The trip to Disney World is over.
Yes, the Kentucky Wildcats are coming off a 10-3 season, their best in 41 seasons. But the rest of college football will be waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Josh Allen? Gone. Benny Snell? Gone. Basically Kentucky’s entire secondary? Gone. All-American lineman Bunchy Stallings? Tight end C.J. Conrad? Both gone.
Internally, the goals and expectations remain the same, coach Mark Stoops said Monday.
If the earliest preseason rankings are any indicator, Kentucky will find itself again in the Rodney Dangerfield role, getting virtually no respect.
Kentucky has never had back-to-back 10-win seasons. Its best 2-year stretch came under Bear Bryant, when they won 20 games combined in 1949 and 1950.
Given the fact that the massive talent losses noted above are true, how can Kentucky hope to avoid a fall-back to the 6-6, 7-5 seasons which are UK’s recent past? Well, there is a way. Or a handful of ways, more accurately.
1. The passing game has to (and can) get better.
Given the presence of Snell and a tough offensive line, Kentucky put very little of its season on the shoulders of sophomore JUCO QB Terry Wilson. Kentucky was 116th in passing offense in 2018, but Wilson did show some solid signs to build on. He completed 67% of his passes, though many of the throws were designed to be exceedingly safe. He had 11 touchdowns against eight interceptions. Wilson also rushed for 547 yards and four touchdowns.
If Kentucky can improve from 162 yards passing per game to, say, 200 yards, it would greatly help balance its offense, particularly since the rushing game will likely decline a bit without Snell. Given the return of big-play receiver Lynn Bowden and most of their receiving depth, it’s not an unrealistic expectation.
2. Running back by committee
It’s true that Kentucky lacks another back quite like Snell. It might be decades before the Wildcats produce another such player. But there is strength in numbers. UK returns junior AJ Rose, who had 442 yards and 5 touchdowns backing up Snell in 2018. Freshmen Kavosiey Smoke and Chris Rodriguez both showed sparks in brief appearances (so brief that each will still be a freshman in 2019 under the new redshirt rule). Kentucky probably won’t have a 1,400-yard back in 2019. But it might have an 800-yard back and two 300-yard backs.
3. Kicking can improve
Before last season, it seemed that Kentucky’s struggle to replace former kicker Austin MacGinnis might cost them a game. It may have, as senior Miles Butler, a former walk-on, was short with a 42-yard try late in the Wildcats’ loss against Texas A&M. Butler is now gone, and freshman Chance Poore was talented, but spotty, in a brief 2018 tryout. Assuming that somebody grabs the job in spring practice (likely Poore), there’s good reason to expect UK can do better in 2019 than they did in 2018, with 9-for-15 on field goals with no makes longer than 40 yards.
4. The young linebackers will step up
Senior linebacker Jordan Jones missed Kentucky’s Citrus Bowl win anyway, and Josh Allen will be greatly missed, but Kentucky had some talented young depth that showed up last season. Freshmen Chris Oats and DeAndre Square both played well in limited time. The two combined for 63 tackles and 3 sacks, and there’s no reason to expect those numbers not to improve with more opportunities next season.
5. The schedule is easier
Kentucky will trade a road game at Texas A&M for a home game against Arkansas in 2019. The Wildcats will still have a trio of easy nonconference games, and while Louisville can’t be worse than they were in November, Kentucky should have a decided advantage in that game this fall.
Meanwhile, UK’s road schedule is brief (only 4 games) and not that crazy (Vandy, South Carolina, Mississippi State and Georgia). The Wildcats will play Florida and Tennessee in Lexington, and if replicating a 10-3 season seems difficult, UK could well put together a 9-4 or 8-5 mark, which would still leave the program with forward momentum.