Kentucky football: 10 bold predictions for the 2020 season
The end of the 2010s was a golden time for Kentucky football. Ten-win seasons, major bowl wins, Hornung and Nagurski Award winners, it all happened in a few short years. With the 2020 season starting Saturday here are 10 bold predictions, all delivered with (hopefully) 20-20 vision.
1. Kentucky will have a 5th consecutive winning season for the first time since the 1950s
Since Bear Bryant left UK after the 1953 season, much of UK football has been of the one-step-forward, two-steps-back variety. Four consecutive winning seasons from 2016 through 2019 equaled Rich Brooks’s run from 2006-2009 (when he retired) in the UK record books. A fifth such season is unmatched back to the Kentucky glory days from 1946, when Bear Bryant arrived in Lexington, to 1956. Obviously, the COVID schedule adds a massive degree of difficulty, but given Kentucky’s recent run of productive football, the Wildcats could still plausibly eek out a 6-4 mark.
2. Kentucky will pull a shocker from the trio of Auburn, Tennessee, and Georgia
One of the positive developments of Mark Stoops’ time in Lexington is an ability to pick up a mildly surprising victory or 2 in almost every season. Over the past 2 seasons, that included upset wins at Florida, at home against then No. 14 Mississippi State, at Mizzou, against Penn State in the Citrus Bowl, and against Virginia Tech in the Belk Bowl. Which 2020 games might fit that profile? Kentucky plays Auburn to open the season, and could capitalize on the COVID uncertainty in Week 1. Kentucky has been frustratingly competitive against Tennessee and could be (over?)due for an upset win in Knoxville. And finally, 2020 Georgia doesn’t feel quite as scary as the past couple of UGA squads — and UK tends to play well in the series in Lexington. The Cats will grab one of these wins — at this point, Auburn would be perhaps the best guess.
3. Kentucky will have an upset loss
On the other side of things, Kentucky had all the momentum in a 5-game winning streak against South Carolina before it got stream rolled on the road in 2019 in a 24-7 game that wasn’t as close as the score. UK could be vulnerable to a mildly surprising loss — maybe at home against Carolina or at home against Mike Leach’s pass-happy Mississippi State team. But the pick that would follow form is at Missouri. Many are writing off the Tigers, but Kentucky has benefitted from some very good luck in their 5 consecutive wins over Mizzou. Winning at CoMo could be as hard as it was last time, in 2018, when it took a (possibly phantom) penalty and an untimed-play touchdown to sneak out of town with a win.
4. Another 1,000-yard rusher in 2020
In 2016, Kentucky pulled off a program first, with Benny Snell and Boom Williams each amassing 1,000 rushing yards, and the Wildcats have had a 1,000-yard rusher each year since. Given that Lynn Bowden will be trying to outrun NFL defenders rather than NCAA ones this fall — and with rehabbed QB Terry Wilson trying to stay upright … and with a 10-game SEC schedule, the odds are probably against it, but look for UK to have a 5th consecutive season with a 1,000-yard rusher.
Senior A.J. Rose had 826 yards last season. If he produces at the same yards-per-carry average, a handful of additional carries per game would allow him to reach the 1,000-yard mark in 2020. Rose is the all-purpose back, but speedy Kavosiey Smoke (616 yards in 2019) or bruiser Chris Rodriguez (533 yards in 2019) are both viable candidates to reach the mark. Again, many will expect UK to run the ball with speedy mobile QB Terry Wilson. But given Wilson’s horrifying less injury, look for Kentucky to protect Wilson except in dire situations. Look for UK to pound the rock with its running backs — basically in historic fashion.
5. Another surprising sack leader
In 2018, it wasn’t exactly surprising that linebacker Josh Allen had an astounding final season in Lexington, with 17 sacks to lead the SEC and take home the Nagurski Award. But Allen was gone in 2018, and lo and behold, the Wildcats came up with another big-time pass rusher in defensive tackle Calvin Taylor, whose 8.5 sacks were a more modest total, but still ranked him among the SEC’s leaders.
