UK Football

In 2017, will UK be our state’s feel-good college football story?

With Boom Williams giving up his final season of eligibility, Benny Snell will enter 2017 as Kentucky’s clear No. 1 running back.
With Boom Williams giving up his final season of eligibility, Benny Snell will enter 2017 as Kentucky’s clear No. 1 running back.

For the second year in a row, the college football season has lasted longer in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Clemson, S.C., than anywhere else.

Yet as “the Dabo men” prepare to face “the Saban-ic forces” for 2016 pigskin supremacy, the college football page has already turned to 2017 for the rest of the country.

In the commonwealth, Louisville will return the Heisman Trophy winner in 2017. Western Kentucky will enter the season having won 29 of its past 35 games.

Yet, on paper, it should be the Kentucky Wildcats that are set up for the best season in 2017. Let’s look ahead:

Kentucky Wildcats

2016 ledger: 7-6 (4-4 SEC). Lost to Georgia Tech 33-18 in TaxSlayer Bowl.

Golden moment of 2016: UK’s 41-38 road upset of then-No. 11 Louisville and eventual Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson as a 27-point underdog is one of the signature moments in Wildcats football history.

Lasting regret of 2016: Blowing a 35-10 lead and losing 44-35 at home to Southern Mississippi in the season opener ultimately kept UK from winning eight games in a regular season for the first time since 1984.

Reason for optimism in 2017: Mark Stoops’ Cats return 17 of 22 starters.

Reason for dread in 2017: Of the four SEC games UK won in 2016, three — South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State — were in Commonwealth Stadium. That means all three will be road contests in 2017. Why is that a worry? In the 21st Century, UK has won multiple SEC road games in a season only three times (two in 2002 and 2007; three in 2009).

Storyline(s) to watch: Two that are related. 1.) With the early departure of Boom Williams (1,170 yards rushing), how will Benny Snell (1,091 yards) fare as UK’s featured back? 2.) Can Kentucky find a big-play replacement for Williams to compliment the pile-moving Snell?

Resolution for 2016: Beat Florida, Tennessee and/or Georgia. For UK to ever be taken seriously as an SEC football program, the Cats have to fare better against SEC East foes Florida (lost 30 in a row), Tennessee (lost 31 of 32) and Georgia (lost 24 of last 29).

Louisville Cardinals

2016 ledger: 9-4 (7-1 ACC). Lost to LSU 29-9 in Citrus Bowl.

Golden moment of 2016: Two. 1.) With Lamar Jackson accounting for 362 yards of offense and five touchdowns, U of L humiliated Florida State 63-20 Sept. 17. 2.) Lamar Jackson winning the Heisman Trophy is one of the milestone moments in Kentucky sports history.

Lasting regret of 2016: Louisville was 9-1 and on the cusp of the College Football Playoff when it traveled to Houston. After the Cougars sacked Jackson 11 times in a 36-10 Thursday night pasting, the Cardinals were never the same.

Reason for optimism in 2017: A true junior-to-be, Jackson is back for one more season before he becomes NFL draft-eligible.

Reason for dread in 2017: Louisville will be hit hard by graduation. Offensively, Bobby Petrino’s Cardinals lose their top three receivers, No. 1 running back and three offensive line starters. Defensively, U of L loses difference-makers at all three levels — defensive tackle DeAngelo Brown, linebackers Keith Kelsey and Devonte Fields and safety Josh Harvey-Clemons.

Storyline to watch: Ohio State’s Archie Griffin (1974 and ’75) is the only player to win the Heisman Trophy twice. Jackson’s repeat bid will have to overcome the negative perceptions created during U of L’s three-game losing skid to end 2016.

Resolution for 2017: Beat Clemson. Since joining the ACC in 2014, U of L has lost to Clemson three times — by six points, three points and six again. The Cards will get the Tigers at home in 2017.

WKU Hilltoppers

2016 ledger: 11-3 (7-1 Conference-USA). Beat Louisiana Tech 58-44 in C-USA Championship Game; beat Memphis 51-31 in Boca Raton Bowl.

Golden Moment of 2016: In what turned out to be Jeff Brohm’s final game as WKU head man, Hilltoppers avenged a regular-season loss at Louisiana Tech by whipping Skip Holtz’s Bulldogs 58-44 in the league title game.

Lasting regret of 2016: When WKU’s attempt at a two-point conversion failed in overtime, the Hilltoppers lost 31-30 to Vanderbilt. It cost Western what would have been its fourth win over an SEC foe in the past five years.

Reason for optimism in 2017: Quarterback Mike White (4,363 yards passing with 37 TD passes) ably stepped in for Brandon Doughty in 2016 and will be back for new Hilltoppers head man Mike Sanford Jr.

Reason for dread in 2017: Other than White, the WKU offense is going to be decimated by graduation. Among the departing are running back Anthony Wales (1,621 yards rushing), wide receivers Taywan Taylor (98 catches, 1,730 yards) and Nicholas Norris (76, 1,318), and All-America left tackle Forrest Lamp.

Storyline to watch: A former WKU assistant who was offensive coordinator at Notre Dame last season, the 34-year-old Sanford Jr. — the son of the former Louisville assistant of the same name — is buying the “stock” that is Western football at its all-time high.

Resolution for 2017: Keep the fire burning under WKU’s fourth different head coach in the past six seasons.