They didn’t want to hear it. Not back in 2016. Not during spring drills. Each time I wrote or posted something considered even cautiously optimistic about the Kentucky football program, my inbox and Twitter feed became host to a push-back from long-suffering fans.
That was before UK won seven football games last fall. It earned a bowl invitation for the first time since 2010. Better yet, it beat Louisville. At Louisville. The same Louisville that had been ranked in the AP top five. The same Louisville that boasted the Heisman Trophy winner in quarterback Lamar Jackson. UK 41, U of L 38.
Thus, times have changed. So have attitudes. Success has a way of doing that. With the grid-a-palooza that is SEC Football Media Days set to kick off this week in sweet home Alabama, I’ve sensed a slow surge of optimism from the fan base about Kentucky football for 2017. And hope. Yes, hope.
As my colleague Jennifer Smith reported last week, the feeling is backed up by the real data. UK sold 33,658 season tickets last year. Roughly two months before the 2017 home opener against Eastern Kentucky on Sept. 9, the school has sold over 32,000 this year. It has plenty of time to top last year’s number.
The optimism is shared by the prognosticators. Phil Steele is the current guru of the preseason yearbooks that appear to hit the newsstand about five seconds after the conclusion of the previous season. Steele’s College Football Preview 2017 boasts so much information it requires persistence to digest it all.
Here’s an excerpt of what Steele wrote about the Cats: “Pointing up is they benefited from bowl practices and their 17 returning starters tied for most in the SEC. They do avoid the top 3 teams out of the West and 5 of my 9 sets of power ratings call for them to top last year’s 7 win total. They get both Tennessee and Florida at home giving them a shot at ending their 5 year losing streak to the big 3 in the East (UF, UT, UGA) and potentially vault them into being a contender in the East.”
A Birmingham News poll of the SEC’s sports information directors predicted Kentucky to finish third in the East behind Georgia and Florida.
Reasons? Start with the 17 returning starters, referenced by Steele. Many of those populate a defense that was led last year by sophomores named Jordan Jones, Denzil Ware, Josh Allen, Derrick Baity, Chris Westry and Mike Edwards, to name a few. The offense returns its starting quarterback in Stephen Johnson, a 1,000-yard rusher in Benny Snell, three of five starters on the offensive line in Cole Mosier, Nick Haynes and Kyle Meadows. And there is buzz redshirt sophomore Logan Stenberg, a second-team All-SEC preseason pick by the News, is a budding star.
Are there pitfalls? Of course. This is UK football, the same program that has failed to produce a winning conference record since 1977. The defensive line is the firewall in the SEC and that is also the Cats’ most pressing question on that side of the ball. The offense must find someone who can replace the lightning strikes produced by running back Boom Williams the past three seasons. Depth is a concern. At Kentucky, depth is always a concern.
And yet, the prevailing feeling is that Mark Stoops is starting to operate with some wind at his back. The Cats are currently 16th in the Rivals recruiting rankings for 2018. The Joe Craft UK Football Training Facility is producing dividends. Commit Jarren Williams ranked fifth among quarterbacks at the prestigious The Opening camp last week in Oregon. The hires of offensive coordinator Eddie Gran and quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw before last season look smarter by the day.
All viable positives. All reasons for summer hope. Even the fanbase seems to agree.
Kentucky football 2017 schedule