Year three of the Mark Stoops era starts with high anticipation under the lights at the newly renovated Commonwealth Stadium, but the buzz isn’t likely to dwindle after the first game as Kentucky tries to get to its first bowl game since 2010. “We’re sharper; we have sharper tools,” Stoops said this summer. “The players have worked hard. Our coaches have worked hard. You’re going into year three, we should be better; we expect to be better.”
The Cats ended last season with the sour taste of six straight losses and a lot of what-ifs. This season the Cats return their leading passer, rusher and wide receiver with key depth and other playmakers around each of those. The offense is hopeful that it finally will have an aggressive, up-tempo feel. The defense has some central figures back, but it will need big play from relative newcomers to start competing in the Southeastern Conference.
BIGGEST AREA OF CONCERN
Defense: Unlike last season, Kentucky coaches feel confident in the center of their defense as a whole with nose guard Melvin Lewis, linebackers Josh Forrest and Ryan Flannigan as well as safety A.J. Stamps all back, but the Cats are counting on some young, inexperienced players to fill some big holes (think Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith-sized) and make key plays in the secondary.
MOST IMPORTANT UNIT
Offensive line: If Kentucky is going to have the big year it expects offensively with so many returning playmakers like quarterback Patrick Towles, leading rusher Stanley “Boom” Williams and leading receiver Ryan Timmons, the Cats are going to have to have time for those players to develop. Enter the UK offensive line, which has a combined 90 starts and four of its five starters back. Anchored by junior center Jon Toth, that group will need to hold off angry, aggressive SEC defenders. The Cats hope that some depth has developed among that group, including a future star in George Asafo-Adjei.
Auburn: Seven starters and a promising young quarterback (Jeremy Johnson) lead an offense run by Gus Malzahn, and now the defense, which struggled mightily last season, is piloted by Will Muschamp. That one-two punch could make the Tigers a tough out for almost any opponent.
Vanderbilt: If Kentucky wants to show that it’s making progress up and out of the SEC basement, the Cats will have to consistently beat the Commodores. With eight home games on the schedule, stealing an SEC win on the road would be huge.
GAME THAT WILL PACK THE HOUSE
Auburn: Kentucky will play on a Thursday night at Commonwealth Stadium for the first time in school history, possibly against a top-10 team with a national championship on its mind. Hard to imagine an empty seat for that game.
TOUGHEST ROAD TRIP
Georgia: Kentucky has had little luck against the Bulldogs during the Mark Stoops era. Georgia has outscored the Cats 122-48 in the past two seasons. A trip to Athens is rarely victorious for the Cats, who have won just four times there. UK will see just how much more stout its recently porous run defense has become when it goes to Georgia.
Florida: It’s unlikely Kentucky will have a better shot at ending its 28-game losing streak (the nation’s longest) to the Gators than it does this season with Florida a bit wobbly from a coaching change. The three-overtime loss in Gainesville last season no doubt had a lasting sting for UK players.
BEST NON-UK PLAYERS WE’LL SEE
Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida: One of the best coverage corners in the nation. First Team All-American, according to many media outlets, already is appearing in several NFL mock drafts. Cornerback led Gators with 13 pass breakups and had three interceptions.
Nick Chubb, Georgia: SEC Freshman of the Year already has had some success against UK, including 13 carries for 170 yards and a TD last season. Averaged 7.1 yards per game last season and managed 1,547 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Dak Prescott, Mississippi State: Had Heisman-like numbers near the end of the season before back-to-back losses for the Bulldogs. Quarterback’s dual-threat capabilities make him tough to top.
Also: DE Carl Lawson (Auburn), LB Leonard Floyd (Georgia), WR Pharaoh Cooper (South Carolina), RB Jalen Hurd (Tennessee), DE Jordan Jenkins (Georgia)
BEST/WORST BOWL DESTINATIONS
Not getting to a bowl since 2010 has no doubt left the Kentucky faithful pining for the days when it complained that the Music City Bowl wasn’t enough. After UK failed to get its all-important sixth win in six tries last season, the Cats probably will be happy with just about any destination.
RECORDS THAT COULD BREAK
Kentucky would love to break the 28-game stranglehold Florida has over the Cats. Another streak UK would like to see end is its 22 straight losses on the road, with the first opportunity coming at South Carolina on Sept. 12. The Cats haven’t won there since 1999.
HOPE FOR THE FUTURE
It’s hard to not see things trending upward for Kentucky, which already has a nearly-full 2016 recruiting haul that looks like another potential top-25 class with four-star centerpieces like Drake Jackson, Landon Young and Tate Leavitt. The shiny, new Commonwealth Stadium will host eight games this season, including the first Thursday night game in stadium history. Add that to a $45 million practice facility set to be completed by the summer and things seem to be on the rise for UK.
BIG BLUE METER
The season is a success if Kentucky can find a way to get to its first bowl game since 2010. UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart said he knows progress when he sees it — and it doesn’t always mean six wins and bowl eligibility — but for the rest of the fans (and the players) progress looks like a bowl game.
The season will be a disappointment if Kentucky falls back a step or two and can’t get to the five victories it achieved in Stoops’ second season, likely hurting the Cats’ chances of keeping together the nearly completed 2016 recruiting class that could be among the school’s (and nation’s) best.