The SDS Crystal Ball: Predicting every game for Kentucky football in 2021
Editor’s note: Saturday Down South’s annual Crystal Ball prediction series continues today with Kentucky. Thursday: Missouri.
All things considered, it could’ve been much worse.
A 5-6 season is nothing to write home about, but once upon a time, the idea of nearly going .500 against an all-Power 5 schedule would’ve been unrealistic in Lexington. A weird 5-6 season included some remarkable defensive performances from Mark Stoops’ bunch, and it also included frustrating doses of reality against SEC contenders.
Battling COVID issues didn’t help a team that didn’t have much margin for error to begin with, especially on offense. The death of beloved assistant John Schlarman was felt throughout that Kentucky locker room.
All in all, it was a strange year that could’ve spiraled, but it didn’t. The Cats still won their third consecutive bowl game and they blew out MSU, Tennessee and South Carolina.
Stoops enters his 9th season at Kentucky, but just like he did in the middle of the 2010s, it’s once again time to evolve offensively. That’s the most notable change for his team, who will enter with some legitimate buzz to surpass Florida in the East.
Can that happen? Let’s break it down.
Welcome to the new age (of Kentucky’s offense)
Out is Eddie Gran’s ground-heavy offense and in is Liam Coen’s Sean McVay-inspired offense. This is going to feel wildly different from recent memory in Lexington. It won’t be the Air Raid days of old, but there will be more balance. There will be spreading teams out. There will be more explosive pass plays.
Did Kentucky wait too long to change its offensive philosophy? That’s debatable. The Big Blue Wall has been the strength of the offense, and with several capable backs, it made sense that Kentucky wanted to be a run-first team.
Now, Penn State transfer Will Levis is trying to usher in a new era of offense. Can he stretch the field vertically and make high-percentage throws to keep defenses honest? Or will he struggle with limited proven weapons on the outside? That, we don’t know.
What we do know is that this isn’t your dad’s Kentucky offense. It’s not even your older brother’s Kentucky offense.
The Wan’Dale Robinson-Chris Rodriguez duo
Perhaps my favorite wide receiver-running back duo in all of college football this year. I say “duo” because I think they’ll trade off getting looks in Coen’s offense.
Rodriguez is still going to be a load to bring down. Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded running back finished the 2020 season on a bang after missing time because of COVID. He’ll be a first-time starter, though he has 8 career games with double-digit carries, and he has a career average of 7 yards per carry.
As for Robinson, he was Nebraska’s best player the past 2 years. He left Lincoln to return to his home state in part because he wanted to be closer to his family, but also because he wanted a new offensive role. He’s not going to get double-digit carries out of the backfield in Coen’s offense like he did with Scott Frost. He’ll be in the Cooper Kupp role, which means you’ll see a lot of him out of the slot, though he’ll likely line up all over the field.
It seems entirely possible that Kentucky has a pair of 1,000-yard skill players. When was the last time the Cats had multiple skill players total 1,000 scrimmage yards in the same season? That would be 2016 with rushing duo Benny Snell and Boom Williams. But when was the last time Kentucky had a running back and a receiver hit the century mark in scrimmage yards the same season? That was Randall Cobb and Derrick Locke in 2010, though Locke got to 1,000 scrimmage yards thanks to his 318 receiving yards.
What am I saying? Rodriguez and Robinson could be a unique, prolific duo at Kentucky.
Can the defense do the heavy lifting early?
Doesn’t it always seem like Kentucky always returns a wealth of experience on defense? That’s a credit to the job Stoops has done building this program, which had 5 (!) defensive players drafted, including first-rounder Jamin Davis. Yet you look up and down this defense and go, yep, they should still be one of the SEC’s better groups.
I think the front 7 should be especially strong with veterans like DeAndre Square, Jordan Wright, JJ Weaver and Josh Paschal all back. Weaver should provide a boost coming off a torn ACL while Paschal has 4 years of experience and graded out as the No. 4 edge rusher among SEC returners, according to PFF. Oh, by the way, Ole Miss’ leading tackler Jacquez Jones joined Kentucky before the start of fall camp.
