The way last season ended — both in a win over a ranked opponent on its home field with its Hesiman Trophy quarterback and also in a clunker of a loss in the TaxSlayer Bowl — was good for Kentucky. The Cats got some confidence that they can win close games against ranked teams even on the road. Those things weren’t happening two seasons ago under Mark Stoops.
But the Cats also learned that they have a long way to go to say they’ve arrived. Despite Kentucky’s 17 returning starters, second most in the Southeastern Conference, the league writers picked UK to finish fifth in the East Division.
A second season under the offensive system of Eddie Gran and the return of playmakers such as quarterback Stephen Johnson, running back Benny Snell, tight end C.J. Conrad and wide receiver Garrett Johnson give the Cats’ offense a load of confidence going into the opener.
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Defensively, UK returns eight of its top 10 tacklers from last season, including the top four in Jordan Jones, Mike Edwards, Denzil Ware and Courtney Love. It helps that there’s depth at nearly every position as well. If the Cats can stop the run with improved interior defensive line play and get more consistent punting, they could finish a lot better than fifth.
A.J. Rose: The running back waited his turn while watching fellow freshman Benny Snell dominate SEC defenses a season ago. But a year of growing mentally and physically has been good for the redshirt freshman, who could be a great complementary back to his friend and roommate Snell.
BIGGEST AREA OF CONCERN
Interior defensive line: The talk of the offseason, the talk of fall camp has been for the defense to improve in run stop. While that requires an across-the-board effort, it also requires an improved effort from the three (sometimes four) players on the front line. If that group is to make a push, it’s going to have to come from some unknowns. Players such as Adrian Middleton and Naquez Pringle were sound last season, but others will have to emerge such as T.J. Carter, Calvin Taylor and Kordell Looney, and perhaps even a true freshman in Quinton Bohanna or a junior college transfer in Phil Hoskins (still coming back from shoulder surgery). Coaches and fans also are wondering if veterans players such as Matt Elam and Tymere Dubose can prove something this season as well.
MOST IMPORTANT UNIT
Running backs: Kentucky developing a run game behind Boom Williams and Benny Snell last season was perhaps the most important piece of the seven-win puzzle. UK was able to piece together impressive, sustained drives that not only controlled the clock, but also wore down opposing defenses. Defenses will be keyed in on Snell, who will try to improve on his record-setting freshman season. He’s going to need help from little-used or untested running backs such as junior Sihiem King, redshirt freshman A.J. Rose and true freshman Bryant Koback.
TOUGHEST OPPONENT AND TOUGHEST ROAD TRIP
Georgia: Remember the aforementioned run defense problems the Cats have? The Bulldogs might be the biggest test of how far UK has come with not one, but two, impressive running backs in Sony Michel and Nick Chubb. Georgia returns 18 starters from last season, the most in the Southeastern Conference, and it barely escaped Lexington with the win last year. The Bulldogs, who have won seven straight over UK, won’t be surprised by Kentucky and they’ll have the home crowd behind them.
Southern Miss: I said the exact same game in this exact same spot a season ago, and it proved to be false. Kentucky lost that opener at home in a demoralizing way and struggled in the next couple of games after that, but found a way to win seven of its final 10 games of the year. But this group of Cats has something to prove after last season and is on the road. They need this win to set the tone.
GAME THAT WILL PACK THE HOUSE
Louisville: After last season’s intense, back-and-forth affair with the Cardinals at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium and Louisville returning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson, this game seems like one that will attract a crowd. A full season of scoping each other out and fans talking trash before the regular-season finale won’t hurt either.
Florida: Until it actually happens, this game is the easiest pick because it’s the upset UK fans most desperately want. After two close games against the Gators in 2014 and 2015, Florida obliterated Kentucky in Gainesville 45-7 to win its 30th game in a row over the Cats in the series. That loss last season was the catalyst for a turnaround that saw UK win seven of its final 10 games of the year and advance to its first bowl game since 2010. Could an upset this season continue the Cats’ upward trajectory?
BEST NON-UK PLAYERS WE’LL SEE
QB Lamar Jackson, Louisville: The Heisman Trophy winner, who had a late fumble that cost the Cardinals against Kentucky last season, makes his return to Lexington, where he pretty much started his Heisman campaign two years ago by leading a crazy comeback.
WR Antonio Callaway, Florida: Junior torched the Cats for 129 yards and a touchdown in the meeting in Gainesville last season, including a killer 78-yarder early in the game. His versatility is dangerous, with Callaway having now scored on a rushing, receiving, passing, punt return and kickoff return.
RB Nick Chubb, Georgia: A dangerous threat at running back, who finished last season with 1,130 yards and eight touchdowns on 224 carries. He currently sits as the Bulldogs’ all-time No. 2 rusher with 3,424 yards, behind only Herschel Walker.
Also: OL Martez Ivey (Florida); CB Jaire Alexander (Louisville); OT Martinas Rankin (Mississippi State); OLB Marquis Haynes (Ole Miss); RB Sony Michel (Georgia); S Brandon Bryant (Mississippi State); LB Skai Moore (South Carolina)
BEST/WORST BOWL DESTINATIONS
Kentucky landed a prestigious Florida bowl (TaxSlayer) in its first trip to one in six seasons, which was nice, but it seems likely that Cats fans would love another shot at the nearby Music City Bowl (Dec. 29, 4:30 p.m.) or maybe a trip to Charlotte for the Belk Bowl earlier that day. The problem with such a shiny bowl for its first foray into postseason games since 2010 is that the less prestigious bowls such as Birmingham (Dec. 23, noon) or the Independence (Dec. 27, 1:30 p.m.) might seem like a bit of a letdown.
RECORDS CATS COULD BREAK
By the end of the season, Austin MacGinnis could go down as Kentucky’s all-time leading scorer. The senior kicker trails Lones Seiber’s 305 points by 48 points. … A less consequential streak MacGinnis could break is his own of 11 straight made field goals. He enters the 2017 season having made seven in a row. … MacGinnis needs eight made field goals this season to take the top career spot in that category as well.
▪ Benny Snell broke six freshman records last season at Kentucky, besting Moe Williams in several categories. It will be interesting to see if Snell can break a few more. He needs just five more rushing touchdowns than he had last season (13) to have the most in a season. … Snell needs to just match his total from last season to be tied for most rushing scores in a career at 26.
▪ With his 65-yard punt return for a touchdown last season, Charles Walker halted a streak of six seasons without one. Could a UK player end the kickoff returns without a score drought this year? The Cats haven’t had one of those since 2009.
▪ Garrett Johnson has a chance to move into the top five career receiving yards leaders. He needs just 203 yards to pass Dicky Lyons Jr. for the No. 4 spot.
BIG BLUE METER
The season is a success if: That’s simple: Kentucky wins seven games or more and advances to a second straight bowl game.
The season will be a disappointment if: The Cats backtrack and can’t get to .500, watching bowl games on their couches at home. Getting back to a bowl could be even more important this season with the early signing period looming in late December. A disappointing season would still be fresh on potential signees’ minds.
at Southern Mississippi
4 p.m. (CBS Sports)
at South Carolina
at Mississippi State