The confetti has been swept off the field at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, where Kentucky finished the 2021 season with an identical slate to 2018: 10 wins, a Citrus Bowl win over a ranked Big Ten foe, and a memorable season. But college football is an unceasing business. Kentucky had a 2021 season to remember, but with expectations rising, what’s the outlook for 2022?

The first snaps of spring practice are still several weeks away, but it’s never too early to start thinking about the season to come.

Kentucky football has probably never been in better shape, certainly not since Bear Bryant left town after the 1953 season. Kentucky had not managed winning SEC record or a 10-win season since 1977 before scaling both heights twice in the past 4 years.

In the Early Signing Period, the Wildcats signed likely the most highly regarded class of incoming recruits in school history — again, certainly the best since the mid-1970s gang that included Art Still and Derrick Ramsey and which prompted both UK’s last SEC championship and a trip into NCAA probation. Mark Stoops renewed his commitment to UK and the Wildcats held off LSU to keep defensive coordinator Brad White.

Are conditions right for Kentucky to keep climbing the SEC ladder or have the Wildcats peaked?

What worked in 2021

For one thing, Liam Coen delivered a much more varied and effective offense than in recent seasons. After consecutive seasons of finishing dead last in the SEC in passing, Kentucky improved to 10th (224.5 yards per game) and finished 6th in passing efficiency. Kentucky made that jump with a minimal decline in its power running game, which finished 5th in rushing yardage (199.5 yards per game and 5.2 yards per carry). Kentucky finished 8th in total yards and 5th in scoring with a healthy 32.3 points per game.

Much of the offensive improvement was due to plugging in Nebraska transfer Wan’Dale Robinson at wide receiver. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Robinson had perhaps the best season in Kentucky football history with 104 catches for 1,348 yards. It’s even crazier to see that he reached that mark when Kentucky’s other options were Josh Ali (41 catches, 601 yards, but missed 3 games due to injury) and … well, not much else. UK had no other receivers who topped 20 catches or 200 receiving yards.

Kentucky ended the season 4th in the SEC in scoring defense (21.7 points per game) and yardage allowed (just 340.7 yards per game). The Wildcats overcame significant injuries throughout their defense, from a couple of mid-season losses on the defensive line to the preseason loss of linebacker D’Eryk Jackson. With the exception of all-SEC standout Josh Paschal, Kentucky largely defended by committee, with multiple players coming up with big plays and big games that stood out in the 10 win season.

What didn’t work in 2021

Kentucky had two real problems in 2021 — the offense was way too free with turnovers and the defense struggled to create turnovers. After going +2 in turnover margin in the Citrus Bowl, Kentucky improved to -11 for the season. That boosted the Wildcats to tied with Liberty for 125th in FBS football in that category. The 4 teams worse than Kentucky in turnover margin combined to win exactly 9 games.

Kentucky committed 23 turnovers. Among Power 5 teams, only South Carolina (24) committed more. QB Will Levis generally had an excellent 2021 season, but he was sometimes interception prone, most notably in the Mississippi State game, when he threw 4 picks. Even standout running back Chris Rodriguez had significant fumbling issues during a season that featured 1,379 rushing yards.

Meanwhile, Kentucky’s pass defense was spotty all season, and the 12 turnovers UK forced tied for 113th in FBS football — in large part due to a secondary that corralled just 4 interceptions (UK had 9 as a team). In a 3-game span — Georgia, Mississippi State, Tennessee — UK allowed opposing QBs to go 65-for-79 passing for 910 yards, 8 TDs and 0 INTs. Not coincidentally, Kentucky lost all 3 games.

Key losses

Wan’Dale Robinson’s departure for the NFL was expected, but he will be sorely missed, nonetheless. All-American OT Darian Kinnard will be playing on Sunday soon, and will certainly be missed as the leader of an outstanding offensive line. Left tackle Dare Rosenthal also is heading to the NFL. On the defensive line, Josh Paschal was a disruptive force, with 15.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks, and will certainly be missed both as a leader and a threat up front, as will massive nose guard Marquan McCall. DB Yusuf Corker could have returned but is heading to the NFL.

Super seniors Josh Ali, Luke Fortner and Quandre Mosley also are significant losses.

Key returnees

Getting Rodriguez to return for his senior season was huge. For that matter, the return of QB Will Levis is a big advantage. UK will enter the season in better shape with a veteran starting QB than it has been since probably 2007, when Andre Woodson entered his senior season.

Superb OG Eli Cox was injured late in the regular season, but he’s an All-SEC level talent who will return. Kentucky has a stable of talented backs, whether or not Kavosiey Smoke returns to Lexington. Defensively, young linebackers like Trevin Wallace and JJ Weaver are both potential all-SEC and perhaps all-American level talents.

Kentucky has more depth than in many years. Keeping Ty Aijan, Jacquez Jones and DeAndre Square will bolster the defense. Their return was every bit as big as signing another big-time recruit. Speaking of which…

Key recruits

You may have heard of Kiyaunta Goodwin, the massive 5-star tackle whose Signing Day changes of heart probably took years off Mark Stoops and Vince Marrow’s lives. Goodwin is too big and too talented not to play early, and Kentucky rotates linemen and will be glad to let the young mauler get his chances from Day 1.

Kentucky will likely address their wide receivers issues via the transfer portal, but the addition of 4-star frosh like Tennessee product Barion Brown and local star Dane Key (whose father, Donte, was a UK standout in the mid-1990s) suggests that Coen and Stoops might just throw some of the young guys into the fire early.

The Wildcats added some defensive depth as well, with Tyreese Fearbry and Deone Walker up front, Keaten Wade at linebacker, and Alex Afari in the secondary. All of those guys are 4-star recruits per 247sports, which has UK’s class sitting at No. 11 in their 2022 rankings.

Given the success of Levis, Robinson and Jones, look for UK to add some more transfer depth as well. In an era of comparative riches, UK football will be happy to get richer.

Getting above 10 wins will take some creativity for UK and Stoops. That said, there’s a reason he’s the SEC’s 2nd-longest tenured coach. Kentucky has more talent and depth than in memory, and with a program built on continuity and development, all but the highest ceilings have been blown off the program. Don’t be surprised if Stoops takes aim at some of those few remaining ceilings next. Who would bet against him?