There’s plenty to like with Kentucky’s defense, including the prolific Yusef Corker, who was one of the SEC’s top safeties in coverage last year.
So where could it struggle? Or perhaps, where are the questions?
Well, Quinton Bohanna was Kentucky’s version of Jordan Davis at nose tackle. He ate up space and helped plug holes against the run. Bohanna is gone. They’re hopeful that Marquan McCall can be that guy with help from former blue-chip recruit Justin Rogers.
What about replacing the versatile Jamin Davis in the middle of the defense? Stoops asked a lot of Davis, which was why he didn’t necessarily have that one specific thing that he dominated, but he did everything. He covered, he made open-field tackles and he led that defense in his own, quiet way. As deep as the Cats are at linebacker, there might not be one specific player who does all the things Davis did, much like how challenging it was to find a Josh Allen replacement post-2018.
And then at corner, Kelvin Joseph might’ve been a pass interference flag waiting to happen, but he didn’t lack confidence, and he did make teams pay when they made a mistake. Can Kentucky find a shutdown corner? Cedrick Dort is the experienced option and Carrington Valentine showed a ton of promise as a true freshman in 2021.
Kentucky has 1 major question at each level to answer. That could be the difference in making that push to a second-place finish in the East.
Week 1: vs. Louisiana-Monroe (W)
I think Louisiana-Monroe was the worst FBS team in 2020. Rich Rodriguez’s offense should help, but not enough to beat a Kentucky team that can turn to its ground game to control the clock.
Week 2: vs. Mizzou (W)
Now we get to really see the new offense in action. Do I think we see it take off? Not quite, but I expect a handful of moments in which Robinson and Josh Ali test that Mizzou secondary. I worry about the Tigers’ ability to speed up Levis. Coen dials up open looks for his playmakers and Kentucky wins a pivotal early game in the East.
Week 3: vs. Chattanooga (W)
Part of me expects to see a lot of Beau Allen down the stretch. But then I wonder about Levis arriving as a summer enrollee and how important it’ll be for him to get those reps with the first-teamers. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him stay in with this one well in the bag.
Week 4: at South Carolina (L)
If you’re going to be a second-place team in the East, this is the game you cannot afford to lose if you’re Kentucky. But I can’t help but think Shane Beamer, with his offensive players perhaps back and healthy, has his best win of 2021. Kentucky’s run defense struggles to handle the 2-headed monster of Kevin Harris and MarShawn Lloyd, and Luke Doty keeps the chains moving on 3rd down. The Wildcats’ defense gets worn down and South Carolina holds off a late push for an upset win in Columbia.
Week 5: vs. Florida (L)
Who are we kidding? Of course this game is going to be bananas. Every time Florida travels to Lexington, it feels like we’re going to watch Florida somehow escape with a miraculous victory. Shoot, that dates to Chris Doering ripping the heart out of Kentucky fans with “Doering’s got a touchdown!” in 1993. Yeah, 2018 in The Swamp happened. But would anybody be surprised if Antonio Shelton blocked a potential game-winning kick or something like that? You could tell me that Kentucky will have a 4-touchdown lead in the second half, and I’d be sitting there on the edge of my seat waiting for the Florida comeback to unfold. But I don’t think Kentucky builds that type of lead and Levis struggles against Florida’s pressure.
Week 6: vs. LSU (L)
I hate the timing of this for LSU, sandwiched between a pair of rivalry games. Kentucky isn’t going to be a cakewalk, especially if that front 7 can develop. So why no upset? Well, I think the Cats lack the receiver options needed to really make Coen’s offense take off in the first part of SEC play. The Tigers shake off a slow start, but Mike Jones and Eli Ricks force turnovers to fuel a hard-fought road victory.
