John Clay

Picking Kentucky’s football season: Breaking through is hard. Really hard.

Mark Stoops has a 26-36 record in five seasons as head coach at Kentucky. The Wildcats open the 2018 season Saturday against Central Michigan.
Mark Stoops has a 26-36 record in five seasons as head coach at Kentucky. The Wildcats open the 2018 season Saturday against Central Michigan.

With Mark Stoops beginning his sixth season and 17 starters returning — including a back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher on offense and a projected NFL first-round draft pick on defense — you’d think Kentucky football would be primed for a climb up the conference ladder.

If so, the Cats are going to have to prove it.

We’ve written before about the lack of preseason love. SEC media voting plugged UK in the No. 5 spot in the seven-team East Division. Las Vegas has put the over/under on the Wildcats’ 2018 win total at 5.5. As far as ticket sales are concerned, the fans have enthusiastically taken a stay-at-home/wait-and-see approach to the football team’s chances.

Why last weekend, via tweet, UK presented faculty and staff with a buy-one/get-one-free offer for Saturday’s opener against Central Michigan at Kroger Field.

Solid reasoning backs the skepticism. Breaking through in the SEC is hard. Thread-the-needle hard. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but Kentucky hasn’t produced a winning league record since the Jimmy Carter administration — 1977 to be exact. Since the conference expanded in 1992, just four programs have never reached the SEC Championship Game — Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, Texas A&M and, yes, Kentucky.

I’d love to be first among those that say this is the year, not just for a surprise trip to Atlanta, but the year Kentucky earns five conference wins and at least eight triumphs overall. Alas, sadly, I cannot.

There’s good reason to think I’m wrong (as always). Benny Snell, the first UK back to top the 1,000-yard mark in successive seasons, is back. So is a healthy tight end in C.J. Conrad. So is wide receiver Dorian Baker, who missed last year with injury. So is Josh Allen, a two-star recruit at outside linebacker who has become a top-drawer talent in the eyes of NFL scouts. The secondary, led by safety Mike Edwards, looks strong.

NFL Draft prospect Josh Allen anchors an experienced Kentucky defense. Matt Goins

A quarterback is not among the long list of returning starters, but the guess here is that newly named starter Terry Wilson will be just fine. The junior-college transfer is big, strong, quick and, by all reports, a more accurate passer than he was when he showed up for spring ball.

So what’s the rub? Why can’t I bring myself to hop on to the Big Blue Bandwagon? It’s simple. As almost always in the SEC, and with regard to Kentucky, the schedule is the rub. A definite rub.

It’s a weird schedule, at least in terms of the home/road split. The supposedly winnable games seem to alternate from year-to-year, first at home, then on the road. This year, there are road games in which UK has a chance (Florida, Tennessee) when most years you would think the opposite. In turn, there are home games in which UK figures to be an underdog (Mississippi State, South Carolina) when most years you would think the opposite.

There are also wild cards. How long will it take proven winner Dan Mullen to get things going at Florida? How will Tennessee do under new coach Jeremy Pruitt, a successful defensive coordinator who has never been a head coach? Is Missouri the team that started 1-5 last year, or the one that then won six straight? How long will it take Jimbo Fisher to work his magic at Texas A&M? That Heisman Trophy winner at Louisville? Lamar Jackson? He’s gone, right?

OK, time to quit procrastinating and start picking. I see wins over Central Michigan, Murray State, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Tennessee, Middle Tennessee and Louisville. I see losses to Florida, Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Missouri and Georgia. That’s a third straight 7-5 regular season with a third straight bowl bid. I see status quo.

To me, that says more about the difficulty of the job than the job Stoops is doing. He has put the program in position for a breakthrough. Actually breaking through, however, is a mightier task. If the Cats do it, they will have earned it.

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