A Catch-22 exists when it comes to handicapping the 2017 Kentucky football season, which starts Saturday with a 4 p.m. EDT kickoff at M.M. Roberts Stadium, or “The Rock” as it’s known, in Hattiesburg against Southern Miss.
There is every reason to be optimistic about this Kentucky football team except for the fact that it is, well, Kentucky football, a program with a long history of consistently disappointing its following by failing to meet even modest expectations.
In the face of all that, I’m sticking with the path of optimism. Kentucky hasn’t won eight regular-season games since Jerry Claiborne’s 1984 team went 8-3 before beating Wisconsin 20-19 in the Hall of Fame Bowl. I say Mark Stoops’ 2017 team will match that victory total. I have the Cats going 8-4 on their way to a second straight bowl trip.
At Southern Miss, Sept. 2: At the opening gun, Kentucky can avenge last year’s painful second-half collapse and 44-35 loss to the Golden Eagles at then-Commowealth Stadium. Stoops’ troops are a year older, wiser and hopefully more mature. Kentucky 27, Southern Miss 17.
Eastern Kentucky, Sept. 9: Dean Hood, UK’s new special teams and outside linebackers coach, faces the school that fired him as head coach two years ago. That’s a sidebar. Deeper and more talented, UK should take care of business. Kentucky 52, Eastern Kentucky 10.
At South Carolina, Sept. 16: Arguably the most important game on the UK schedule. Though Kentucky appears the better team, it’s tough to see the Cats taking four straight from the Gamecocks. South Carolina 20, Kentucky 17.
Florida, Sept. 23: Kentucky hasn’t beaten Florida since 1986, but nothing lasts forever. The Cats played the Gators tough two years ago in Lexington, falling 14-9. Florida is basically the same — great defense, uncertain at quarterback. Kentucky is better. Says here the streak ends. Kentucky 16, Florida 14.
Eastern Michigan, Sept. 30: Stoops claimed Monday he has not peeked ahead to the 2018 schedule. If he did he’d find a visit from the team from Ypsilanti. That is if EMU is still playing football then. There’s a push to have the school drop the sport. Tells you about the state of the program. Kentucky 37, Eastern Michigan 7.
Missouri, Oct. 7: Much like Stoops, Barry Odom is a former defensive coordinator trying to rebuild a program. Odom is in his second year. Stoops is in his fifth. Kentucky 31, Missouri 17.
At Mississippi State, Oct. 21: The Cats finally broke Dan Mullen’s death grip last year, topping the Bulldogs on Austin MacGinnis’ 51-yard field goal at the final horn. This year’s game is in Starkville. Mullen has another terrific quarterback in Nick Fitzgerald. Mississippi State 28, Kentucky 16.
Tennessee, Oct. 28: Butch Jones will haul his bag of cringe-worthy cliches over the border up to Lexington for this pre-Halloween hookup. Kentucky hasn’t beaten Florida and Tennessee in the same season since 1976. Forty years is long enough. Kentucky 37, Tennessee 28.
Ole Miss, Nov. 4: The Rebels enter 2017 a mess. The program is under NCAA investigation. Head coach Hugh Freeze resigned after being caught dialing escort services on a university-issued phone. Kentucky 33, Ole Miss 19.
At Vanderbilt, Nov. 11: UK’s last trip to Nashville featured the worst sideline performance of the Stoops era. The head coach has grown since, however. He has a better staff and veteran players. That still won’t be enough. Vandy will surprise some people this year, UK included. Vanderbilt 17, Kentucky 13.
At Georgia, Nov. 18: This is the only game on the schedule where I don’t give the Cats much chance. The game is in Athens. Georgia is my pick to win the SEC East. The Bulldogs are my pick here, as well. Georgia 45, Kentucky 17.
Louisville, Nov. 25: The Governor’s Cup has tended to run in cycles. From 2003 through 2006, Louisville won four straight. From 2007 through 2010, Kentucky won four straight. From 2011 through 2015, Louisville won five straight. It says here UK will make it two straight. Kentucky 33, Louisville 20.
Final record: 8-4 overall; 4-4 in the SEC.
Kentucky football 2017 schedule