John Clay

What’s a realistic goal for Kentucky football in 2019?

Mark Stoops didn’t make any bold statements at Kentucky football’s annual Media Day on Friday. No sweeping predictions. No woe-is-me proclamations. As is the coach’s wont, he played it straight down the middle, with but one promise.

“We’re not interested in going backwards,” Stoops said.

And what would constitute going backwards?

No bowl game.

Those are my words not his, but surely the seventh-year coach feels the same. To keep the momentum going for a program coming off its best season since 1977, the Cats must show they can absorb significant roster losses and still keep the boat afloat for a fourth consecutive postseason appearance.

That doesn’t mean a second consecutive 10-win season. Let’s not go crazy. It’s unrealistic to think Kentucky could lose sack monster Josh Allen (the No. 7 overall pick in the NFL Draft), cornerback Lonnie Johnson (No. 54), safety Mike Edwards (No. 99) and all-time career rusher Benny Snell (No. 122), just to name a few, and once again hit double digits in the win column. Possible, yes. Probable, no.

Even a second consecutive winning season in the SEC might be a stretch. After all, the Cats’ 5-3 conference mark from a year ago was the program’s first above-.500 finish since 1977. The last time UK posted back-to-back winning SEC records? Paging those Fran Curci teams of 1976 and ’77.

And yet, the preseason prognosticators see a trap door in the Cats’ future. The SEC Media Day voting placed Kentucky sixth in the SEC East in front of only Vanderbilt. The annual summer yearbooks see the Cats limping home 6-6 or worse. Phil Steele, the guru of college football previews, didn’t even include Kentucky in his bowl listings.

The No. 1 reason I don’t foresee such a drastic slide is the schedule, which looks a tad softer than last season. There are eight home games. A home date with SEC West foe Arkansas replaces that 2018 overtime road loss at Texas A&M. It’s tough to beat Georgia anywhere, but the Cats travel to Athens this year, meaning a more manageable foe must come to Kroger Field. Last year UK squeezed out a last-second win at Missouri. This year, the Cats get Mizzou at home.

I also expect quarterback Terry Wilson to be better than a year ago, and he wasn’t all that bad as a first-year starter. The team did win 10 games, after all. True, a barb-wire defense and Benny Snell in the backfield had more to do with the win total than the quarterback, but Wilson should be more comfortable this year. He looked the part in Saturday’s open practice after Fan Day, for what that’s worth.

Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said Friday his job in 2018 was “don’t screw it up.” He knows he’ll have to score more points in 2019 and he has pretty good weapon in Lynn Bowden to help in that regard. The wide receivers and tight ends must step up, but there’s talent in the backfield. And the offensive line looks solid.

To that end, the defensive line looks to be UK’s strength on that side of the ball. When was the last time we could say that? Kash Daniel is a leader at linebacker. The secondary is a huge question mark, but judging from what we saw during Saturday’s practice, there are plenty of candidates.

“There are some rough spots,” Stoops admitted Saturday. “There are some areas that need work.”

At his press conference on Thursday, Mitch Barnhart was asked what he was looking for from the football Cats this year. The AD said consistency. It’s a good answer, one that doesn’t set the bar unrealistically high, but, like Stoops, isn’t interested in a steep drop-off.

To me, the goal is a bowl game. A 6-6 record would keep the postseason streak alive but without much celebration. An 8-4 mark would be much better and, I think, entirely doable. That would keep the steps headed in the right direction.

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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