When “playing season” begins Sept. 1, all of the things said during the so-called “talking season” for Kentucky football won’t matter much anymore.
The scoreboard will have the final word.
As we transition from talking points to playing for points, here are some final things to consider. Five reasons for fans to fret about the 2018 season and five reasons for them to be excited.
Five reasons to fret
1. Breaking in a new quarterback: Yes, Kentucky returns a large group of difference makers, like star running back Benny Snell and tight end C.J. Conrad alongside a veteran offensive line with 59 starts spread among five players. There are proven play-makers back like wide receivers Tavin Richardson and Dorian Baker and others who are promising like Lynn Bowden and other sophomores. Even a few freshmen could break into a veteran depth chart. But none of that matters much if UK doesn’t have a quarterback to lead the way. Kentucky fans got used to seeing Stephen Johnson make clutch plays at key times in helping the Cats get to back-to-back bowl games. Now they’re looking at a situation with an untested, unproven signal caller with zero Southeastern Conference games on his résumé. Will the talent around Terry Wilson or Gunnar Hoak be enough to offset rookie mistakes? Is there enough leadership elsewhere to make UK’s offense successful?
2. Can the veterans get it done? The optimistic Kentucky fans can point to the fact that the Cats’ defense returns five of its top six tacklers from last season, all but two starters and all but one player in the secondary, which has started a combined 110 games. But the pessimist has to worry that it’s mostly the same group back that finished No. 12 in the league in total defense, giving up 426.9 yards a game and 5,550 yards in all. The pessimist has to worry that while the Cats’ rushing defensive numbers improved, the passing defense took a step backward statistically. Does this group have what it takes to put together big stops at key times? Can the returning players become more stout against the run and the pass?
3. A game of inches: Of all the metrics and analytics and other data to analyze in college football, there’s no getting around the final score as the ultimate data point. And while there have been blowouts in the Mark Stoops era — a few he’d like to forget — nearly half (47 percent) of the games in his five years on campus have been decided by 11 points or fewer. Last season, 69 percent of games were decided by that slim margin. The gimme points like point-after attempts and close-range field goals become a huge thing when games are that close. That’s what made consistent kicker Austin MacGinnis, who left as UK’s all-time leading scorer, such a comfort to Stoops and staff. Maybe former walk-on Miles Butler or true freshman Chance Poore is the answer. But until one of them proves he has the accuracy and ability to kick game winners like MacGinnis did, there’s a reason for concern.
4. Fan support: While discussing the slimmest of margins with which Kentucky operated last season, crowd support certainly can contribute to wins and losses. The numbers say despite the momentum of UK winning seven games and advancing to the postseason each of the past two seasons, fans are still skeptical. As of a couple of weeks ago, season ticket sales numbers were down double digits, and the tickets out — which include even give-away tickets — aren’t even at 40,000 yet for the opener on Sept. 1. It’s likely that many of those fans are getting tickets in other ways and will show up for the Central Michigan game. But if they don’t, then 20,000 empty seats at Kroger Field for the first game of the season won’t exactly create an inspirational game environment.
5. A messy schedule: We seem to keep going back to how many close games Kentucky was in a season ago with nine games decided by 11 points or fewer. A seemingly more difficult schedule could be the thing that flips the script on the nail-biters, and maybe not in the way fans would approve. Games against the two preseason ranked opponents on UK’s schedule (No. 3 Georgia and No. 18 Mississippi State) are both at home. Several games that have the potential to be evenly matched are on the road like at Florida, Missouri, Tennessee and Louisville. Add that the Cats haven’t won at The Swamp since 1979 or in Knoxville since 1984 and it seems more daunting. But UK faced a similar schedule in 2016 and found seven wins. It’s not impossible
Five reasons to cheer
1. The best players also are good leaders: Names you know and recognize like Benny Snell, C.J. Conrad, Josh Allen, Mike Edwards, Derrick Baity, Darius West, Logan Stenberg and Dorian Baker not only are names that dot preseason watch lists, they also have become strong leaders in their position rooms. On many occasions this preseason, coaches have talked about the importance of player-led practices this summer and how the team was more ready to start fall camp. When a team’s best players also are its hardest workers and its most vocal leaders, good things tend to happen. “Nothing’s forced right now,” Stoops said at the start of camp. “There’s a lot of good leaders, a lot of guys who do things right. A lot of our best players have a purpose and want things to be done the right way. They did a nice job this summer of having a team meeting and just sort of setting the standards of what they expect of each other, and it’s paying off.”
2. A witness to history: It’s hard not to cheer for a player like Benny Snell, who has set dozens of Kentucky rushing records in his first two seasons on campus. He’s inching toward breaking the school’s all-time rushing record set 43 years ago by Sonny Collins. Snell would need 1,412 yards this season — only two UK running backs have managed that many in a single season — but the way the junior ran the ball in the last five games of the regular season last year should give fans hope that they might be witnessing history in 2018. And even if he falls short of the mark, watching Snell try will be fun.
3. Steady in the trenches: It wouldn’t be an SEC Media Day without at least a dozen coaches discussing how important winning the battles in the trenches is. This is a rare year where Kentucky seems capable of competing with its league counterparts on both the offensive and defensive lines. The Cats, who had a platoon of offensive linemen leading two 1,000-yard rushers two seasons ago, appear to be heading that direction again this season with offensive coordinator Eddie Gran projecting that UK can go eight or even nine deep on the offensive line. Five proven, selfless veterans in Landon Young, Logan Stenberg, Drake Jackson, Bunchy Stallings and George Asafo-Adjei were set to lead the way until Young was lost for the season Friday to a right knee injury. Fortunately for Kentucky, several big and talented linemen stood ready to compete for playing time. And for the first time in the Stoops era, UK appears to have not only talent, but also depth and competition at each of its interior defensive line positions, with several spots (some held by veterans) still seemingly up for grabs as the season gets closer. If the Cats can play a rotation of defensive linemen this year and get a disruptive push in their base defense, life could be fun for play-makers like Josh Allen and Jordan Jones as well as the defensive backs.
4. Health and happiness: Kentucky seemed to be a bit snake-bit a season ago. The Cats’ seemingly strong offense lost two home-run weapons in Boom Williams (early NFL Draft exit) and Jeff Badet (graduate transfer) and then by the end of the second scrimmage of preseason, UK had lost starting left tackle Cole Mosier (knee) and standout wide receiver Dorian Baker (ankle) for the season. Quarterback Stephen Johnson had to battle shoulder and knee injuries quietly all season as well. Feel free to knock on the nearest picnic table as you read this next sentence, but so far this preseason, UK has stayed mostly healthy. It was the usual bumps and bruises before Young’s injury. An almost full roster of healthy players could make a big difference if the Cats want to get off to a hot start.
5. Never underestimate a good chip: Even though Kentucky has winning streaks over SEC East Division opponents like South Carolina and Missouri, the Cats were picked in the preseason polls to finish behind both of those teams. That wasn’t lost on UK’s leaders. “We know what we have in our locker room and we’re super excited,” C.J. Conrad said at Media Days, noting that five combined points were the deciding factor in three UK losses. “We know we’ve lost some games we shouldn’t have lost that have maybe put doubts in people’s minds that maybe this is old Kentucky football, but we know what we’ve got.” Benny Snell and Josh Allen also both discussed feeling disrespected as a program. That sort of swagger and attitude seems to run through the whole team. They might be the things that get UK into its next bowl game.
Central Michigan at Kentucky
3:30 p.m. Saturday (ESPNU)