stay healthy to possibly get those aforementioned upsets and make the "drastic improvement" for which its new coach has called. Four consecutive games against teams likely to be ranked in the top 10 could be a rough stretch for fans and head coach alike to stomach.

Rising star

Alvin "Bud" Dupree: Stoops and defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot are known for producing top defenses anchored by top defensive lines, and they'd like UK to continue that trend. If it's to happen, the Cats are going to need big plays from their two ends in Dupree, a junior, and junior-college transfer Za'Darius Smith.

Biggest Area of concern

Secondary: Kentucky only managed five interceptions last season, and the team's leader in that category, J.D. Harmon, is ineligible this season. That leaves the thin, smallish Cats secondary needing to make dramatic improvement for the team to have a chance, especially against pass-happy offenses. The cornerback "veterans" are both sophomores and they're going to need lots of help, as will the safeties, who only return one regular starter from last season.

Most important unit

Wide receivers: One of the biggest question marks this season is also one of the team's most important components. The "Air Raid" offense of Neal Brown needs receivers to make it go. So players who didn't catch a touchdown last season like Demarco Robinson and A.J. Legree are going to have to become leaders for a young unit, which includes three true freshmen and a junior-college standout.

Toughest opponent

Alabama: The two-time defending national champions are coming to Commonwealth Stadium and bringing with them 14 returning starters and 48 letter winners from last season's 13-1 team, including star quarterback A.J. McCarron (30 touchdowns, three interceptions last season) and a host of wide receivers. Oh, and in case it needed any more help, Alabama also comes in with the top-rated recruiting class of 2013.

Must-win games

Western Kentucky: Few coaches like to put added pressure on their teams with talk of "must-win games," but Stoops has said many times that this game sets the tone for the season. It's also important for the Cats (and their fans) to see dramatic improvement after losing to the Toppers in a stunner at home last season.

Missouri: UK likely will pick up a win over Alabama State the week before, and the Cats going on a winning streak could be exactly what they need to finish out the season strong. Missouri returns some talent, but UK needs to be competitive with teams like the Tigers for any chance of calling the season a success.

Game that will pack the house

Louisville: The last time the Cardinals came into Commonwealth Stadium ranked this highly (No. 7 at the time with high post-season expectations), they were upset by the Cats via a last-minute pass to Steve Johnson from Andre Woodson in 2007. This season's version likely won't be as exciting as that, but a game against the Cardinals never fails to fill up the stadium, especially with Cats fans dreaming of an upset.

Toughest road trip

South Carolina: Kentucky veterans likely won't forget the 54-3 shellacking they got in Columbia in 2011, and this season's Gamecocks have their eyes on a trip to the Southeastern Conference championship game and maybe even more. Steve Spurrier's group looks poised to have one of its best seasons ever, and a young UK offensive line will have to contend with players like Jadeveon Clowney.

Upset special

Missouri: Kentucky players last year walked away from Columbia feeling like they gave a win away; they felt close in talent to the Tigers and were looking to get back on the winning track. UK is an underdog against every SEC opponent this season, but has a chance against the Tigers.

Best non-UK players we'll see

Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville: The Cardinals' quarterback picked apart the UK secondary last season, completing 19 of 21 passes for 232 yards in limited action. Bridgewater has improved, is engulfed in Heisman chatter and will be even better this season.

Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina: No college football fan, or college football quarterback, can forget the vision of the defensive end knocking the helmet off of Michigan's Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl. Clowney, the nation's best pass rusher, is hoping to build on his 54 tackles and 13 sacks from last season.

A.J. McCarron, Alabama: All the quarterback does is win. Last season, he guided the Crimson Tide to its second straight national title and a 13-1 record behind his school-record 30 touchdowns with just three interceptions.

Also: RB T.J. Yeldon, Alabama; RB Todd Gurley, Georgia; QB Aaron Murray, Georgia; WR Amari Cooper, Alabama; LB C.J. Mosley, Alabama

Best/worst bowl destinations

With one of the nation's toughest schedules, including a brutal four-game stretch against top-10 teams Louisville, Florida, South Carolina and Alabama, Kentucky will struggle to become bowl-eligible for the first time since 2010. Given that the Cats have a new coaching staff, little depth at key positions and mostly young talent to carry them through a rough SEC schedule, they may need to settle for the Positive Energy Bowl this season.

Records Cats could break

Just two seasons ago, unlikely quarterback Matt Roark led the Cats to break a 26-game losing streak to Tennessee, the longest in the nation at the time, at Commonwealth Stadium. This season another team, Florida, brings its own 26 straight victories to Lexington.

Hope for the future

It took just 66 days for Mark Stoops and his staff to work the phones and travel the country to land Kentucky's best recruiting class since they started keeping track of these things (No. 28 by one recruiting service), and they seem poised to get an even better 2014 class behind stars like Conner quarterback Drew Barker. Stoops has helped engineer many big-time turnarounds in his college coaching career, and Cats fans are hopeful that he is just starting one at Kentucky. Coupled with the sounds of bulldozers and cranes starting up around the football facilities, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic.

Big Blue Meter

The season is a success if ... Stoops probably laid it out most effectively at UK Football Media Day in early August when he said his measure of success will be: "Just improvement, drastic improvement." With stadium renovations and a possible top-10 recruiting class on the way, fans likely will give him a honeymoon period to improve.

The season will be a disappointment if ... Kentucky doesn't show "drastic improvement" as defined by its coach, who is looking for a more aggressive, more fundamentally sound team to take the field. Ultimately, though, the season will be a disappointment for many if things go so poorly that UK isn't able to hang on to the big names it has acquired this off-season on the recruiting trail.

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukfootball.bloginky.com.

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