Mark Stoops says any extra motivation is good
The start of another Kentucky football season is still nearly two weeks away, but it’s apparently never too early for bowl projections, and several national outlets have already taken a run at predicting who will play who this postseason.
For a UK team that ended up with 10 wins after being overlooked going into last year’s campaign, the early 2019 projections provide a little extra bulletin board material, starting with Phil Steele’s college football preview.
The 2019 edition of the exhaustive tome — self-described as the “most accurate magazine over the last 21 years,” with statistics to back up that claim — predicts a major comedown for a Wildcats team that knocked off Penn State in last season’s Citrus Bowl for the program’s first New Year’s Day victory in 67 years.
Steele projects Kentucky to finish sixth in the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division — ahead of only Vanderbilt — and does not include the Wildcats in the bowl projections section of the magazine. The college football guru did note within the magazine that he could see Kentucky favored in as many as seven games this season and added that the program has pulled 10 upsets over the past three seasons.
“The Cats still have plenty of winnable games on the schedule,” Steele wrote.
In fact, he ranks the toughness of Kentucky’s overall schedule as just 51st nationally, making it the easiest slate in the SEC.
In his final analysis of this year’s UK team, Steele conceded that a bowl berth for the Cats is “probable” based on their seemingly easy schedule and recent history of pulling upsets, but his various systems for ranking teams kept UK out of the magazine’s official bowl projections.
To gain bowl eligibility, all the Cats would have to do is sweep their non-conference slate of Toledo, Eastern Michigan, Tennessee Martin and Louisville (all of those games are at Kroger Field) and win matchups at Vanderbilt and at home against Arkansas, the two teams that Steele projects to finish last in their respective divisions.
Kentucky will also host Tennessee and Missouri at home and has won five straight games against South Carolina, which will host the Cats in Columbia on Sept. 28. The other three games on UK’s schedule are a home date with Florida on Sept. 14 and road games at Mississippi State on Sept. 21 and Georgia on Oct. 19.
That slate makes a fourth consecutive bowl berth seem like a probability for Mark Stoops, but the UK coach will obviously go into this season with a number of question marks following the departure of several veteran players, including Josh Allen, Benny Snell and the bulk of the secondary. Steele ranks UK’s running backs and wide receiver corps last in the SEC, and he has the Cats’ defensive line and defensive backs at No. 13 in the conference.
Some good news for UK fans: Steele didn’t have the Cats projected to go to a bowl game last season either, and Kentucky ended up with its best showing in decades. In 2018, he projected UK to finish fifth in the SEC East and said the Cats would need to pull a few upsets to make it to the postseason, which they did. Kentucky also finished tied for second in the East.
Other preseason projections for this year are more bullish on the Cats’ bowl chances, though no one is expecting UK to come close to reaching the heights of the 2018 campaign.
Athlon Sports — the only preseason magazine that Steele’s rankings say has been more accurate than his own over the past 10 years — picks Kentucky to finish sixth in the SEC East, ahead of only Vanderbilt, and projects the Cats to go 6-6 overall and 2-6 in league play.
The Athlon projections also place UK in the Music City Bowl in Nashville on Dec. 30 against Miami, which would be an especially intriguing matchup now that former Kentucky commitment Jarren Williams has been named the Hurricanes’ starting quarterback for the 2019 season. Williams and Miami kick off the national college football schedule Saturday night against Florida.
Street & Smith’s also projects UK to finish sixth in the SEC East — once again, ahead of only Vanderbilt — and pits the Cats against North Carolina State in the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La. on Dec. 26.
Lindy’s preseason magazine projects UK to finish fifth in the SEC East — ahead of Tennessee and Vanderbilt — but includes predictions for only the top-tier bowl games, and Kentucky was not placed in one of those.
Several other early bowl projections have been posted online recently:
▪ CBS Sports analyst Jerry Palm is predicting that Kentucky will face Syracuse in the Belk Bowl in Charlotte on New Year’s Eve.
▪ Sporting News pits UK against Virginia in the Music City Bowl, which the Cats have played in five times since 1999, with the most recent trip coming just two years ago.
▪ 247Sports also predicts that Kentucky will play in the Music City Bowl, though that website has Virginia Tech as the Cats’ opponent.
▪ The Orlando Sentinel places UK in the Belk Bowl against N.C. State.
▪ CollegeFootballNews.com also has Kentucky in the Belk Bowl, projecting traditional powerhouse Notre Dame as the Wildcats’ postseason opponent. UK has never faced the Fighting Irish on the gridiron.
Kentucky’s season kicks off at Kroger Field on Aug. 31 at noon against Toledo.