Mark Story

UK season prediction: Cats will overcome adversity and make it back to a bowl

Kentucky has not won eight games in a regular season since Jerry Claiborne’s 1984 Hall of Fame Bowl champions finished 9-3.

In 2016, Mark Stoops’ fourth season as UK head man, the Wildcats (7-6) broke through with their first winning season since 2009 and first bowl trip (TaxSlayer) since 2010.

However, to reach the elusive eighth regular-season win in 2017, Stoops’ troops will have to overcome a rash of unanticipated off-season losses of key personnel.

Below is my game-by-game projection:

SOUTHERN MISSISSIPPI

Sept. 2 at Hattiesburg, Miss.

The hope: Kentucky will be burning to avenge the 2016 season opener — when a 35-10 UK lead in Lexington turned into a stunning 44-35 Southern Miss victory.

The nope: Golden Eagles offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson — fired from the same position at UK after the 2015 season — might not be satisfied with sticking it to the school that pink-slipped him just once.

The scope: Kentucky 33, Southern Mississippi 26

EASTERN KENTUCKY

Sept. 9 at Kroger Field

The hope: There are enough UK players remaining from the Wildcats’ 34-27 overtime escape against EKU in 2015 to ensure an inspired Cats roster for FCS foe Eastern.

The nope: Eastern is especially motivated to go against its former head coach, Dean Hood, now the Kentucky outside linebackers and special teams coach.

The scope: Kentucky 45, Eastern Kentucky 14

SOUTH CAROLINA

Sept. 16 at Columbia, S.C.

The hope: Kentucky is going for a victory over South Carolina for a fourth-consecutive year. The last time UK achieved that against a SEC foe other than Vanderbilt it was Florida in 1948, ’49, ’50 and ’51.

The nope: After Will Muschamp installed then-true freshman Jake Bentley at quarterback last season, the Gamecocks finished 4-3. Bentley did not play in UK’s 17-10 win over South Carolina.

The scope: South Carolina 27, Kentucky 23

FLORIDA

Sept. 23 at Kroger Field

The hope: Other than the 45-7 shellacking Kentucky took in Gainesville last season, UK has played Florida competitively during the Stoops era, notably losing in triple overtime in The Swamp in 2014 and by 14-9 in Lexington in 2015.

The nope: It’s interesting how many people are picking UK to end its 30-year losing streak to Florida in 2017. Historically, long UK football losing streaks (see wide receiver at quarterback, vs. Tennessee, 2011) have tended to end when no one is expecting it.

The scope: Florida 23, Kentucky 16

EASTERN MICHIGAN

Sept. 30 at Kroger Field

The hope: Eastern Michigan is 0-9 all-time against SEC foes and lost 61-21 last year at Missouri — a team Kentucky beat.

The nope: The Eagles have 16 starters back, including standout quarterback Brogan Roback, from a 7-6 team that lost to Old Dominion in the Bahamas Bowl.

The scope: Kentucky 52, Eastern Michigan 27

MISSOURI

Oct. 7 at Kroger Field

The hope: After dropping the first three meetings with Mizzou after the Tigers entered the SEC in 2012, UK has won the last two.

The nope: Missouri has 10 offensive starters back, including quarterback Drew Lock, from a team that won two of its final three SEC games in 2016.

The scope: Kentucky 35, Missouri 31

MISSISSIPPI STATE

Oct. 21 at Starkville, Miss.

The hope: Bulldogs head man Dan Mullen was 7-0 against the Cats until Austin MacGinnis removed the hex last year with a 51-yard field goal at the buzzer that allowed UK to prevail 40-38.

The nope: Mississippi State junior Nick Fitzgerald is exactly the type of dual-threat quarterback — ran for 1,375 yards; threw for 2,423 last year — that historically gives UK defenses fits.

The scope: Mississippi State 38, Kentucky 28

TENNESSEE

Oct. 28 at Kroger Field

The hope: Cats-killing Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs — 4-0 as a starter vs. UK while personally accounting for 16 touchdowns (10 passing, six rushing) — is now with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The nope: Only one Tennessee QB since 1984 (Tyler Bray in 2011) knows what it is to lose to Kentucky.

The scope: Tennessee 30, Kentucky 28

MISSISSIPPI

Nov. 4 at Kroger Field

The hope: With Hugh Freeze ousted, NCAA turmoil swirling and a brutal stretch of SEC games before Ole Miss comes to Lexington, the Rebels’ frame of mind by Nov. 4 may be sub-optimal.

The nope: Quarterback Shea Patterson was a five-star recruit (by Rivals.com) in 2016, and he alone could make Mississippi dangerous.

The scope: Kentucky 34, Mississippi 27

VANDERBILT

Nov. 11 at Nashville

The hope: Memories of UK’s crushing 21-17 loss at Vandy in 2015 ensure a motivated Cats roster for a game that will again be crucial to Kentucky’s hopes of bowl eligibility.

The nope: Vanderbilt has 16 starters back and has beaten UK three in a row in Nashville.

The scope: Kentucky 24, Vanderbilt 21

GEORGIA

Nov. 18 at Athens, Ga.

The hope: Had Jeff Badet not bobbled what should have been a Stephen Johnson touchdown pass into a Georgia interception in the Bulldogs’ 27-24 win last year in Lexington, UK would likely have beaten the Dawgs.

The nope: Kirby Smart returns 17 starters and has star running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel back.

The scope: Georgia 41, Kentucky 27

LOUISVILLE

Nov. 25 at Kroger Field

The hope: Including last year’s thrilling UK upset of No. 11 Louisville, the Wildcats have led or been tied with the Cardinals in the fourth quarter the past three years.

The nope: Lamar Jackson is not apt to turn the ball over four times against UK again. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner is apt to be stoked to reclaim the Governor’s Cup.

The scope: Louisville 38, Kentucky 34

Final Kentucky season record: 6-6 (3-5 SEC).

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