UK’s Lynn Bowden has matured into a star receiver
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2019 College Football Preview
Watch for the Lexington Herald-Leader’s 2019 College Football Preview special section in the print edition on Sunday, Aug. 25. Click below to view all the stories for that section that have been published on Kentucky.com.
Will 2019 be a rebuild for the Kentucky football program, or — as Kash Daniel said at SEC Media Days — have the Wildcats reached a point where “reloading” is more what they’re about?
Even if this turns out to be more of a gap year, the school’s seventh season under Mark Stoops should yield pleasant results for fans anticipating a fourth straight winning season and a bowl vacation come winter. Ten wins and a Citrus Bowl trip is too much to ask for, but a softer schedule than last year’s slate should help ease the pain of losing 16 starters, including seven each from the offense and defense.
Was last year’s defensive showing an anomaly or the beginning of a new standard? The Wildcats finished second overall in points allowed among conference teams after giving up only 16.8 points a game, about half of what they had put up against them in Stoops’ first season (31.2), and about 12 points fewer than they gave up in 2017 (28.2). It’s reasonable to expect that number to creep back into the 20s this fall, but how high it goes will reveal much about the program’s year-to-year sustainability on that side.
Even last season — Kentucky’s best in more than 40 years — the Cats failed to finish among the top half of SEC squads in scoring, and there’s not much evidence to expect that to change. Yes, Terry Wilson has a year under his belt as the starting quarterback and complete faith from the coaching staff but, outside of playmaking dynamo Lynn Bowden, he’s saddled with a group of wide receivers who’ve collectively caught 24 passes in actual games. Benny Snell is not around to lean on, so Wilson will have ample opportunity to make household names out of unfamiliar faces.
If you assume the Wildcats’ four out-of-conference games and a home date with Arkansas (expected to be an SEC also-ran) are “gimmes” — Toledo is a rather stiff cupcake, especially to start the season, and you can never completely discount a rival like Louisville, even at its lowest — and that their trip to Georgia will be more out of obligation than anything, that leaves six games to reach bowl eligibility; a win over Vanderbilt, picked below the Cats in most rankings, puts the hypothetical math in their favor. Two crucial blocks — versus Florida, at Mississippi State and at South Carolina from Sept. 14-28 then versus Missouri and Tennessee in back-to-back home stands later — will determine whether UK is here to stay in terms of SEC East legitimacy.
Biggest area of concern
Since the spring, when multiple players left for the NFL Draft, the clear answer was always going to be “the secondary,” and it became even more worrisome when safety Davonte Robinson suffered a season-ending injury late last month. Only two players — safety Jordan Griffin and cornerback Cedrick Dort Jr. — have taken in-game snaps, and Dort redshirted last season due to a high ankle sprain. The staff leading up to the season emphasized the strength of their defensive interior — the linemen and inside linebackers — and those groups will need to carry the load as former blue-chip recruits get their first try at hawking SEC receivers.
Most important unit
Offensive line: Two starters from last season — center Drake Jackson and left guard Logan Stenberg — return along with Landon Young, who started in 2017 at left tackle but missed last year with a knee injury, for what might be the Cats’ deepest group. Darian Kinnard and Naasir Watkins dueled for the right tackle spot through fall camp while Mason Wolfe likely will get the nod at right guard; Austin Dotson and Kenneth Horsey will be factors there, too. The offense’s ability to stay on the field — therefore, limiting a green secondary’s time on it — begins at the line of scrimmage. Kentucky last season allowed 2.15 sacks per game, 10th among SEC teams (ahead of only Mississippi, Arkansas, LSU and Texas A&M), and as the offense tries to lean more on Terry Wilson and break in new running backs, it’s crucial for the unit to do what it can to improve that statistic this fall.
Toughest road trip
At South Carolina: Losing five straight games to any team would rile up a fan base, but losing five straight to “Kentucky?!?!” — there’s some who might perish at the thought. The prospect of snapping the Wildcats’ most significant SEC win streak should bring out the best (worst?) of the fans down in Columbia, and more importantly, South Carolina’s players. Beating UK at this juncture would be a feather in Will Muschamp’s cap, if for no other reason than it might signal a changing of the SEC guard. By the same token, it’ll be a chance for UK to prove many skeptics wrong who peg the Gamecocks as a top-25 program heading into 2019.
