Mark Story

Not excited for UK football? You should be. Here’s why Cats will be compelling.

With his true freshman season under his belt, Kentucky slot receiver Lynn Bowden could be poised for a breakout year in 2018.
With his true freshman season under his belt, Kentucky slot receiver Lynn Bowden could be poised for a breakout year in 2018.

It seems like every time I have interacted with a Kentucky Wildcats fan this summer, it has followed the same script:

UK fan: “So, what do you think about the Cats this year?

Me: “Well, if the quarterback play is even competent, I think Kentucky should be pretty good.”

UK fan: “Well, actually, I meant basketball ...”

When it was reported Thursday that only some 40,000 tickets were out for UK’s Sept. 1st season opener against Central Michigan at the 61,000-seat Kroger Field, it was a numeric confirmation of a summer full of anecdotal evidence.

There is surprisingly little buzz for a Kentucky team riding a two-year bowl streak with 17 starters back from last season.

Because it seems there are a lot of UK backers whose football enthusiasm could use a jolt, here are 10 reasons that Mark Stoops’ sixth Kentucky season as UK head man should be compelling.

Kentucky athletics director Mitch Barnhart addresses concerns about sales of season football tickets declining to press during football media day on Friday morning.

10. Quarterback mystery. For the first time since 2008, Kentucky enters this season without a QB on its roster that has ever started an FBS football game. That fact is both worrisome and intriguing.

Will either dual-threat, junior-college transfer Terry Wilson or pocket-passer Gunnar Hoak perform well enough to give an otherwise veteran UK team a chance to thrive?

Mike Edwards
Kentucky safety Mike Edwards, intercepting a Lamar Jackson pass in UK’s 2016 upset of Louisville, would need seven picks as a senior to break Kentucky’s all-time interception record held by Darryl Bishop (14). Jonathan Palmer

9. Mike Edwards. UK’s star safety enters 2018 with eight career interceptions. It would take a monster year, but he needs seven picks in his senior season to pass Darryl Bishop as Kentucky’s all-time interceptions leader.

8. Florida streak. Last year’s come-from ahead 28-27 loss to Florida — when Kentucky infamously allowed two Gators touchdown passes to receivers uncovered at the line of scrimmage — ran the Cats’ losing streak against UF to an embarrassing 31 games.

Long-Suffering UK Football Fans should remember something, however.

When Kentucky finally snapped what was then a 26-game losing streak against Tennessee in 2011, it came after the Cats had suffered three painful near-misses vs. the Vols in 2006 (17-12), 2007 (52-50 in four OTs) and 2009 (30-24 in OT).

Well, in recent years, Kentucky lost to Florida 36-30 in triple-overtime in 2015. The following year, UK fell by five, 14-9, to UF in a defensive struggle. Then came last year’s gut punch.

Keep those three recent close calls in mind for UK’s visit to Gainesville in the season’s second week.

Kentucky pass-rush specialist Josh Allen (41) would need 13 sacks to break the UK single-season record set by Dennis Johnson in 2001. Mark Mahan

7. Josh Allen. The Kentucky senior pass-rushing specialist, being touted in some quarters as a potential first-round selection in the 2019 NFL Draft, needs 13 quarterback sacks to break the UK single-season school record (12) set by Dennis Johnson in 2001.

6. South Carolina streak. When Will Muschamp brings the Gamecocks to Lexington (Sept. 29), Kentucky will be looking for its fifth consecutive win over Carolina.

In its entire football history, Kentucky has never beaten an SEC foe not named Vanderbilt in five straight seasons.

5. Lynn Bowden. Last season, Bowden was late getting cleared to play by the NCAA. So the converted high school quarterback spent his true freshman season learning to play flanker after having an abbreviated preseason camp.

This year, the sophomore has had a spring practice, a normal summer and training camp, and has a year of experience at wide receiver under his belt.

The dynamic Bowden could be sitting on a breakout season.

UK football coach Mark Stoops, running-back Benny Snell Jr., and the rest of the UK football team celebrates a 29-26 win over Tennessee at Kroger Field.

4. Tennessee “streak.” Kentucky has not beaten the Rocky Toppers in back-to-back seasons since 1976 and ‘77. Having bested UT 29-26 in Lexington last season, the Cats will go for two in a row in Knoxville on Nov. 10.

After practice on Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018, Kentucky tight end C.J. Conrad talks about his training camp. The Wildcats open the season Sept. 1 against Central Michigan.

3. C.J. Conrad. Aren’t you curious to see if UK can at last figure out a way to consistently get the football to its talented senior tight end?

2. Cardinal Stadium. Kentucky won the first game ever played in the venue formerly known as Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium in 1998.

Kentucky won the first game ever played in the stadium after the University of Louisville expanded the venue from 42,000 seats to 55,000 in 2010.

This year, Kentucky will not be the first opponent in the newly-enlarged Cardinal Stadium (61,000 seats). The Cats will, however, try to spoil the regular-season finale of Louisville’s first year following its second stadium expansion.

Benny Snell
To pass Sonny Collins as Kentucky’s all-time leading career rusher in 2018, Benny Snell (26) must average 117.7 yards per game over 12 games or 108.7 yards per game if UK earns a 13th game with a postseason trip. Michael Reaves

1. Benny Snell. The Kentucky star running back enters his junior season needing 1,412 rushing yards in 2018 to pass Sonny Collins (3,835 yards) as UK’s career rushing leader.

Over 12 games, Snell needs to average 117.7 yards per game to set the record. If UK extends its season with a bowl trip, Snell would need to average 108.7 yards per game to pass Collins.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230; Twitter: @markcstory

Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops talks about the process of signing junior-college quarterback Terry Wilson.