It seems like it’s been forever since the football Wildcats have had a winning team.
You would have to go back to 2009 to find a winning record for Kentucky. That was coach Rich Brooks’ last Wildcat team as he retired after the Music City Bowl setback to Clemson, ending his remarkable tenure at UK with four consecutive winning campaigns and four bowl appearances.
Now Mark Stoops will get another chance this season to bring his Wildcats back to a respectable level after three disappointing seasons of 2-10, 5-7 and 5-7.
Can the UK boss do it this time? Here’s my annual game-by-game forecast of Kentucky’s 2016 schedule, which includes seven home games.
— SOUTHERN MISS (Sept. 3, Lexington): This is a winnable game for the Cats. But can UK’s suspect defense slow down senior QB Nick Mullens and the Golden Eagles, who are coming off a 9-5 bowl campaign? Mullens is on several watch lists for prestigious awards, including the Manning Award which goes to the country’s top QB.
USM — which has a new head coach in Jay Hopson as well as new offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson, who was dismissed by Kentucky last fall — is the preseason favorite by the media to win the Conference USA’s West Division. And Southern Miss is No. 45 while Kentucky is No. 71 in USA Today Sports’ preseason ranking of all 128 Football Bowl Subdivision teams. It’s a dangerous ESPNU showdown that UK can’t really afford to lose. A pretty tough season opener for the Cats. UK by 6.
— FLORIDA (Sept. 10, Gainesville): The Gators, led by second-year mentor Jim McElwain, are picked to do fairly well in SEC East Division, behind favorite Tennessee and perhaps Georgia. In the past two years, Kentucky has had close calls with Florida only to drop in waning seconds, including a triple overtime loss at the Swamp in 2014. Florida, by the way, has won 29 straight matchups in the series. UF wins the CBS contest by 9.
— NEW MEXICO STATE (Sept. 17, Lexington): The Aggies have a familiar name on the roster. Remember Doug Martin? He is the fourth-year New Mexico State boss, who was a Wildcat QB for Jerry Claiborne during the early 1980s. The Oak Ridge, Tenn., native also earned a history degree from UK. His Aggies are expected to struggle this fall as they are picked to finish near the bottom in Sun Belt Conference. In that same USA Today preseason poll of 128 teams, New Mexico State is placed at No. 122. UK by 24, improving to 2-1.
— SOUTH CAROLINA (Sept. 24, Lexington): No head ball coach around. We are sure going to miss colorful Steve Spurrier, who has a new book coming out at the end of August. USC’s new coach is Will Muschamp, who worked as defensive coordinator at Auburn last season after being fired by the Gator Nation. The Gamecocks aren’t expected to do much this time, though. By the way, that football weekend will have a couple of special events on UK campus – the unveiling of new football statue which features the pioneers of integration in SEC football and Kentucky’s new Hall of Fame class, including footballers Rich Brooks and Wesley Woodyard, who will be introduced at the game. UK by 7.
— ALABAMA (Oct. 1, Tuscaloosa): Unlike Spurrier, Nick Saban is still around, winning four national titles for the demanding Crimson Tide fans. Damien Harris, a Richmond, Ky., product, should see more action as a sophomore this year after serving as a backup to Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry in 2015, rushing for 157 yards in 46 carries in 12 games. Crimson Tide by 21.
— VANDERBILT (Oct. 8, Lexington): We should be seeing the same old lowly Vandy team again but for some reason the Cats often have struggled against the Nashville boys. It’s homecoming at UK. Kentucky by 9.
— MISSISSIPPI STATE (Oct. 22, Lexington): Coach Dan Mullen and his boys have done really well against the Wildcats. He is unbeaten at 7-0 in the series. Want to know his record against Saban’s Alabama? He is 0-7. The Bulldogs have lost lots of talent, including QB Dak Prescott. So they will be sitting close to the basement of SEC West Division this fall. Kentucky will also celebrate the 40th anniversary reunion of its 1976 Peach Bowl squad during that weekend. UK by 6.
— MISSOURI (Oct. 29, Columbia): The Tigers, who lost 21-13 to UK last season in Lexington, have a new coach in Barry Odom. It should be a pretty close encounter again. Mizzou by 7.
— GEORGIA (Nov. 5, Lexington): A familiar face on the Georgia sidelines for 15 years, Mark Richt is gone. