The University of Kentucky’s football season kicks off on Saturday, and questions aplenty surround the team as it looks to stay in the Southeastern Conference mix in 2019. What should worry fans as the season gets started?
(Got nothing but optimism in your heart? There’s a list for you, too.)
For as good a job that Mark Stoops and his coaching staff have done to put the program on a positive trend line, that doesn’t negate the fact that last year’s 10-3 campaign was a historical anomaly. While the schedule is favorable for the Wildcats — on paper, only the Georgia game stands out as a all-but-guaranteed loss — that comes with the caveat that many of their games could just as well be coin flips. Such was the case in a a couple of contests last season, when the defense was loaded with experience and Benny Snell was around to help the offense dictate terms of engagement. Tight victories over Missouri and Vanderbilt easily could have been discouraging losses; had it unfolded that way, UK’s marquee season would have featured a five-game losing streak. A game of inches, indeed.
If you followed Kentucky football through the 2018 season, you probably figured out fast that going into 2019 there was going to be less experience among the defensive backs than any other position group on the team. The prospect of replacing five distinguished seniors got even dicier when junior Davonte Robinson went down with a season-ending quad injury before fall camp got underway. UK boasts just one letterman with significant experience — senior safety Jordan Griffin — and it opens its season against a Toledo team that, historically, loves to put the ball in the air. Southeastern Conference quarterbacks could feast on a motley crew of youngsters.
Potential for QB controversy
The glass half-full mindset toward Terry Wilson is that the junior will take a step forward in his development and be Kentucky’s QB1 throughout this year and next. The glass half-empty person looks at his touchdown-to-interception ratio — 11 to 8 — and the fact that he led the team in fumbles (nine) and lost fumbles (four) last year, and wonders if a purported greater role in the offense could swell those figures to a degree that a contingent emerges to call Sawyer Smith from the bullpen. That situation also could materialize if the most critical juncture of UK’s schedule — Florida at home followed by road trips to Mississippi State and South Carolina in successive weeks — sees the Cats come out on the other side with a 2-3 record (or worse, 1-4, if Toledo takes ’em out in week one).
No signature win
Kentucky football finds itself in a curious position: The program isn’t among the SEC “elite” — Alabama, Georgia, LSU, etc. — but, at least it appears to be, out of the basement. Building a five-game win streak against a comparable program (South Carolina) has been crucial to staying in the middle of the pack, as has favorable records against Missouri and Vanderbilt. Beating any or all of those three this season would be good for program morale, but one could argue that none elicit the kind of excitement Big Blue Nation needs to stay overly invested in its football team. Heading into the season there seemingly are just two opponents on the schedule — Georgia and Florida — that would absolutely get the fan base jacked; Florida comes to town early in September, and if the Gators embarrass the Cats at home, a significant chunk of people might check out. Victories over Mississippi State and Tennessee, depending on the circumstances, are capable of generating hysteria, and of course a pummeling of Louisville in the regular-season finale would do so, but by then all that would be left to get excited about it is a bowl game.
Kentucky’s path to a postseason berth is relatively simple: beat Mid-American Conference foes Toledo and Eastern Michigan to start the year, handle Arkansas and Vanderbilt (both picked below UK among SEC pundits), destroy FCS goat Middle Tennessee State, and defeat Louisville in the Governor’s Cup to close out the regular season. There also exists a scenario in which that is UK’s only path to a postseason berth, which would send the significance of the U of L game through the roof. Not much is expected of the Cardinals in Scott Satterfield’s first season, but a rivalry is a rivalry, and the better team on paper hasn’t always been the better team after the final horn sounds (Google: Heisman winner Lamar Jackson’s fumble). Losing out on a bowl berth because of Louisville — at home — is the No. 1 thing that does not need to happen to Kentucky football this year.