At Vanderbilt: A three-game win streak against the Commodores will have to grow to four straight to best insure another bowl trip. UK is 4-2 versus Vandy under Stoops, and in those games Vandy has averaged 15.1 points. Three senior Commodores made the media’s preseason All-SEC Second Team — running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn, receiver Kalija Lipscomb and tight end Jared Pinkney. Assuming both teams are at full strength, it stands to reason that the Cats will need a few more points than the 14 it was able to skirt by with in Lexington last year in order to leave Nashville happy.
Florida: There’s a parallel universe in which UK has a two-game winning streak against Florida, wherein the Wildcats didn’t leave receivers uncovered twice or blow a last-minute field-goal opportunity at home in 2017. Still, the Gators this year come to Lexington for the first time since 1987 as the loser of the teams’ most recent battle. Fans reliably packed Kroger Field against Florida during the 31-game losing streak; it’s hard to see them not coming in droves to see UK go for two in a row. UK hasn’t taken consecutive games in the series since 1976 and 1977.
Tennessee: The Vols project to be better than their 5-7 unit from a year ago that upset UK, fresh off a decisive loss to Georgia, in Knoxville. They bring back 14 starters into Jeremy Pruitt’s second season, and know for certain who their guy is under center. Junior Jarrett Guarantano last year threw for nearly 200 yards against a better Wildcats secondary than he’ll see this time around, and Kentucky’s recent history against UT — 32 losses in the last 34 bouts — doesn’t inspire confidence, but if UK’s overall talent can exceed its inexperience, there’s no reason that stat can’t become 32 of 35.
▪ Lynn Bowden with 16 receptions would become the 17th UK player to reach 100 career catches, and with 45 more yards — attainable in the season opener, based on Bowden’s per-game averages last year — would be the Wildcats’ 30th player with 1,000 receiving yards (he’s still a great deal away from Craig Yeast’s school-record 2,899 yards for a career).
▪ Mark Stoops needs only four wins to claim sole possession of fifth place on the school’s all-time wins list (three wins would tie him with Rich Brooks). Stoops has averaged six wins per season through six seasons; continuing at that rate, he would need four more seasons to match Paul “Bear” Bryant’s all-time record for wins (60) at the school.
The SEC produced 11 bowl teams last year (Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee failed to qualify). Assuming that total remains steady and UK wins no more than eight games, it’s headed to a lower-tier bowl than last season. The Cats were sent to the TaxSlayer Bowl (Jacksonville, Fla.) in 2016 and in 2017 were placed in Nashville for the Music City Bowl, where they’ve played five times, more than any other program. The Music City is always a smart pick, but my bet would be on the Belk Bowl (Charlotte, N.C.) or Liberty Bowl (Memphis, Tenn.); they’re both easy drives from Kentucky and neither conflicts with the UK-U of L bout in basketball (which, like it or not football-first fans, matters to some degree).
Big Blue Meter
The season is a success if … The Wildcats take a 7-5 record to whatever bowl destination they set course for in December. Six wins are on the schedule, based solely on most preseason rankings, and squeaking out just one more from the Mississippi State-Missouri-South Carolina-Tennessee collective isn’t too tough an ask. Eight or more wins would be deserving of an A-plus; going 6-6 gets you a B.
The season will be a disappointment if … A bowl destination doesn’t materialize. Winning only six games would be discouraging for some fans, but anything fewer than that would be alarming, even with so many on-field question marks entering the season. A bowl-free season means UK failed to match even its lowest preseason expectations, and would immediately exhaust the ample good will it generated among fans with last year’s historic run.
2019 UK schedule
Aug. 31: TOLEDO, Noon (SEC Network)
Sept. 7: EASTERN MICHIGAN, 7:30 p.m. (ESPNU or SEC Alternate)
Sept. 14: FLORIDA, 7 p.m. (ESPN)
Sept. 21: At Mississippi State
Sept. 28: At South Carolina
Oct. 5: Open
Oct. 12: ARKANSAS
Oct. 19: At Georgia
Oct. 26: MISSOURI
Nov. 2: Open
Nov. 9: TENNESSEE
Nov. 16: At Vanderbilt
Nov. 23: TENNESSEE-MARTIN
Nov. 30: LOUISVILLE
NOTE: Home games are in all capital letters. Remaining game times and TV channels will be announced at later dates.