Kentucky has perhaps its most talented, most athletic and deepest roster in the Mark Stoops era, but so much of that positivity is overshadowed by uncertainty at the quarterback position.
The season will teeter on how well an untested quarterback can manage the offense, become a leader and find ways to win big games the way Stephen Johnson did for two straight seasons that culminated in bowl-game berths.
The Kentucky defense, which has been much maligned at times under Stoops, returns nine starters, including five of its top six tacklers. But much of its success will hinge on the growth of the defensive line.
In Stoops’ five seasons on campus, 29 different games have been decided by 11 points or fewer. And all but four of those were decided by single digits. To add to the drama, Kentucky will be breaking in a new kicker this season, too.
Like the previous five seasons, the only guarantee will be close games. And many of those — at Florida, Missouri, Tennessee and Louisville — could be at places that could make or break the season.
Lynn Bowden: The wide receiver arrived to camp a week late last season, was behind his peers in strength and conditioning and still was able to have an impact on the field as a versatile offensive weapon and a kick returner. A year of experience and more size should help the speedy sophomore. Coaches are looking for creative ways to get him the ball, too.
Biggest area of concern
Quarterback: Stephen Johnson wasn’t perfect, but the Cats’ quarterback for the past two seasons had a winning way about him and that might be hard to reproduce in the new UK signal caller. Johnson’s leadership and ability to make the big play at the critical time helped Kentucky advance to back-to-back bowl games. Even though the Cats’ offense has a lot of veterans, it needs a QB to be the glue.
Most important unit
Interior defensive line: Those three — sometimes four depending on the situation — players at the point of attack could make or break the season for Kentucky’s defense, which returns starters at almost every position. As Stoops often points out, so much of UK’s ability to stop the run and defend the pass starts with the players in the trenches. Kentucky finally feels like it has the pieces and some depth to be a stout unit.
Georgia: The Southeastern Conference champion and the national title runner-up Bulldogs lost some big names from last season, including two star running backs, but they return all but three starters on offense, including star quarterback Jake Fromm. And Coach Kirby Smart has them rolling in recruits, signing Rivals’ top-ranked class in 2018. It likely doesn’t hurt Georgia’s confidence coming into Kroger Field with eight straight victories over the Cats and a perfect record against Stoops.
Toughest road trip
Texas A&M: Kyle Field holds 102,733 rabid fans waving towels and doing chants that have been passed down for generations. The Aggies probably will be more rowdy than usual this season with new coach Jimbo Fisher in place and high expectations for immediate success under him. That Fisher element — Stoops playing against his friend and former boss at Florida State — will only add to the craziness of UK’s first trip to play there since 1952.
South Carolina: If Kentucky wants to keep climbing up the SEC East Division standings, it’s going to have to maintain win streaks over key opponents like the Gamecocks, who have lost four in a row to the Cats, as well as Missouri and Vanderbilt. Since the Cats have to go on the road to face the Tigers this year, the game against South Carolina at Kroger Field on Sept. 9 feels quite like a “must win.” But it won’t be easy. The Gamecocks went 9-4 last season and won six of their final eight games, including a victory over Michigan in the Outback Bowl. They have 16 starters back from last season.
Game that will pack the house
South Carolina: There was a handshake snub last season at the Gamecocks’ place, and there seems to be building bad blood between the two programs. Kentucky fans would like to keep that four-game win streak going over South Carolina and likely will be rowdy for that one.
Florida: It’s complicated to call it an upset when the Cats had more wins — and a better league finish — than the Gators a season ago, but it’s the upset fans want most desperately after falling 31 straight times to Florida. The sting of last season’s uncovered wide receivers and a late holding call on what could have been the go-ahead score broke UK hearts all over again. Kentucky hasn’t won in Gainesville in almost 40 years and the Cats haven’t had a ton of success against new UF Coach Dan Mullen, either.
Best non-UK players we’ll see
QB Drew Lock, Missouri: Led the nation last season with 44 touchdowns, breaking both the SEC and Tigers’ single-season records. Lock threw for 3,964 yards and had a pass efficiency mark of 165.67, which will have NFL teams salivating.
CB Deandre Baker, Georgia: Speedy, athletic defensive back who is on many NFL Draft boards as a solid first-rounder after leading the Bulldogs in pass breakups with nine and finishing second on team in picks with three last year.
DE/LB Montez Sweat, Mississippi State: Led the league with 10.5 sacks — good enough for eighth nationally — and 15.5 tackles for a loss last year. Has incredible closing speed and is back to anchor a strong defense for the Bulldogs.
Also: WR Deebo Samuel (South Carolina); DL Cece Jefferson (Florida); DT Jeffery Simmons (Mississippi State); OL Martez Ivey (Florida); RB D’Andre Swift (Georgia); RB Trayveon Williams (Texas A&M); QB Nick Fitzgerald (Mississippi State); DB Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (Florida); DB J.R. Reed (Georgia)
Best/worst bowl destinations
Two years ago, Kentucky landed in a nice Florida bowl (the TaxSlayer) in its first trip to postseason play in six seasons. The Cats followed it up with a berth in the Music City Bowl a season ago. So given the desire to send different teams to different bowls, UK likely would be headed for the Belk Bowl (Dec. 29 at 12:30 p.m.) or the Liberty Bowl (Dec. 31 at 3:45 p.m.). Or, if things go really well, another trip to a Florida bowl such as the Outback (Jan. 1, noon).
There are plenty of postseason possibilities, though, that are less prestigious than others. UK fans probably would be happy to see the Cats get to a third straight bowl, even if it’s a bowl like the Birmingham (Dec. 22 at noon) or the Independence (Dec. 27 at 1:30 p.m.).
Records Cats could break
Benny Snell has taken aim at more than a dozen of Kentucky’s overall and freshman rushing records and knocked them backward like a defensive back crowding the box.
But there are plenty more marks for him to try and plow through, most notably the school’s 43-year-old rushing record owned by Sonny Collins. Snell needs 1,412 yards to get there, moving past big names in the process, including George Adams, Mark Higgs, Rafael Little and Moe Williams.
Snell needs six more touchdowns to pass Randall Cobb for career touchdowns scored at UK.
The junior back needs seven more 100-yard rushing games to bypass Collins’ 18, and he needs to have nine games of 100 yards or more this year to best that record by Artose Pinner.
Last season, freshman Lynn Bowden had the most kickoff returns in a game (seven) and in a season (37 for 869 yards) and could try and best those again in 2018. If he returns one for a touchdown this year, it would be the first for UK since 2009.
Linebacker Josh Allen has declared his plan to set the UK record for most career sacks. He’d need 12 more this year to topple the 29-year-old record. If Allen managed to get those 12, he’d be tied for most QB sacks in a season with Dennis Johnson from 2001.
Big Blue Meter
The season is a success if: Kentucky fans have enjoyed winning seven games and getting to bowl games in each of the past two seasons and likely would consider 2018 a success if UK can do that again. But a bowl win would be optimum after two straight losses to end seasons.
The season will be a disappointment if: The Cats slide backward and can’t manage to win six games and advance to postseason play with so many veterans returning on both sides of the ball. The schedule is tougher this year, but fans expect more, and a below-.500 record would hurt a recruiting class that can sign in December.