Editor’s note: Saturday Down South’s annual Crystal Ball prediction series continues today with Kentucky. Thursday: Missouri.

If you’re still not a Mark Stoops believer, man, I don’t know what to tell ya.

Last year, facing an 0-3 start to SEC play and a 2-3 start overall, Kentucky looked like its predicted fall from grace was in full effect. Terry Wilson was out for the year, Sawyer Smith was struggling and it was clear that the Wildcats were desperate for an answer at quarterback.

Then Lynn Bowden happened.

All the former high school quarterback and college receiver did after Stoops put the offense in his hands was step in and become a program legend. He led the SEC in rushing and yards per carry en route to the Paul Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player in college football. And more important, he threw the game-winning touchdown pass in the Belk Bowl to give the Cats their 8th victory of the season.

Kentucky had 18 wins in a 2-year stretch for the first time since 1977. The last time that Kentucky had 3 consecutive seasons of 8-plus wins was when some guy named Paul “Bear” Bryant was running things in Lexington. That’s the feat that’s up for grabs in 2020 … though obviously that would be quite the accomplishment in this 10-game, all-conference schedule. What seems more realistic is trying to notch the program’s second winning conference record since the 1970s.

All signs point to the right pieces being in place to make that a reality.

I’m looking forward to the return of Terry Wilson

Lost in the shuffle of this quirky offseason is the fact that Wilson is back after his season-ending injury last September. While there’s excitement about the future with Joey Gatewood, Wilson’s last college season is the present. He was a major breakout candidate in 2019 with a team with a different offensive identity. The question now is how good he’ll look healthy with a full arsenal at his disposal.

Wilson, when he wasn’t nursing an injured knee in the middle of the 2018 season, showed that he could be a true dual threat. He could stretch the field and make big-time plays like he did to end the Florida losing streak and his walk-off winner at Mizzou. As Stoops likes to bring up, Wilson is 12-3 as a starter for a reason.

But with what should be another elite defense, it’ll be worth monitoring what kind of chances Wilson takes downfield. Can Josh Ali be that deep threat that the Cats need? And will Wilson’s arm prevent teams from loading the box against that battle-tested ground game? I wouldn’t rule it out.

Wilson’s had a wild college career that prepared him for a bizarre offseason like this. They have a ton of confidence in him in that locker room, and it wouldn’t surprise anyone in Lexington if he established himself as one of the SEC’s top signal-callers by midseason.

A reminder of what the ground game returns even without Lynn Bowden

Speaking of Wilson, he has potential to lead SEC quarterbacks in rushing. Part of that is his elusiveness with full mobility, and part of that is the fact that he now has 3 elite SEC offensive linemen (Darian Kinnard, Landon Young and Drake Jackson) paving the way for him. For what it’s worth, all of those guys are former 4-star recruits. This isn’t your dad’s Kentucky football team.

Yes, Bowden is gone. His Le’Veon Bell-like patience was a revelation for the Kentucky backfield. His motor was second to none.

But look at what the Cats return with this 3-headed rushing attack of Kavosiey Smoke, A.J. Rose and Christopher Rodriguez from a year ago:

UK in 2019
Smoke
Rose
Rodriguez
Total
Rushing yards
826
616
533
1,975
Yards/carry
5.5
6.1
7.5
6.2
Touchdowns
6
6
6
18

That’s right. Even without Bowden, Kentucky returns a backfield with nearly 2,000 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns. And again, that’s not including Wilson.

Go figure that it’s Rodriguez, AKA the 4th-leading rusher last year, who has the best chance of becoming Benny Snell 2.0 (they call him “Mini Benny”). The north-south running style and the power at the next level will make him a fan favorite as a redshirt sophomore:

That’s the good news for this Kentucky offense. They have a variety of backs to turn to in the event that 1 or multiple are quarantined. That’s why this should again be one of the nation’s top ground games.

This defense is deeper than the historic 2018 group

So I wrote earlier this offseason that I thought this Kentucky defense should be as good or even better than the 2018 group. Of course, that was before we switched to the conference-only schedule. Statistically, I doubt it’ll be on par with a 2018 group now.

But in terms of depth, I’d argue that this 2020 group has more of it. And that’s not taking anything away from what Josh Allen and that 2018 group accomplished. The No. 6 defense in America is no joke. Just think about this for a second. Last year, Kentucky was ranked No. 127 in percentage of defensive production returning. That group still somehow finished as the No. 14 defense nationally. Now, that group returns 78% of its production.

Yeah, sign me up.

There’s talent and proven production at all 3 levels. You’ve got Boogie Watson, who had as many sacks as any SEC returner in 2020. You’ve got Watson to lead a linebacker group that includes Joshua Paschal and DeAndre Square, who combined for 13.5 tackles for loss and 3 forced fumbles. You’ve got Quinton Bohanna, who started 19 consecutive games as a run-stuffing force on the interior. This front 7 should be significantly improved against the run, which was the knock against Stoops’ defenses the past 2 years.

And even if they don’t repeat last year’s No. 2 pass defense because they don’t play the same exact style of offense, Kentucky will still be tough to throw against. Cedrick Dort and Brandin Echols became lockdown corners last year, and they’ll add former 4-star LSU transfer Kelvin Joseph. The depth on the back end is there, as well, with the return of safeties Yusuf Corker (Kentucky’s leading tackler) and Quandre Mosley (Pro Football Focus has him as a breakout star for 2020).

Kentucky might not have the household names that Georgia, Alabama and LSU have, but goodness, Stoops is set up well with this group.