Week 7: at Georgia (L)
They’ll be playing a different sport than last year when neither side appeared it had learned the art of the forward pass. Both teams are better equipped to do that. But is Kentucky equipped to get chunk plays against the Georgia defense? Probably not. Georgia’s pass-rushing tells the story. The Wildcats spend too much time behind the sticks in obvious passing situations. Georgia gets to the bye week unbeaten in SEC play while Kentucky is sitting there having lost 4 straight going into the bye.
Week 8: Bye
Week 9: at MSU (W)
It’s hard to move past last year’s 24-2 debacle, but one must. Kentucky gained 157 yards and won by 3 touchdowns. It helps when you play drop-8 coverage all night and pick off 6 MSU passes. I don’t think that repeats itself, but I also think by this point, Kentucky’s offense is a bit more settled in after a slow start to the season. Rodriguez takes over late and Kentucky quiets the cowbells in a must-win game on the road to keep bowl eligibility hopes alive.
Week 10: vs. Tennessee (W)
It took a bit, but Levis is finally settled into his role as an SEC starter. That shows against a porous Tennessee defense in a major way. In a shocking turn of events given their recent matchups, both squads show that they can throw the ball. Like, not into the arms of the opposing team. Tre’Von Morgan has his long overdue breakout game against Tennessee’s secondary, and Kentucky turns to Rodriguez and Kavosiey Smoke late to propel a much-needed home win for the first time since mid-September.
Week 11: at Vanderbilt (W)
Kentucky and Vandy might not exactly be fighting for an SEC East crown in this one, but the road squad will have plenty to play for with bowl eligibility on the line. Much like Elijah Moore did last year, Vandy has no answer for Robinson, who posts his best game of the year in what ends up being a late push for the Paul Hornung Award.
Week 12: vs. New Mexico State (W)
Nothing is impossible, but I’m gonna say a team with 3 FBS wins in the past 3 seasons probably isn’t going to be in great shape coming off a November game against Alabama. Just a thought. Beau Allen gets his most reps yet and Kentucky rolls to win No. 7.
Week 13: at Louisville (W)
I have these visions of Rodriguez galloping for long runs in a 200-yard performance on the road in a rivalry game. Is part of that because he had 125 yards on 9 carries against Louisville in 2019? Probably. Is part of that because he averaged 120 rushing yards in his final 4 contests to close 2020? Definitely. Is part of that because he seems like hell to bring down when teams are dealing with depth issues and just waiting to get to the finish line? Yep.
So yeah, we’ll see 200 rushing yards from Rodriguez in a Kentucky win to somehow get to 8-4.
2021 projection: 8-4 (4-4), 3rd in SEC East
Not all 8-4 seasons are created equal. There would be some disappointment if Kentucky lost 4 SEC games before the bye, especially on the road against South Carolina.
But I truly believe once the Cats have some time to settle into this new offense, it’ll be much better. That probably won’t happen until the latter half of the season, which is also when the schedule becomes a bit more favorable. Still, though. Getting to 8 wins in that fashion would feel very Stoops-like. It would have shades of 2019 when Kentucky turned an 0-3 start in SEC play into an 8-win season with Lynn Bowden at quarterback.
The difference this year is I believe Coen will hold steady with Levis. Even amidst those struggles in the first part of the season, he should show enough promise to hold his starting job. As crazy as it is for someone entering his 4th year of eligibility, Levis technically still has 2 years of eligibility left after 2021. He could really be in position to thrive once Kentucky gets more depth on the outside once guys like Morgan, Dekel Crowdus and Christian Lewis develop.
The chance to compete for a 9th win and a Top 25 finish would be on the table in this scenario. Yeah, it would be a brutal month of October, and at a place like Kentucky where basketball usually takes over the landscape by mid-fall, that wouldn’t be the best path to become the talk of the town.
But if 2021 ended with Kentucky winning 9 games for the second time in the last 35 years, I think the Big Blue faithful would welcome that with open arms.