Are the Kentucky Wildcats finally ready to rise in the SEC East?
It’s only March, but there are already plenty of opinions about which team will bring home the SEC East title this season.
Tennessee is a popular pick, with tons of returning talent and plenty of momentum from a strong close the to the 2015 campaign.
Florida is the defending champion, and Gators fans are confident that coach Jim McElwain’s team will find a quarterback and impress again in his second season.
Georgia has a new coach in Kirby Smart, a five-star quarterback recruit on campus for spring ball and its usual collection of future NFL talent on hand.
South Carolina also has a new coach and plans to improve, while Vanderbilt and Missouri also are looking to make more noise in the division than last year.
So, where does that leave Kentucky?
Flying under the radar.
But that doesn’t mean that the Wildcats can’t move up in the standings. Here are a few things that need to go right in order for that to happen:
BARKER COMES GOOD
With Patrick Towles taking his talents to Boston College as a graduate transfer and Reese Phillips transferring to Montana, Drew Barker is the only quarterback with major college experience on the roster.
His competition in the spring is JUCO transfer Stephen Johnson II and true freshman Gunnar Hoak, so it will be an upset if the former four-star recruit doesn’t start the season opener on Sept. 3 against Southern Miss.
He started the team’s final two games last fall, completing 35 of his 70 passes for 364 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. So, he has a little experience.
What he hasn’t had is stability. Eddie Gran is the third offensive coordinator Barker has worked with in as many years in Lexington. Darin Hinshaw, his new quarterback coach, is also a newer voice in his ear.
But Gran and Hinshaw recruited Barker to come to Cincinnati, and they have a track record for developing successful passing offenses, and by extension, quarterbacks. So, assuming that coach Mark Stoops finally has the right offensive minds in place, and Barker develops as a second-year starter should, the Wildcats passing game could be much improved this season.
CASH IN ON SEC HOME GAMES
A big part of any team’s success is its schedule. What teams does it draw from the other division, in this case, the loaded SEC West? Where are the games against your closest division rivals?
In Kentucky’s case, the 2016 slate is a mixed bag:
|Sept. 3||Southern Miss|
|Sept. 10||at Florida|
|Sept. 17||New Mexico State|
|Sept. 24||South Carolina|
|Oct. 1||at Alabama|
|Oct. 22||Mississippi State|
|Oct. 29||at Missouri|
|Nov. 12||at Tennessee|
|Nov. 19||Austin Peay|
|Nov. 26||at Louisville|
Road dates with Florida, Alabama and Tennessee are daunting prospects, but home tilts with South Carolina, Vanderbilt and a rebuilding, but still dangerous, Mississippi State squad offer more realistic opportunities to pick up conference wins.
No league game is an easy one, of course, but a team has to take any break it can get in the SEC.
GROUND AND POUND
Kentucky has one of the SEC’s better collections of running backs, but the group wasn’t used all that much in 2015.
The Wildcats had the second-fewest rushing attempts in the league with 419. Of course, trailing late in games factors into that, but generally speaking teams are better off when they can lean on the running game.
Stanley “Boom” Williams, who’s sitting out spring practice while he recovers from elbow surgery, Jojo Kemp, Mikel Horton and Sihiem King all return.
Factor in four returning starters on the offensive line, and a pair of four-star recruits in center Drake Jackson and tackle Landon Young, and you have the ingredients for a much improved rushing attack that should be used a bit more this time around.
GET BETTER ON DEFENSE
The Kentucky offense wasn’t always the problem in last year’s 5-7 campaign. The defense must shoulder some of the blame.
The unit finished 12th in total and scoring defense in 2015, and must now replace six starters. Newcomers Kash Daniel and Naquez Pringle will need to provide immediate help at linebacker and on the line, respectively.
A young secondary, featuring corners Chris Westry and Derrick Baity, will also need to take another step forward for the defense to improve.
On paper, the defense is a problem area heading into the season. This is also a good chance for Stoops to live up to his reputation as a defensive specialist, play the “no one respects us” card and find a way to make this unit better.
MAKE ONE MORE PLAY
Last fall, Kentucky lost SEC games to Florida, Auburn and Vanderbilt by a combined 12 points.
If Dorian Baker hauls in a pass in the end zone from Towles, the Wildcats may have beaten Florida and snapped a 28-year losing streak. A slow start doomed them in the game against Auburn and Towles’ inconsistency and poor red zone offense cost Kentucky against Vanderbilt.
The margins are fine in the SEC. A play here or there in these games, and Kentucky could have finished with eight wins and right in the mix for an East title.
We could also win the lottery, but wishing for it won’t make it happen.
The Wildcats need leaders to emerge and make the plays that mean the difference between near-misses and program-shaping victories.