It’s no coincidence that the word FINISH is on bulletin boards, lockers and dry erase boards in many meeting rooms around the Kentucky practice facility. It’s also on the minds of UK players and coaches after two straight seasons of 5-7 finishes and lots of would’ve, could’ve should’ve moments for the Cats. Kentucky was one play here and another play there from getting to the program’s first bowl game since 2010. Coach Mark Stoops seems to think this team is ready to finish a season with more than five wins. “I know we’re creating a positive winning culture within our program,” he said in July. “The results will happen. I’m confident. I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t believe it.” Kentucky has a retooled offense and nearly every tool back from last season’s arsenal. The defense is a much bigger question mark with the departure of all but one of the Cats’ top six tacklers from last season and a front seven filled with new faces that will be forced into key roles.
Denzil Ware: After a so-so season as a redshirt freshman, the defensive end/outside linebacker vowed that he wasn’t going to play timid anymore and showed signs of what’s to come in the Blue-White Spring Game when he had 10 tackles, including five for loss and four sacks. Ware could be a key disruptive playmaker for a defense that returns so little of that from a season ago.
BIGGEST AREA OF CONCERN
Defense: Even before fall camp started, Kentucky was going to have to replace five of its top six tacklers from last season and nearly all of its front seven. Then the Cats lost defensive lineman Regie Meant (undisclosed reasons) and the holes got even bigger. A unit that was among the worst in the nation in tackles for loss and sacks will try to make up the difference with athletic but untested players at many positions.
MOST IMPORTANT UNIT
Defensive line: Much has been made of the talent Kentucky has returning in its secondary, including safety Mike Edwards and corners Chris Westry and Derrick Baity, but they won’t be able to make big plays if the defensive line isn’t effective. Kentucky has to find playmakers in a hurry both inside and on the edge if it wants to compete in the Southeastern Conference.
Alabama: The SEC schedule-making gods did Kentucky no favors with a trip to Tuscaloosa on Oct. 1. The Crimson Tide, who likely will be top-rated in every national preseason poll, have won four national championships in the past seven seasons.
Southern Mississippi: All of the preseason hope and hype could be dashed if the Commonwealth Stadium scoreboard shows the Cats losing to the Golden Eagles in the season opener. The showdown is made a little more dramatic with offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson on the opposing sideline just months after being fired at Kentucky after just one season. A loss to Southern Miss also makes the road to six wins and a bowl game much more daunting.
GAME THAT WILL PACK THE HOUSE
South Carolina: With ticket sales down, it’s hard to know if the house will be packed at any point this season, but Cats fans recalling the years of abuse suffered at the hands of the Gamecocks under Steve Spurrier always seem to show for this game. The fact that UK could win three straight over the Gamecocks for the first time in the rivalry is sure to help.
TOUGHEST ROAD TRIP
Alabama: See above note about UK’s toughest opponent and also keep in mind that the Crimson Tide have lost just 12 games at Bryant-Denny Stadium in the past eight seasons. Did we mention it’s Homecoming weekend? Alabama has lost to Kentucky just twice in the 39 times the teams have met and both of those were in Lexington (1997 and 1922).
Florida: Kentucky has come dangerously close to ending the monster losing streak to the Gators, including a three-overtime loss last time the Cats made the trip to Gainesville and a 14-9 nail-biter in Lexington last season. Will quarterback question marks and so many new faces on Florida’s defense help UK end the streak or will the Gators go for 30 straight wins?
BEST NON-UK PLAYERS WE’LL SEE
Cam Robinson, Alabama: Despite some off-the-field problems, the 6-foot-6, 325-pound offensive tackle seems primed to have a big season for the Tide and a big payday in the 2017 NFL Draft. He has started all 29 games for the Crimson Tide.
Derek Barnett, Tennessee: Monster junior defensive end had 141 tackles, including 33 for loss and 20 sacks, in his first two seasons and is high on most mock NFL Drafts. A new defensive coordinator should only help him.
Nick Chubb, Georgia: Before a knee injury derailed the running back in October, he was on the path to an impressive sequel to his SEC Freshman of the Year campaign. In just six games before the injury, the Bulldogs star rushed for 747 yards on 92 carries with seven scores.
Also: CB Jalen Tabor (Florida); DE Devonte Fields (Louisville); DE Jonathan Allen (Alabama); LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin (Tennessee); WR Calvin Ridley (Alabama); LB Lorenzo Carter (Georgia); DE Charles Harris (Missouri); TE O.J. Howard (Alabama); RB Jalen Hurd (Tennessee).
BEST/WORST BOWL DESTINATIONS
It’s been six long years since Kentucky was in any bowl game and UK has gotten so dangerously close to bowling the last two seasons that it’s hard to imagine any bowl not being a happy place for Kentucky fans.
RECORDS CATS COULD BREAK
So many long-standing losing streaks, so little time. The first that Kentucky would love to see end this season starts with the 29 straight losses to Florida, the seven straight losses to Mississippi State, the six straight to Georgia, the five straight to Louisville. Kentucky also would like to end the streak of six straight seasons without a postseason bowl trip. As for personal streaks, kicker Austin MacGinnis owns the school record for the two longest field goals (54 and 53) and most consecutive makes of 11. Does he come close to besting any of those?
HOPE FOR THE FUTURE
Kentucky loses just eight scholarship players off of the 2016 version of the Cats and a bulk of the talent and skill players are in the junior, sophomore and freshman classes. With so much likely returning talent coupled with the promise of more thanks to a stunning $45 million practice facility opening, it’s hard not to be optimistic about where the program is headed. “That bodes well for us in the future,” Stoops said in July. “We feel very good about where we’re at the next couple of years.”
BIG BLUE METER
The season is a success if … Kentucky gets over the five-win threshold and gets to its first bowl game since 2010. Fans are unlikely to settle for anything less, especially another late-season collapse.
The season will be a disappointment if … Kentucky can’t find a way to seize some footing in the floundering SEC East and find its way to a bowl game for the first time in the Mark Stoops era.
2016 College Football Preview
Click on the links below to read other stories from the Herald-Leader’s season preview. Watch for more coming Monday and Tuesday, or pick up the Sunday Herald-Leader and get it all at once.