For his third go-around as Kentucky head coach, Mark Stoops has every advantage. UK will play in the newly renovated Commonwealth Stadium eight times, including five of the first six games.
Can Stoops and his troops parlay off-field momentum to bring home Kentucky’s first bowl trip since the 2010 season? Here is my game-by-game projection.
Sept. 5 at Commonwealth Stadium
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Hope: UK should be past the point where Sun Belt Conference teams are troublesome.
Nope: Having gone 9-4 four seasons in a row, Mark Hudspeth’s Rajun’ Cajuns are a high-grade Sun Belt program.
My guess: Kentucky 45, Louisiana-Lafayette 24
Sept. 12 at Columbia, S.C.
Hope: After losing 10 in a row to the Gamecocks (2000-2009), UK has won two of the last five against South Carolina.
Nope: The Head Ball Coach (don’t you dare call him “Old Ball Coach”) will be anxious to wipe out memories of 2014’s fourth-quarter meltdown.
My guess: South Carolina 34, Kentucky 28
Sept. 19 at Commonwealth Stadium
Hope: You do recall the Cats took the mighty Gators to triple overtime last year in The Swamp before falling?
Nope: Florida players will recall — and not want to be the team that allows UF’s 28-year winning streak over UK to end.
My guess: Florida 27, Kentucky 24
Sept. 26 at Commonwealth Stadium
Hope: Kentucky needs to get on the victory board against Missouri (0-3 as SEC rivals) before the league newcomer turns into another SEC East “automatic loss.”
Nope: Gary Pinkel may be the best coach in the SEC, and quarterback Maty Mauk is a stone-cold winner.
My guess: Missouri 23, Kentucky 21
Oct. 3 at Commonwealth Stadium
Hope: The offseason fight(s) between UK players and EKU players in Richmond should make for a well-motivated group of Wildcats.
Nope: With Ohio State transfer Noah Spence, ( defensive end), Kansas State transfer D’Vonta Derricott (linebacker), Florida transfer Adam Lane (running back) and UK exiles Dy’Shawn Mobley ( running back) and Patrick Graffree (defensive line), EKU has some FBS-level talent.
My guess: Kentucky 52, Eastern Kentucky 27
Oct. 15 (Thursday) at Commonwealth Stadium
Hope: The last time Auburn was in Lexington (2010), Cam Newton and the eventual national champions needed a field goal in the final seconds to escape 37-34.
Nope: Buzz coming out of Auburn is that quarterback Jeremy Johnson, a 6-foot-5, 240-pound junior, has ample “Newtonian” qualities.
My guess: Auburn 44, Kentucky 27
Oct. 24 at Starkville, Miss.
Hope: Two years ago at MSU, a Kentucky team not nearly as talented as this year’s had the ball in State territory late in the fourth quarter with a chance to win.
Nope: Dan Mullen is a Cats owner — 6-0 as Mississippi State head man.
My guess: Kentucky 35, Mississippi State 31
Oct. 31 at Commonwealth Stadium
Hope: UK is 1-1 vs. UT over the past two meetings in Lexington.
Nope: UK is 1-29 vs. UT over the past 30 meetings anywhere — and Tennessee has 18 starters back from the team that embarrassed Kentucky 50-16 last season.
My guess: Tennessee 38, Kentucky 28
Nov. 7 at Athens, Ga.
Hope: A Monroe, Ga., product who was once committed to the Bulldogs, Kentucky sophomore running back Stanley “Boom” Williams will have ample motivation.
Nope: Georgia has so far outscored Mark Stoops-coached Kentucky teams 124-48.
My guess: Georgia 42, Kentucky 21
Nov. 14 at Nashville
Hope: In last season’s 17-7 win, Kentucky held Vandy without an offensive touchdown.
Nope: Vanderbilt has 18 starters back and has beaten UK two in a row in Nashville.
My guess: Kentucky 26, Vanderbilt 17
Nov. 21 at Commonwealth Stadium
Hope: Charlotte started playing college football in 2013. Kentucky will be the 49ers’ first-ever Power Five conference foe.
Nope: Chaminade beat Virginia, Appalachian State beat Michigan and Buster Douglas beat Mike Tyson.
My guess: Kentucky 70, Charlotte 20.
Nov. 28 at Commonwealth Stadium
Hope: Last year in The Ville, UK gave a Louisville team that had 10 NFL Draft picks a major scare before falling 44-40.
Nope: Bobby Petrino (6-1 vs. UK, 6-0 vs. Cats as the head coach at Kentucky schools) finds a way to win.
My guess: Kentucky 38, Louisville 35.
Final UK record: Cats finish 6-6 — and go bowling.