For the state of Kentucky, 2016 was the best season of major-college football in our state’s history.
Western Kentucky (11-2) won its third straight bowl and its second consecutive Conference USA championship. Louisville (9-4) rose as high as No. 3 in the AP poll and produced the Heisman Trophy winner. Kentucky (7-6) enjoyed its first winning season since 2009 and, as a 27-point underdog, pulled off the greatest upset in the history of its Governor’s Cup rivalry with U of L.
Can our state’s three Football Bowl Subdivision schools keep the good times rolling? Here are 10 people (well, nine people and one position group) under the most pressure to produce in 2017.
10. Mike Summers. When Summers coached the offensive line for Bobby Petrino from 2003-06, the Cardinals lit up scoreboards like the Vegas strip. So after U of L surrendered a whopping 48 quarterback sacks last year, 22 times in the final three games (all losses), Petrino turned again to Summers. U of L has much riding on Summers, an ex-Kentucky assistant (2010-12), proving you can go home again.
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9. Matt Elam. It was a perceived coup for Kentucky in 2014 when UK fended off Alabama, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Tennessee to sign the coveted John Hardin defensive lineman. Through three college seasons, however, things have never really come together for the 6-foot-7, 360-pound nose guard (42 career tackles, nine last year). With Kentucky’s interior defensive line a major question entering 2017, Elam has one more shot to live up to his recruiting hype.
8. Western Kentucky wide receivers. In the graduated Taywan Taylor (98 catches, 1,730 yards, 17 TDs) and Nicholas Norris (78, 1,318, 14), WKU must replace one of the nation’s most productive wide receiving tandems. Former Bowling Green star Nacarius Fant (29 catches in 2016) and ex-Lafayette standout Lucky Jackson (26) will try to step into the void.
7. Peter Sirmon. Apparently, the sight of Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson throwing over the top of the Louisville secondary to Wildcats receivers roaming free in open spaces last year was the final straw in the tempestuous relationship between Bobby Petrino and defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. So Petrino hired Sirmon off of Dan Mullen’s staff at Mississippi State. With seven U of L defensive starters back, Sirmon will be expected to immediately succeed.
6. Benny Snell. After not carrying the ball at all in UK’s first two games, true freshman Snell was a breakout star for Kentucky in 2016, rumbling for 1,091 yards and 13 touchdowns. Snell, however, ran for only 51 yards (Louisville) and 34 yards (Georgia Tech) in UK’s final two games. This year, the 5-11, 223-pound pile mover will try to fend off the sophomore jinx while entering the season as a marked man by opposing defenses.
5. Bobby Petrino. Lamar Jackson is a once-in-a-lifetime college quarterback. When Louisville started last season 9-1, it seemed Petrino was going to parlay the gifted QB into an epic season. That crashed and burned when U of L lost its final three games. With Jackson, a junior, eligible for the 2018 NFL Draft, Petrino likely has this one final shot to turn Jackson’s magic into a team breakthrough.
4. Mark Stoops. Last year’s seven wins removed the name of the Kentucky head man from this season’s “coaching hot seat” lists. For Stoops, this year’s pressure is in trying to sustain — or build upon — the momentum that was generated in 2016. Historically at UK, sustaining success has been no easy coaching feat.
3. Mike Sanford Jr. The new Western Kentucky head coach, 35, inherits from Jeff Brohm a program that has won 28 of its past 34 games, three bowls and two Conference USA championships. That’s an exacting standard to have to maintain.
2. Stephen Johnson. The Kentucky quarterback didn’t always look pretty while doing it, but a key to UK’s success in 2016 was Johnson’s knack for making plays under game-deciding pressure. Where the willowy 6-2, 185-pound QB most struggled was with fumbling (10, six of them lost). With big-play threats Boom Williams (team-best 1,170 yards rushing) and Jeff Badet (team-best 670 yards receiving) both gone, UK will need more production — and less fumbling — at QB to compensate.
1. Lamar Jackson. It is counter-intuitive to think a reigning Heisman Trophy winner should enter the following season with a chip on his shoulder. Yet after Louisville’s Jackson lit up college football as U of L started 9-1 in 2016, he finished the final three games, all Cardinals losses, completing only 46 of 95 passes (48.4 percent). As a result, some second-guessed his worthiness for the Heisman.
For Louisville, it’s not the worst thing to enter 2017 with Jackson feeling he has critics to shut up.