The conventional wisdom on the 2016 Kentucky Wildcats football season is that Mark Stoops’ fourth team faces a much more difficult schedule than the Cats did in 2015.
To a point, that is true.
In 2015, Kentucky’s rotating opponent from the SEC West (in addition to permanent cross-division rival Mississippi State) was a home game with what turned out to be a highly mediocre Auburn; this year, the Wildcats visit defending national champion Alabama.
The 2015 season ended with Kentucky playing host to a rebuilding Louisville that, 12 games into last season, had not settled on a starting quarterback. UK’s 2016 will end with a trip to The ’Ville, whose rising sophomore QB — Lamar Jackson — is being touted as a potential Heisman Trophy contender.
Yet, with all that, there is a realistic window for Stoops and UK to earn Kentucky’s first bowl bid since the 2010 season.
The Cats will be expected to beat Southern Mississippi, New Mexico State and Austin Peay. UK figures to be a decisive underdog at Florida, at Alabama (with old friend Damien Harris), vs. Georgia, at Tennessee and at U of L.
So it seems likely that 2016 will shape up as a four-game season to determine the fate of the Wildcats. Kentucky’s year is apt to be decided by how the Cats fare against South Carolina (Sept. 24), Vanderbilt (Oct. 8), Mississippi State (Oct. 22) and at Missouri (Oct. 29).
Let’s take a closer look at the “Defining Four” teams of Kentucky’s 2016 season:
2015 record: 3-9 (1-7 SEC)
Streak vs. Kentucky: Lost two in a row to the Cats (which may be what pushed a certain Head Ball Coach beyond his breaking point).
Reason for UK hope: The perception is that new Carolina head man Will Muschamp did not inherit a bounty of talent from the departed Steve Spurrier. All-purpose star Pharoh Cooper, the only player on the 2015 South Carolina offense that scared people, is gone.
Reason for UK worry: South Carolina’s biggest problem in 2015 was a defense that allowed 27.5 points and 430 yards a game. Whatever else you think of Muschamp’s acumen as a head coach following his mediocre (28-21, 17-15 SEC) stint at Florida, the ex-Texas and Auburn defensive coordinator is a good bet to improve that porous Gamecocks “D.”
2015 record: 4-8 (2-6).
Streak vs. Kentucky: Won four of last five against Cats, including 21-17 in Nashville last season.
Reason for UK hope: It took a substantial amount of Kentucky coaching dysfunction last season to lose the game at Vandy. Surely, that will not be repeated this year in Commonwealth Stadium.
Reason for UK worry: The Cats could get punished physically the week before at Alabama and not be at their best for Vanderbilt — a game that is apt to be far more consequential to the Kentucky season.
2015 record: 9-4 (4-4).
Streak vs. Kentucky: Bulldogs Coach (and Boston Marathon finisher) Dan Mullen has never lost to UK in seven meetings — 1-0 vs. Rich Brooks, 3-0 vs. Joker Phillips, 3-0 vs. Stoops.
Reason for UK hope: Dak Prescott, the prototype of the dual-threat quarterback that historically strafes Kentucky defenses, is out of eligibility. State ended spring practice with four QBs still in the running to replace Prescott.
Reason for UK worry: Mullen was beating Kentucky annually before Prescott became his star QB.
2015 record: 5-7 (1-7).
Streak vs. Kentucky: Lost 21-13 last year in Lexington after beating Kentucky the first three times the schools played as SEC rivals.
Reason for UK hope: Gary Pinkel, the head coach who took Mizzou to unexpected SEC East titles in 2013 and ’14, has retired. Missouri’s offense in 2015 (13.6 points, 281 yards a game) was putrid.
Reason for UK worry: New Tigers head coach Barry Odom was the coordinator last season for a Missouri defense that allowed only 16.2 points and 302 yards a game. If new Mizzou offensive coordinator Josh Heupel, the former Oklahoma quarterback, can improve the Tigers attack even a little, there’s every reason to believe Missouri’s defense will be fierce enough to take advantage.
So if UK wins all of the “Defining Four” games, it should be in line for its first seven-victory season since 2009.
Win three of the four, the Cats should at least be able to get to the bowl-eligibility threshold of six wins.
However, win only two from among South Carolina, Vandy, Mississippi State and Mizzou, then Stoops’ third straight 5-7 mark seems likely.
Win fewer than two against the “Defining Four,” and the atmosphere engulfing Kentucky football will be so gnarly it could even ruin the mood in Kentucky’s posh, new luxury tailgating suites.
2016 UK football schedule
(Home games in capital letters)
Sept. 3 – SOUTHERN MISSISSIPPI
Sept. 10 – At Florida
Sept. 17 – NEW MEXICO STATE
Sept. 24 – SOUTH CAROLINA
Oct. 1 – At Alabama
Oct. 8 -- VANDERBILT
Oct. 22 – MISSISSIPPI STATE
Oct. 29 – At Missouri
Nov. 5 -- GEORGIA
Nov. 12 – At Tennessee
Nov. 19 – AUSTIN PEAY
Nov. 26 – At Louisville