Kentucky football has been to back-to-back bowl games. It has produced back-to-back winning seasons. It has 17 starters back from a 2017 team that was eight points away from being 10-3.
Yet when the votes are tabulated here Friday at SEC Football Media Days, Kentucky will probably be picked to finish back near the bottom of the East Division.
“I don’t know if that’s for me to judge,” head coach Mark Stoops said Monday during the first day of the league’s annual summer kickoff. “I know we’re very confident in our building and feel very good about what we have and what we’re doing.”
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After all, I ranked Stoops sixth among SEC coaches. Only Alabama’s Nick Saban has been at his current employer longer than Stoops and Auburn’s Gus Malzahn. (Each is in his sixth year.) The Cats boast the league’s top returning rusher in Benny Snell on offense and more returning production than any defense in the league.
Judging by the preseason yearbooks, however, few seem to care. So what gives? Here are three reasons why the 2018 Cats aren’t getting much love:
1. The lack of an experienced starting quarterback
New Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher, who won a national title at Florida State, said this Monday: “If your quarterback is not the toughest guy on the team then your team is not going to be tough.”
Stephen Johnson was Kentucky’s toughest player in 2017. The senior quarterback played through multiple injuries — some not publicly revealed until after the season — on his way to leading the Cats to a 7-6 record. Now he’s graduated, however, a two-year starter handing the team’s most important job to someone who has never taken a snap in a Division I college football game.
Stoops pushed back at that assumption Monday. As a redshirt sophomore, Gunnar Hoak has two full years in offensive coordinator Eddie Gran’s system, said Stoops. And sophomore Terry Wilson spent a redshirt year at Oregon before transferring to Garden City Community College in Kansas.
Stoops said Monday he’s comfortable with both, but has no timetable for picking a starter. Until either plays, the position is a question mark.
2. The schedule is, well, an SEC schedule
Perhaps you’ve heard: Kentucky hasn’t beaten Florida since 1986. Week two, it plays at Gainesville. It travels to Texas A&M on Oct. 6. It beat Missouri and Tennessee last season, but now must visit both on the road this season. The trip to Missouri is Oct. 27, the visit to Tennessee on Nov. 10.
Georgia and South Carolina are both on the Kroger Field calendar, but those are the two teams picked to finish atop the East. And while Kentucky has beaten South Carolina four times, conventional wisdom says (a) this is Will Muschamp’s best team in Columbia and (b) the streak has to end at some point.
3. The history of Kentucky football
As a program, UK hasn’t posted a winning SEC record since 1977. It did finish 4-4 each of the past two seasons, but that brings to six the number of times a .500 conference mark has happened since ‘77. In each of the previous five the Cats failed to find a way over the hump the next season.
Alas, stereotypes stick. Alabama could lose all 22 starters and, based on the program’s past performances, preseason prognosticators would no doubt allow the Crimson Tide the benefit of the doubt. Not so with a Kentucky. Not yet.
You might ask if the Cats are aware of this? Judging by their responses here, the answer would be yes, with a healthy dose of chip-on-the-shoulder as a motivational device.
“I hope we have a chip on our shoulder no matter what we’re rated,” Stoops said. “That’s what I’m looking for.”
“I’ve had a chip on my shoulder ever since I’ve been here my freshman year,” Snell said. “A lot of doubt has been on Kentucky ever since I’ve been here. . . . We’re going to keep trying to prove people wrong.”