SDS Crystal Ball: Predicting every game for Kentucky football in 2019
Editor’s note: Our annual Crystal Ball series continues in the SEC East with Kentucky. Coming Thursday: Missouri.
I don’t care what any diehard Kentucky fan says.
There’s no way they saw 2018 coming (I certainly didn’t because I predicted 5 wins). The program’s best season in 40 years included a streak-ending victory over Florida, double digit wins, a bowl victory and a year-end top 15 ranking in the Associated Press poll. The last time all of those things happened in the same season was 1950.
It was historic and unpredictable in every way. Well, for those on the outside looking in.
So now, how does Kentucky follow its historic year? Does it do what it did in 1951 and rattle off another top 15 season? Or does it do what it did after its historic 1977 season and lay a 4-win egg like it did in 1978?
Let’s take a gander into the crystal ball.
2018 record: 10-3 (5-3), T-2nd in SEC East
Mark Stoops is Rodney Dangerfield
“Hey, I don’t get no respect.”
I feel like nearly every time I heard Stoops speak this offseason, that was his mindset. He came on our podcast and said that, and it was rather unprompted.
“What kills me now … here’s the beautiful thing this year that I love. Everybody’s doubting us now because, ‘oh, we lost 16 players.’ I said, ‘A year ago, you didn’t talk about any of those guys. Nobody gave us any credit a year ago,’” Stoops told us. “So who’s the new 16 guys on this team that nobody knows or cares about or doubts?”
Assistant coach Vince Marrow came out and said he was “pissed off” at the lack of respect Kentucky got this offseason. We’ve seen Terry Wilson be ranked last among SEC quarterbacks and projections like Phil Steele’s that don’t have Kentucky making a bowl game. Rare was it to see anyone include Kentucky as a Top 25 team to start the season in the various preseason polls (I had Kentucky in there).
Kentucky has been given the “back to Earth” treatment because of the losses of Josh Allen and Benny Snell. It’s par for the course for a team without much history like Kentucky.
But the disrespect has gone a bit too far.
I’ve been buying more and more stock in Wilson this offseason. The more I think about his situation last year, the more I realize that he has the potential to take a major step this year. Why? The ability has always been there. He can make the home run plays as a runner and a passer. And at 67% passing, he has a better foundation than many realize.
What frustrated me last year was how Wilson played like he was afraid to make a mistake. Part of that could have been having an elite defense and a solid running game with Snell. Kentucky didn’t need Wilson to take a bunch of chances downfield.
But the other part was Wilson played through what he called a serious leg injury in the middle of the season. You could tell his willingness to run decreased. That’s understandable. It’s also understandable that with Kentucky’s limited quarterback depth last year, putting him in positions to get exposed — empty sets with slow developing plays, designed quarterback runs, etc. — probably didn’t make a ton of sense.
What does make sense is watching a healthy Wilson take the next step. He has what’ll likely be a versatile running game with A.J. Rose and Kavosiey Smoke, and he has a proven go-to target in Lynn Bowden. I’ll buy Touchdown Terry’s chances of making that nickname more appropriate in 2019.
Can the defense reload?
This has been Stoops’ biggest offseason assertion. Yes, the defense will reload. With Kash Daniel in the middle of it, Stoops feels that the Cats have enough to make up for the loss of Allen, 2nd-round pick cornerback Lonnie Johnson and 3rd-round pick safety Mike Edwards.
Who will those guys be? Jamar “Boogie” Watson showed flashes in his first year as a starter at outside linebacker. Calvin Taylor is hoping to make the defensive line the new identity of this year’s defense alongside returning starters Quinton Bohanna and T.J. Carter.
The secondary appears to be the bigger question mark. Besides losing Johnson and Edwards, Davonte Robinson went down with a season-ending ACL tear. It’s essentially a new starting group that Stoops will have to get up to speed in a hurry.
You can bet that teams will try and throw on the Cats early and often.
Week 1: vs. Toledo (W)
Don’t sleep on the Rockets, who were picked to win the MAC West in the preseason. Toledo scored at least 45 points in each of its 7 wins last year. An interesting early test for Stoops’ defense will be tricky, but too much Smoke and Rose makes this a 3-possession win.
Week 2: vs. Eastern Michigan (W)
Remember when Eastern Michigan nearly beat Kentucky a couple of years ago? Yeah, I don’t see this one being as close. Eastern Michigan ranks No. 117 nationally in percentage of returning production. Kentucky won’t lose that battle up front.