Game-by-game predictions

Week 1: at Auburn (W)

Yep. I, like many, was baffled to see Kentucky open as an 11-point underdog against Auburn. In front of a reduced capacity crowd, I do believe the Cats have a significant advantage at the line of scrimmage. They don’t be pushed around by this Auburn team, who has 4 new starters on the offensive line. This Kentucky defense will capitalize on a mistake or 2 from Bo Nix, who is playing with new play-caller Chad Morris. Auburn’s inability to slow down the Wildcats’ ground game results in a loud opening weekend victory for Kentucky.

Week 2: vs. Ole Miss (W)

I have major concerns about what the Ole Miss defense will look like in Year 1 of the Lane Kiffin era. This could be a defense similar to what we saw in 2016-18 when SEC teams just ran the ball at will against them. What does that mean for Kentucky with that rushing attack? A home debut victory.

Week 3: vs. Mississippi State (L)

I’m calling this an upset because I’m a big Stoops believer, and clearly, I believe in the talent he has returning in 2020. By this point, I believe Kentucky will be in the AP Top 25 after a 2-0 start. But Mike Leach, back where he helped Tim Couch become the No. 1 overall pick, bounces back in a major way after an 0-2 start. Austin Williams eclipses the 100-yard receiving mark, and Osirus Mitchell makes a highlight-reel catch late to give MSU a surprising win in Lexington. A prime opportunity for a 3-0 start slips away.

Week 4: at Tennessee (W)

Stoops is 1-6 against Tennessee. Probably more significant is the fact Eddie Gran’s offense scored an average of just 10 points in the 2 matchups against Jeremy Pruitt’s defense. This game follows a somewhat similar script to last year’s physical, low-scoring battle. Sound defensive football shines. But this time, Wilson leads a late drive to set up a walk-off field goal for a 20-17 victory in Knoxville. Kentucky has all sorts of momentum going into the Georgia showdown.

Week 5: vs. Georgia (L)

This will be more competitive than any game against the Cats since Georgia became what it is today. Coming off 3 consecutive weeks of physical, grind-it-out battles, Georgia finds itself in a dog fight before the bye week and subsequent Florida showdown. Rodriguez busts loose for a rare rushing score against the Georgia defense and Lexington is rocking early. But George Pickens, who had been relatively quiet to start, has a Sugar Bowl-like performance. Kentucky’s adjustments come too late and Georgia escapes with a 1-possession win.

Week 6: at Mizzou (W)

I think the Tigers will improve offensively as the season goes along, and I admit that I underrated some of the talent returning on that defense. But against Kentucky’s loaded front 7, Mizzou struggles to sustain drives. An early Watson sack forces a scoop and score for Square, and the Tigers find themselves in too many pass-only situations in the second half. Wilson delivers his best passing performance of the season and reminds defenses that he can air it out, as well. Kentucky gets to the bye at 4-2 and is firmly in the Top 25.

Week 7: Bye

Week 8: vs. Vanderbilt (W)

I feel bad for Vandy. From a depth standpoint, I worry that a year like this with mandated quarantines is going to test that depth in a major way. There are 4 new quarterbacks in town, plus 2 new coordinators. Even by this point in the year, I don’t expect the Commodores to slow down the Kentucky ground game, especially not coming off the bye.

Week 8: at Alabama (L)

This is actually super interesting from a line of scrimmage matchup standpoint. Kinnard vs. LaBryan Ray? Jackson vs. Christian Barmore? Dylan Moses vs. Kentucky’s backfield? Sign me up for all of that. But I think Alabama’s much-improved front 7 forces the Wildcats into some obvious passing situations that makes early hopes of a grind-it-out affair turn into a frustrating second half for Kentucky.

Week 10: at Florida (L)

Another thriller in Gainesville? You got it. Let’s not forget that the last time Wilson played Florida, he ended a losing streak that predated my lifetime. Wilson and that dominant ground game are no joke, which the Gators know all too well.  That makes this an absolute dogfight for Florida. Dan Mullen turns to Emory Jones in the second half to jumpstart the offense after a slow start, and unlike last year against LSU, it works. It’s a late Jones score that lifts Florida past Kentucky in all-too-familiar fashion — losing to a nail-biter to the Gators thanks to a backup quarterback.

Week 11: vs. South Carolina (W)

South Carolina stopped the bleeding in 2019, albeit against a Kentucky team that was much different than the group who ran all over teams in the latter half of the season. I expect this to be a down-to-the-wire game. Ultimately, it’s a big Ali catch early in the 4th quarter that proves to be the difference after all 3 Kentucky backs reach paydirt. A new South Carolina winning streak begins. More importantly, Kentucky clinches a winning SEC record for the second time since the Jimmy Carter administration.

2020 projection: 6-4, 3rd in SEC East

#BBN

If 6-4 happens, Kentucky fans should be ecstatic. A winning record in the SEC this year is nothing to scoff at. Again, accomplishing that feat for the second time in 4 decades would be remarkable. And while that might not feel the same as 2018 did because of how out of nowhere that season was to the masses, this year is sort of Stoops’ proof of concept.

To have a winning SEC record 2 times in 3 years with a largely different roster would be a remarkable achievement for a program that couldn’t reach that feat for 40-plus years. I cannot emphasize that enough.

Will the Cats run into some challenging times against teams who can stack up with them at the line of scrimmage? Absolutely. There will be times when we’re reminded that Kentucky isn’t built to come back from a 2-score deficit with 5 minutes left. That could potentially hurt in some of those swing games like MSU and Tennessee.

But I do believe Kentucky can roll with the punches that are bound to come in a year like this. I mean, look at how well Stoops and Gran handled that last year with the quarterback situation.

It won’t be 2018 all over again, but it’s time to raise those yearly expectations in Lexington.