Kentucky football: At what point is safe to mention 'Playoff'?
These are unusual days for Kentucky football. No. 8 in the AP poll, 3-0, being projected into New Year’s 6 bowl games. When can Kentucky fans reasonably start thinking even bigger? Maybe even about the College Football Playoff?
In a literal sense, there are 3 games left on UK’s schedule that present the biggest obstactles to a CFP type of season. The most obvious is Georgia, on Nov. 19 in Lexington. Admittedly, nobody has a brilliant plan for taking down the Bulldogs, which looks like a task for perhaps most of the upper-echelon NFL teams. But Nov. 19 is a long time away, the game is in Lexington, and if Kentucky could arrive at that game 10-0 or even 9-1, Mark Stoops would come up with something.
Not as daunting but maybe more important is the Oct. 29 match with Tennessee on the road. The Vols are the 2nd-highest-ranked team on UK’s schedule, and they’ve had the Wildcats’ number in a couple of recent close games in the series. Josh Heupel’s offense tangled up the UK secondary a year ago, and the Vols stand to be a substantial foe for the Wildcats.
The 3rd such game is the trip to Ole Miss on Oct. 1. UK will likely be a mild underdog in Oxford, and Lane Kiffin’s been something akin to Krytonite for UK. With all due respect to Florida, it’s safe to wonder if Kentucky has actually played a good team yet. Ole Miss hasn’t, which makes the game next week a chance to see under the hood of the 2 programs.
But beyond game matchups, Kentucky does need to handle a few more items before it can start slinging around talk of a CFP spot. The Wildcats’ offensive line has to solidify. Breaking in a pair of new tackles was always likely to be difficult, but giving up 11 sacks in 3 games and having the 13th-ranked rushing attack in the SEC signifies potential trouble. Even the interior line play has been a struggle, but the return of featured back Chris Rodriguez Jr. for the Ole Miss game certainly can’t hurt the UK front line.
Kentucky’s defensive line similarly could use a step up. The Wildcats have plenty of talent up front, and given Kentucky’s excellent linebacking corps, it’s unlikely that the UK defensive line will be filled with superstars. But the Wildcats will need a push up front in the pass rush and big bodies cruashing the running game in short-yardage situations. True freshman Deone Walker might be the most consistent player on the ground, but Kentucky needs some significant work from Tre’vonn Rybka or Justin Rogers or Octavious Oxendine to win the trench battles of SEC play.
Finally, the Wildcats need something they’ve rarely had in the pre-Stoops era: good luck. There is no meaningful QB depth behind Will Levis. UK’s receiving group has more depth than in the past, but it could scarely handle injuries. Kentucky’s secondary is getting a little thing at the moment, and given the struggles of the group a year ago, that could be bad news. But ultimately, Kentucky needs to be able to do things like they did at Florida — have the freedom to make mistakes, play a less than perfect game, but still buckle down and win games late.
A Kentucky team that starts 5-0 and wins in Oxford would get some CFP talk. A Kentucky team that wins in Knoxville and starts 8-0 would most certainly be part of that conversation. A Kentucky team that knocks off Georgia sounds a ways off … but maybe it’s not. There are scenarios where an 11-1 Kentucky team could be in the CFP. Maybe the West becomes a mess and UGA crushes Arkansas or A&M in Atlanta. Maybe Georgia has some crazy rash of bad luck.
But for right now, it’s a few key areas and a few key games … and if Kentucky hasn’t quite made its way into that CFP conversation, the path is there to do so.