Kentucky football: 10 bold predictions for the 2019 season
A season after shocking the college football world with 10 wins, a 2nd-place finish in the SEC East, and a No. 11 national ranking, Kentucky is expected to do … well, not very much. The recent reveal of an AP poll that included 4-8 Nebraska in its Top 25 but had no votes for Kentucky is a pretty good indication of where many in the national media see the Wildcats. Fool me once, shame on me.
Admittedly, Benny Snell, Josh Allen, and a good half-dozen other NFL-bound players are gone, but Lexington wasn’t built up in a day, and the Wildcats might not be finished handing out surprises. Here are 10 bold predictions for UK’s 2019 campaign:
1. UK will again win 4 SEC games, and will end the season in the Top 25
Considering that UK hadn’t had a winning SEC season since 1977, it might surprise the average rooter to realize that they haven’t had a losing SEC season since 2015. Given a league schedule that includes a cross-division home game against Arkansas, there’s no reason to think UK can’t find 4 league wins again when at Georgia is the only game that looks potentially out of reach. If Kentucky does that, they’ll probably finish on an upswing (a last 4 are home vs. Tennessee, at Vandy, home to UT-Martin, and home against Louisville might help) and end the year with their 2nd consecutive ranked season.
2. UK will lose a game that it “shouldn’t”
The quotation marks are because the premise might seem odd to some fans. Kentucky shouldn’t have lost at Tennessee last year, as a 5-point favorite. Given the history of that series, that defies immediate logic. History aside, while the Vols outplayed them in Knoxville, Kentucky had the superior team. There’s one of those games every year for Mark Stoops’ team (Ole Miss in 2017, Southern Mississippi in 2016), and given the grind of the season, there’ll be one this year. Our man Connor O’Gara might have scratched the spot when he called for a loss at Vandy.
3. UK will win a couple of games that will (mildly) surprise
On the other hand, there is this. Over the past 3 years, Kentucky has won as an underdog 9 times. Granted, 4 came last season. But UK will pick up a couple of games that Vegas thinks it won’t. A prime suspect: home against Florida, which is still rebuilding, playing its first actual road game, and other than demolishing UK in 2016, had been hanging on for dear life in its winning streak over the Cats anyway. Another one? South Carolina could well be in deep turmoil by Sept. 28 — and Missouri is probably expected to win in Lexington, but UK has 4 in a row in the series.
4. Kentucky still has a 1,000-yard back
Kentucky is 1 of 5 SEC teams that have had a 1,000-yard rusher for each of the past 3 seasons. Sure, Benny Snell is gone, but a nasty offensive line is not (Drake Jackson, Logan Stenberg, Landon Young, et al) and A.J. Rose might not fill Snell’s shoes, but he can probably find 1,000 or 1,100 rushing yards instead of the 1,449 that Snell amassed. Considering that Terry Wilson could add 700 or 800, that’s no small thing.
5. Justin Rigg is the overlooked receiver UK needs
Much of Kentucky’s offensive makeup will be based on having a good enough passing game to keep defenses honest, unlike last year (161 passing yards per game, last in SEC), when defenses crammed the box, but Snell cracked through anyway. Lynn Bowden is an All-SEC level threat, but Kentucky has to find another receiver, and its top returning target not named Bowden had 10 catches last year. Junior tight end Justin Rigg often sat behind C.J. Conrad, who was 2nd on the team in catches and receiving yards. Rigg can’t block like Conrad (he was basically a fullback as well as a tight end), but he can catch the football in traffic, and could be a huge asset on RPO “pop” passes from Terry Wilson. Says here he gets 30-40 catches for 500 yards, and some All-SEC play after the season.
6. Kentucky’s defensive MVP is Calvin Taylor
This guy was another Josh Allen level find. The 6-9, 310-pound senior Taylor, who was one of the lowest ranked recruits Kentucky snagged in his class, isn’t as flashy as Allen, although he is massive and built for the SEC’s trenches. He’ll tie up blockers and allow Kentucky’s more athletic linebackers to make plays. He’ll also stone-wall insider runners on 3rd-and-short, and consistently do the little things that’ll help cover some of the loss of the big things that Allen brought to the table. He’s an NFL player and might get some All-SEC love.
7. Kash Daniel will get his own Netflix series
How hasn’t this already happened? If Kash weren’t real, somebody would have to invent the senior middle linebacker, defensive captain, and fount of all things motivational. A guy from Eastern Kentucky’s mountains who inspires thousands of fans to stand in line to pack Kroger Field with a combination of undeniable toughness (played through much of last season with a broken hand) and in-your-face leadership, after the season Kash might take a blue ox and go deforest the state. Or win an NCAA fishing title. Or split the Matt Jones/Mitch McConnell Senate race. None would be surprising. All would be amazing.
8. MJ Devonshire and Mo Douglass will both be starting by year’s end, maybe sooner
Kentucky’s secondary is widely acknowledged as the team’s youngest and likely weakest link. Well, the first part can’t be changed, but 2 of the more highly-regarded freshmen are working their way steadily up the rotation, and should do so all season. Devonshire was a late grab from Pennsylvania, and will likely see some cornerback time in Week 1. Douglass, whose father played at UK, is a talented safety who is developing a little slower, but will continue to press for time as the season goes. Both are All-SEC freshman team picks, and one will make a game-saving pick in the UK secondary by late SEC play. That said, they’ll need to be good. Feleipe Franks, Jake Bentley, Kelly Bryant and Co. can sling the ball on UK, which will have to show a bend-but-don’t-break mentality in 2019.
9. Kentucky signs the best recruiting class in school history in December 2019/February 2020
This isn’t even looking that bold, honestly. The only thing that could make it bold is possibly forecasting that Kentucky keeps virtually all of the guys they have drawn commitments from. From in-state kids like OL John Young and QB Beau Allen to stars from Michigan (DL Justin Rogers), Florida (LB Samuel Anaele) and potentially Ohio (top target RB/WR Michael Drennen), Kentucky is moving closer and closer to playing chess with a board full of chess pieces, instead of chess with a king, a knight, a half dozen checkers, and a couple of Sweet Tarts. Much of the SEC might not realize how much closer, but this is an impact group in the making.
10. The gap between the best teams in the SEC and the rest is still growing, and Kentucky’s still on the bad side of the gap
Anyone reading this would conclude that it is a wildly optimistic group of predictions. But one thing isn’t: The SEC’s richest programs are still getting richer. The chasm between Alabama, Georgia, and whichever 1 or 2 other teams might threaten their SEC hegemony and everybody else is growing. Kentucky is excelling. It also is excelling to the extent of that vacuum. The East has been down. It looks better, but there’s still reason to think of it as much weaker than the West, potentially for the near future. South Carolina could be in flux, Florida has had off-field gremlins, Tennessee is crawling out from the wreckage, Missouri got stuck with NCAA sanctions, etc.
So hold the phone on any championship talk. Kentucky barely has a puncher’s chance with Georgia, much less LSU or Alabama. And in terms of this window of opportunity, Kentucky has to strike now.
Not unlike Vandy’s success with James Franklin, over the long haul, Mark Stoops’ job is almost untenable. Can you forever alter the landscape of the SEC and make a former basketball school with a bad recruiting base, minimal tradition and decent but not astounding resources an SEC power? Maybe, maybe not. But the time is now for Kentucky, and the Wildcats probably need to go 8-4, hang in the fringes of the Top 25, and continue to make themselves relevant … or else the boulder rolls back down the hill.
Sobering? You bet. But if anybody can take that boulder and stick it back on their collective shoulder, it’s UK.