JAMIE H. VAUGHT: Stoops' Troops Shooting For Winning Campaign
Just last week, when I was watching the SEC Network, the TV guys surprisingly were forecasting a very good year for the football Wildcats: an 8-4 campaign.
Really? Are they from the Fantasyland?
Or are they living in the real world?
But there are lots of preseason optimism in the Big Blue Nation as third-year coach Mark Stoops' club is gunning for its first bowl trip since the BBVA Compass Bowl after the 2010 season.
While the Wildcats made significant progress last fall with a 5-7 mark after Stoops' troops compiled a poor 2-10 record in 2013, including a season-opening setback to Western Kentucky in Nashville, there is hope that a deeper Kentucky squad can come up with a non-losing season. And the Cats have eight home games at the new Commonwealth Stadium as well as three winnable road contests.
Here's my annual fearless forecast of UK's game-by-game schedule:
**LOUISIANA-LAFAYETTE (Sept. 5 at Lexington): The Ragin Cajuns are from the same conference -- Sun Belt -- where ex-UK offensive coordinator Neal Brown is serving as the first-year head coach at Troy in Alabama. Louisiana is expecting another good year after four straight 9-4 campaigns. Star running back Elijah McGuire, a junior, is one of college football's top athletes who was Sun Belt's Player of the Year last season. The opener will be shown on ESPNU, beginning at 7 p.m. UK by 17.
**SOUTH CAROLINA (Sept. 12 at Columbia): It's sure hard to believe that ole Ball Coach -- Steve Spurrier -- has turned 70, but he's still entertaining to watch or listen. The preseason yearbooks are not expecting a banner year in the Gamecock country after a disappointing 7-6 mark in 2014. USC will be kicking off its 2015 campaign against rival North Carolina in Charlotte the previous weekend -- not a real easy way to begin the year. In addition, the Gamecocks will finish the regular season with another rival, Clemson. USC by 7.
**FLORIDA (Sept. 19 at Lexington): The Gators have a new boss in Jim McElwain, the former offensive coordinator at Alabama. He was also a three-year assistant at Louisville under John L. Smith during the early 2000s. Florida will be a middle-of-the-pack squad in the seven-team East Division. UK by 3, improving its record to 2-1.
**MISSOURI (Sept. 26 at Lexington): Gary Pinkel has done an admirable job over the years in producing more than respectable teams in Columbia. For the past two years, the Tigers were 12-2 and 11-3, winning the division titles but losing the SEC championship games both times. With veteran QB Maty Mauk returning, Missouri still remains a dangerous team. The Tigers by 6, dropping UK's mark to 2-2.
**EASTERN KENTUCKY (Oct. 3 at Lexington): The Colonels are ranked No. 14 in the Sporting News' FCS Preseason Top 25 poll. Coach Dean Hood has eight starters on both offense and defense from a squad which finished 9-4 and advanced to the playoffs in 2014. A player to watch for is ex-UK standout Dy'Shawn Mobley, the 2014 Ohio Valley Conference Offensive Player of the Year who was chosen a preseason All-American by Athlon Sports. Media members from across the Ohio Valley Conference recently have selected EKU to finish second in the league this season. UK by 24, now with a 3-2 record.
**AUBURN (Oct. 15 at Lexington): This is a rare Thursday night matchup for Kentucky. The Tigers, a Top 5 club, should be toughest foe the Cats will face this season. Ex-Florida boss Will Muschamp came back to Auburn to be its defensive coordinator. Auburn by 20.
**MISSISSIPPI STATE (Oct. 24 at Starkville): If the forecasters are correct, the Bulldogs will have a down year after a memorable 10-3 campaign in 2014, which saw them spending some time as the nation's No.1-ranked team. While star quarterback Dak Prescott is back for his senior year, the team still has some rebuilding work to do. UK by 6.
**TENNESSEE (Oct. 31 at Lexington): Will Butch Jones lead the Vols to the promised land? Well, he's getting pretty close. The Vols posted a winning record in 2014 for the first time in several seasons and the charismatic coach has found a promising QB by the name of Joshua Dobbs. UT by 1.
**GEORGIA (Nov. 7 at Athens): It seems that Mark Richt has been guiding the Bulldogs forever. The young-looking 55-year-old mentor is beginning his 15th year as the Georgia boss. With 5-10, 228-pound star running back Nick Chubb on hand, the Dogs are tough to stop. Georgia by 12.
**VANDERBILT (Nov. 14 at Nashville): When it comes to football, Vanderbilt is nothing to brag about. Second-year coach Derek Mason will try to make things better in Music City after a disappointing 3-9 campaign, including 0-8 in SEC, last fall. The Commodores will meet Western Kentucky in Thursday, Sept. 3 season opener, which will be televised by the SEC Network. UK by 7.
**CHARLOTTE (Nov. 21 at Lexington): A member of the Conference USA, the 49ers have not been in college football very long as they started playing in 2013 as a FCS independent. Brad Lambert, the former Wake Forest defensive coordinator who was hired in March of 2011, is still the boss. This matchup should be a breeze for the Wildcats. UK by 36.
**LOUISVILLE (Nov. 28 at Lexington): The media folks are expecting a decent, not great, campaign for Bobby Petrino's club, which is coming off a 9-4 season. Like UK, the Cards also face Auburn in a season-opening showdown in Atlanta. Kentucky by 3.
And if my forecast is correct, that would mean Kentucky will finish at 7-5 with an invitation to attend a bowling party for the first time in recent memory.
That's pretty close to SEC Network's UK prediction. Just one game difference.
And we can say these network guys are certainly living in the real world.
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle.com online magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle. He can be reached via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.