This year’s rags-to-riches pass rush story will be linebacker Jamar “Boogie” Watson, a 6-3, 248-pound senior who recorded 11.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks in 2019. Watson has the same kind of game-breaking speed as Allen, so don’t be surprised when he’s near the top of the list of SEC pass-rushers come time for accolades and honors.
6. Gatewood will belatedly be cleared and UK will be fine
The addition of Auburn transfer Joey Gatewood was a welcome sight to UK fans. Granted, senior Terry Wilson is expected to be healthy and ready to reclaim the starting job. Wilson is 12-3 as a QB starter in Lexington, something that nobody since Babe Parilli could even possibly claim. But given the way that the 2019 season nearly collapsed after Wilson’s injury led to backup Sawyer Smith’s injury, and the eventual handing of the QB reins to the team’s best wide receiver, more quarterbacks are fine with Big Blue Nation. Gatewood could be the man at UK. Of course, so could true frosh Beau Allen. But even with the NCAA moving belatedly to finally clear Gatewood (Stoops is confident it will), Kentucky will be fine with Wilson. Pencil Touchdown Terry down for 2,000-2,500 passing yards, 500 more on the ground, and a solid senior season.
7. Another transfer will stand out
LSU transfer Kelvin Joseph did sit out a season, and he’s ready to go in 2020. A year ago, Stoops worried about finding enough guys to play in the secondary. But in 2020, his options are plentiful. JUCO transfer Brandin Echols was outstanding last year, and safety Yusuf Corker (UK’s leading tackler with 74) is rounding into an all-SEC level player. But Joseph is just too good not to play. Maybe he’ll play corner, maybe he’ll see some time at nickel (which Stoops uses frequently), but he’ll be on the field and will shine for the Wildcats. It’s a good thing because UK will not lead the SEC in pass defense again. Swapping out Joe Moorhead for Mike Leach on the schedule alone probably added a couple hundred passing yards allowed.
8. Passing for results, not for volume key to offensive uptick
Many in Lexington fondly remember the days of Tim Couch, Jared Lorenzen and Andre Woodson, and curse the ground-based attack of offensive coordinator Eddie Gran. But here’s the thing: With a mauling offensive line, a group of talented backs and uncertainty at receiver, UK isn’t going to pass for volume as it did with Hal Mumme. They’re going to pass for results. Last season’s 114 passing yards per game was an aberration of having to scrap the throwing for WR/QB Lynn Bowden. But Kentucky’s still going to be near the bottom of the SEC numbers in passing yardage.
Where UK could improve is on 3rd-down conversions (9th in SEC, 39%) and in red-zone conversions (9th in SEC, scoring in just 80% of red-zone possessions). Forget the Air Raid, it’s a ground war in Lexington, but at least Kentucky can use the pass to keep defenses honest, and reach 30 points per game for the first time since 2016.
9. Somebody’s coming for Stoops
The secret is probably out. Sure Stoops’ UK record of 44-44 doesn’t seem that brilliant. But consider — if UK does indeed have another winning season, Stoops will be the first UK coach with a winning record since … Blanton Collier, who followed Bear Bryant and left after the 1961 season. Kentucky has been pretty lucky so far in retaining Stoops—the combination of big-time jobs and interest in Stoops hasn’t really reared its head. But it’s coming after the 2020 season. It’s too early to know which major program does a face plant … but one or two will, and they’ll come calling in Lexington in what is probably a program-defining moment for AD Mitch Barnhart.
10. But start the statute
UK might as well start building Stoops’, when he turns down whatever P5 powers call, and stays in Lexington, very likely breaking Bear Bryant’s UK record for coaching wins (60) sometime in late 2021 or early 2022. It might seem unfathomable to those who have laughed at UK football for decades, but the grind of putting the program on solid footing is meaningful to Stoops, and he’ll pursue his legacy in Lexington.
It might sound crazy … but then, so did 8 wins without a legitimate quarterback last season, or 10 wins the year before. Doing crazy things like that just might get a statue built sooner rather than later.