An open letter to Kentucky football fans: Why this might be the year (but probably won't be)
Dear Kentucky fans:
You know what I’m going to say. I feel like I’ve said the same thing so many times before. I feel like you want to shut me up before I can even say it. There are probably a few of you who are so paranoid about jinxes and bad luck that you’re convinced that my saying this means it’ll never come true. There are a lot more of you who know that no matter how many times it’s been said, it hasn’t come true, so I’ll hedge my bets. Experiences has taught me a few things. Anyway …
This could be the year.
But it probably won’t be.
Why could it be the year? Well, this is the season Mark Stoops has been building toward. He is a defensive head coach, or at least that was the word when he was hired. In five years, his Kentucky defenses have never held opponents to under 27.4 points or 394 yards per game. Given that almost all of the best defensive players from 2017 have returned, if Stoops is ever going to field a defensive that is above-average, this looks like the year. Mike Edwards, Josh Allen, Jordan Jones, and Derrick Baity are the kind of players who Kentucky plays against — but they’ll be in uniform for the Blue and White this fall.
Offensively, sure the QB situation is unsettled. But it looks like offensive coordinator Eddie Gran has a good choice between a stable game manager in Gunnar Hoak and an athletic wildcard in Terry Wilson. There are spots in UK’s schedule where either guy could be a hero. The offensive line is deep and experienced. The receiving corps has some big-play targets, with shifty slot guy Lynn Bowden and rangy home run threat Dorian Baker. Tight end C.J. Conrad might be the most underrated player in the SEC.
The best thing Kentucky has going for it is star running back Benny Snell, who became Kentucky’s first back to post consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. Snell is a grinder, a meat-and-potatoes back who can get 3 yards on 3rd-and-2 against a stacked box. Snell will make defenses respect the run and open some passing opportunities for UK.
And there’s the schedule. The only game that looks off the table completely is a home matchup with Georgia. The road schedule features three programs with new head coaches (Florida, Texas A&M and Tennessee), a decent offensive team with no defense (Missouri), and a Louisville team missing Superman Lamar Jackson. None of those games will be easy, but all look potentially winnable.
The home schedule is fairly kind, other than Georgia. Chippies with Central Michigan, Murray State and Middle Tennessee should be victories. So should a home date with Vandy, which UK blasted by 23 in Nashville last fall. Mississippi State and South Carolina are solid teams, but Kentucky beat each the last time they traveled to Lexington.
Kentucky has experience, has some outstanding skill players, and has a schedule that puts the Cats in position to post the 8-4, 9-3 regular season that has eluded the program time and again.
Unfortunately, history then breaks in and reminds us, UK probably won’t.
It’s about numbers — specifically, the number of quality scholarship players on a roster. When an Alabama offensive lineman blows out his knee, the Tide plug in another 5-star recruit and the beat goes on. When Kentucky starts replacing starters, they’re still fielding some true freshmen and walk-ons. Kentucky’s starting 22 players match up reasonably well with everybody in the SEC, save the league’s trio of giants (Alabama, Georgia, Auburn). It’s the second 22 and, God help them, the third 22 where the pickings get slim.
One of Kentucky’s thinnest position groups is the defensive line. It’s not exactly a mystery that Stoops’s sub-par UK defenses have come because his front seven have struggled to get enough pressure on QBs to help out defensive backs. This year, Kentucky already lost senior would-be-starter Denzil Ware when he transferred to (gulp) Jacksonville State, and recently, news broke that sophomore Josh Paschal might be sidelined for the early portion of the schedule. Kentucky just doesn’t have large numbers of highly-talented, experienced skill players at many positions, defensive line most noteworthy among them.
Also, while much of the offense is settled, the quarterback position is not an ideal spot to have questions. Hoak or Wilson could take the reins and lead this team, but if neither does, this could become a long season. Departing senior Stephen Johnson never put up huge numbers, but he was a gritty performer with incredibly leadership skills. Some of his wounded duck passes won’t be missed, but an assured presence in the huddle might be.
Then there’s special teams, which can always gash a decent, but unspectacular team to death. True freshman kicker Chance Poore is expected to win the job, and the punting job is between Aussie transfer Max Duffy and wildly inconsistent sophomore Grant McKinniss. A couple of shanked field goals and 25 yard punts could really haunt Kentucky in SEC play.
Finally, that schedule. Sure, Florida looks like a potentially winnable game, but it’s looked winnable other times since 1986. None of Kentucky’s five road games are automatic — in fact, it wouldn’t be surprising if UK were an underdog in all five. If UK doesn’t pull an upset or two on the road, that home schedule gets pivotal — particularly remembering that it includes Georgia. If you mark off Georgia and the road games, Kentucky has to sweep the remaining home games just to reach bowl eligibility.
So I’ve hedged my bets. It could be the year — but so many times, it’s felt like it could be the year.
It probably won’t be a disaster. Assuming Snell and a reasonable number of other players stay healthy and that UK gets a few breaks, there’s no reason that the Wildcats won’t end up posting another 7-5 regular season, another year which leaves some fans pleased at the progress within the program and a third consecutive bowl berth, and other fans complaining because a couple of games that could have made it 9-3 get left on the field by a hooked field goal try or an inexperienced QB turning the ball over in crunch time.
That seems to be the pattern lately, and it also seems to aggravate both the optimists who insist on great things in the immediate future for UK football, and the haters who feel like Stoops is wearing out his welcome. So it could be a great year, it probably won’t be a terrible one, and the end result is probably stuck in 7-5 land again. Hey, it could be worse. But you folks already knew that.