Week 3: vs. Florida (W)
Yeah, I said it. Doubling down. Why can’t a Kentucky team, which had a healthy Terry Wilson last year in the win in Gainesville, take care of Florida at home? Sure, Allen was incredible that game. But the place where Kentucky might have the advantage is with its defensive line. The Gators, as talented as they are on the outside, have major turnover up front. It could prove to be a rough night for Feleipe Franks on the road. Touchdown Terry outshines Franks and leads Kentucky to another upset of Florida — which would be the first time since 1976-77 that the Cats won 2 in a row.
Week 4: at Mississippi State (L)
But Kentucky’s impressive start ends in Starkville. With a more balanced MSU offense, Kentucky struggles to dial up the pressure it did last year on Nick Fitzgerald. MSU doesn’t exactly light up the scoreboard, but it gets an early lead and forces Kentucky to play from down a score or more throughout the game. Kentucky tests its pass-heavier approach but fails against an MSU defense that covers extremely well.
Week 5: at South Carolina (W)
I mean, you can’t pick South Carolina at this point, can you? Five consecutive years of Stoops dunking on the Gamecocks isn’t an accident. Stoops is the best version of himself when this game rolls around. He uses the Youngstown-sized chip on his shoulder to lock in to whatever zone needed. I don’t care where this game is played. Give me Stoops to find a way against South Carolina until proven otherwise.
Week 6: Bye
Week 7: vs. Arkansas (W)
This is the type of game we need to see Wilson put the team on his back. On the defensive side, it’s a good thing Kentucky will have a bye week before Arkansas’ fast-paced offense comes to Lexington. A well-rested Kentucky squad takes care of business and avoids a 7-overtime game.
Week 8: at Georgia (L)
Real quick. Can we just appreciate the fact that Kentucky hosted a de-facto East division title game last year? They won’t get that chance this year, but Kentucky should at least be in the Top 25. The problem? That Georgia offensive attack should be all sorts of dominant. I expect a heavy dose of D’Andre Swift, and at home, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Jake Fromm light up that young Kentucky secondary.
Week 9: vs. Mizzou (W)
Kentucky probably won’t be favored in this one, either. But I think this matchup bodes well for the Cats because I’m not sure how well Mizzou will be able to attack Kentucky’s young secondary. Well, maybe not quite like Wilson did last year on that final drive in Columbia. We see more of that version of Touchdown Terry than the one who was limited for basically 59 minutes of that game last year.
Week 10: Bye
Week 11: vs. Tennessee (L)
I have a feeling Kentucky will win a couple of games that people think it’ll lose and vise versa. This would be the latter. Then again, maybe it wouldn’t be after the Vols blew the doors off Kentucky in Knoxville. I think Jim Chaney draws up the perfect game plan to keep Kentucky off balanced, and a Tennessee team that has already seen a loaded slate of SEC foes is ready to roll.
Week 12: at Vanderbilt (L)
Yeah, calling the upset here. I think Vandy’s skill players have a big day. Ke’Shawn Vaughn wasn’t healthy against Kentucky last year, which certainly impacted the outcome of a 7-point game. I think the Commodores score more this time around and whoever starts at quarterback will have plenty of experience by this point.
Week 13: vs. UT Martin (W)
UT Martin will gladly take its check, absorb a swift beatdown and move on to the next SEC team.
Week 14: vs. Louisville (W)
I mean, it can’t get much more lopsided than last year, can it? Maybe it actually will. Louisville was picked to finish last in the ACC Atlantic after a terrible year. It’s hard to see that changing in the first year of the Scott Satterfield era. At home, Kentucky closes the regular season reaching the 8-win mark for the second consecutive year, which hasn’t happened since … 1950, of course.
2019 projection: 8-4 (4-4, 3rd in SEC East)
Would an 8-win season be as memorable as 2018? No, but would it show the world that Kentucky’s floor is much higher than people realize? Absolutely.
That’s what Kentucky needs to do this year. The mantra of this team is that they built a program, not a team. Trying to show that 2018 wasn’t some one-off season is easier said than done. But it makes sense why Kentucky players and coaches have been so vocal about this.
It’s not just that they want credit for what they did. It’s that they want the college football world to view their program differently. They want everyone to see what they see. That is, the culture changed. This is no longer “how many days until basketball season?”
Kentucky will always be a basketball-first school, but that doesn’t mean it can’t have more people at Kroger Field every Saturday. Stoops wants that national brand established so that he can continue to get more support and more momentum for his program. It’s different at a place like Texas, where you win 10 games and suddenly you’re dominating the national conversation for being “back.”
Stoops wants the world to know that his program has arrived. Now is his chance.