John Clay

Kentucky football: Aiming for six wins sets the bar too low

Mark Stoops starts his fourth season as Kentucky football’s head coach when the Cats play visiting Southern Miss on Sept. 3.
Mark Stoops starts his fourth season as Kentucky football’s head coach when the Cats play visiting Southern Miss on Sept. 3. Lexington Herald-Leader

Six. That’s been the number of the summer. When the subject of Kentucky football arises, the bottom-line question narrows to the number six. Can the Cats finally finish with six, as in six wins, as in the six wins it would need for its first bowl trip since 2010?

Nope.

I think Kentucky can win seven.

True, Mark Stoops has gone just 12-24 since he took over the distressed property that was UK football three seasons ago. True, each of the last two seasons, the Cats were one win away from that magic number six only to fall short both times. True, there is nothing that jumps out as a definite predictor that this will be Stoops’ breakthrough season.

Still, a 7-5 record is not such a far-fetched dream. Lost in the sour taste left by last season’s slide to the finish line is the fact Kentucky came oh so close to grabbing its goal. It lost by five points at home to eventual SEC East champ Florida. It lost by three points at home on a Thursday night to Auburn. It lost by four points on the road to Vanderbilt. (The less said about the latter the better.)

Nor am I the only one guzzling the blue Kool-Aid. The SEC Network crew recently picked Kentucky to finish 7-5. None other than Kirk Herbstreit, ESPN’s lead football analyst, picked Kentucky as one of his five surprise bowl teams.

The opportunity is there. Alabama, Tennessee, Louisville and Georgia are probably beyond the degree of difficulty. On the other hand, non-conference home dates with New Mexico State and FBS foe Austin Peay should line up in the victory column. That leaves six either-way games that could swing the Cats’ way.

Kentucky has beaten South Carolina each of the past two seasons and this year (a) the Gamecocks must come to Commonwealth Stadium and (b) they figure to be better under new coach Will Muschamp. Vanderbilt also visits Lexington. So must Mississippi State, which no longer has Cat-killing quarterback Dak Prescott. UK must travel to Missouri, but the Tigers won just one conference game a year ago and have a new coach in Barry Odom.

CBS tabbed UK’s trip to Florida on Sept. 10 for its coveted 3:30 p.m. time slot. For nearly three decades, the Gators have treated the Cats like a weekend snack, winning 29 straight. Yet Stoops has given Florida fits. Kentucky’s last visit to The Swamp extended to overtime before the Gators claimed a controversial win. Last year, Florida won just 14-9 at CWS.

Actually, the season’s key game could be the first one. Southern Miss won nine games last season. It boasts one of the nation’s best quarterbacks in Nick Mullens. Its offensive coordinator, Shannon Dawson, was Kentucky’s offensive coordinator last season. And it has a new coach in Jay Hopson. A UK loss out of the blocks and the Cats spend the season trying to make up lost time. A UK win would be a booster shot.

It won’t be easy. The front seven on defense could be make-or-break. There’s talent there but not much experience. Losing starting defensive tackle Regie Meant opened a hole difficult to fill. The faith in an improved secondary won’t mean much if the Cats can’t reach the quarterback. Last year’s sack total of 17 has to improve.

The offense may have to shoulder the load, especially early. It’s capable. New coordinator Eddie Gran owns a successful track record. For once, there is depth at running back and receiver. Drew Barker has the skills to be a good SEC quarterback. To make it work, the offensive line has to click.

Throughout fall camp, there was more of a sure-footed feel among Stoops and his troops. The head coach talked higher capacity. His players talked confidence. Now, the projections end and the path to the six-win goal begins.

Actually, that aim is low. It says here Kentucky goes 7-5.

Kentucky football 2016 schedule

Date

Opponent

9/3/16

Southern Miss

9/10/16

@Florida

9/17/16

New Mexico St

9/24/16

South Carolina

10/1/16

@Alabama

10/8/16

Vanderbilt

10/22/16

Mississippi St

10/29/16

@Missouri

11/5/16

Georgia

11/12/16

@Tennessee

11/19/16

Austin Peay

11/26/16

@Louisville

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