Dream/disaster scenarios for Kentucky in 2017
The possibilities that keep fans dreaming of big trophies in January — and the ones that will leave them waking up in a cold sweat in August.
We’re looking at both here at SDS — trying to consider the best possible situations and biggest potential nightmares for your favorite teams in 2017.
For Kentucky, dreams of another bowl trip, improving on last season’s 7-6 mark, and competing in the East are dancing in Big Blue Nation’s heads. The nightmares are of missed opportunities and a long winter. Let’s consider both:
Snell continues to carry the mail.
Benny Snell rushed for 1,091 yards (on 5.9 yards per carry) and 13 touchdowns as a true freshman in 2016. If the absence of departed Boom Williams (1,170 yards rushing, 6.8 yards per carry) is rendered less than crushing by the emergence of some combination of Sihiem King, and A.J. Rose and/or Bryant Koback, Snell can continue to be the guy who turns 3rd-and-2 into first downs. As Snell didn’t carry the ball in last year’s first two games, a 1,500 yard, 15 touchdown season isn’t out of the question for 2017.
Johnson grabs the job, continues to make clutch plays.
Stephen Johnson was an unknown JUCO signee who became a backup QB by default last year. After an early injury to Drew Barker, Johnson took over. His consistency was hit-and-miss, but he had a knack for big plays, twice leading last-minute drives to win games for Kentucky. He goes into the fall with the inside track on keeping his starting job, and if he has the same knack for hitting deep balls and making key plays as he did in 2016, that would help Kentucky’s chance of competing in the East.
Jordan Jones continues to emerge as the best under-the-radar defensive star in the SEC.
Jordan Jones doesn’t look like an All-SEC linebacker. The 6-2, 221-pound junior doesn’t have the height or thickness of his brethren from Alabama or LSU. All he does is make plays, and in 2016, he led UK (and was among the best in the SEC) in tackles (109) and tackles for loss (15.5). If Kentucky is going to improve on its -7 turnover margin from 2016, Jones will be counted on to continue making big plays.
The defense continues to surge toward respectability.
A few weeks into last season, Kentucky was at the bottom NCAA defensive rankings. As the season went on, the numbers improved, but they weren’t what coach Mark Stoops would like to see. Kentucky allowed 31.3 points per game (11th in the SEC) and 434.2 yards per game (9th in the league).
Stoops would feel better to see those numbers move to, say, 28 points and 400 yards, which isn’t elite territory, but would probably be enough to help the Wildcats nab an eighth victory in 2017 — perhaps one over Tennessee, which has eaten Kentucky alive on the ground in recent seasons.
MacAutomatic continues hitting big kicks.
For Kentucky, the line between winning and losing can be razor-thin — five of the Wildcats’ 13 games in 2016 ended in a gap of a touchdown or less. This is where senior kicker Austin MacGinnis (50 of 63 for his career on field goal attempts) enters the picture.
MacGinnis, who will likely become UK’s all-time leading scorer this fall, hit last-second pressure kicks to beat Mississippi State (50 yards) and Louisville (48 yards), and is a sneaky weapon for close games. If Kentucky is going to knock off someone like Florida or Tennessee, odds are MacGinnis will be a significant part of that upset.
A QB competition becomes a distraction.
Johnson was never glamorous in 2016, and he was exceptionally sloppy in the spring game. If he struggles early, there might be pressure to try junior pocket passer Drew Barker, who was much more highly rated, and has shown flashes of big-play ability when healthy.
Redshirt freshman Gunnar Hoak was also exceptionally sharp in the spring game while Johnson struggled, and if Barker can’t go or is also ineffective, there are some who will clamor for Hoak to see snaps.
It’s a thin line between having a pleasant amount of depth and having the potential for a team-ending controversy. With a thin defense, if the offense starts misfiring and second-guessing, all of the positive momentum of 2016 could disappear in a hurry.
The thin defensive line crushes Kentucky’s run-stopping.
Kentucky has had some bad injuries and bad luck on its defensive line, and it is by far the weakest positional group. There is some skill outside, but up the middle, Kentucky lacks an accumulation of SEC level talent.
That showed up in the ‘Cats getting gashed for 228.2 yards per game on the ground last season (110th in FBS rankings). DT Adrian Middleton and disappointing senior Matt Elam have little behind them, and if they can’t step it up in 2017, opposing offenses might blast Kentucky’s defense into submission.
Kentucky was last in the SEC in turnover margin in 2016 at -7. Johnson is very loose with the football, not so much in ill-advised passes as in fumbling when trying to extend run-pass option type plays. As a team that was outgained by about 14 yards per game last season, Kentucky should not have been able to succeed with such awful turnover numbers.
Either Johnson has to practice much better ball security or the defense has to become a turnover forcing machine. If not, road games like South Carolina or Mississippi State start to look incredibly difficult to win.
It’s not so much that Kentucky is weaker than the traditional SEC powerhouses, it’s that the Wildcats can’t match depth with Alabama or LSU or Georgia.
Kentucky’s first 22 are capable of giving anybody in the league a quality game.
It’s when ankles start rolling and knees start spraining that Kentucky can find itself in a world of hurt. Alabama plugs in another All-American who will head for the NFL. Kentucky plugs in a walk-on who will be headed for a CPA office when he graduates. It’s a different world, and one that doesn’t treat the Wildcats well.
Another early disaster.
Part of what made Kentucky’s 2016 return to form so astounding was the first game of the year — when the Wildcats blew an 18-point halftime advantage to a middle of the pack CUSA team at home.
They open this year at the same Southern Miss squad that knocked them off last time. Kentucky can’t afford a second season-opening stumble.
Vegas has installed UK as a two touchdown road favorite, but the betting line doesn’t control the outcome, as the Wildcats saw too well a year ago.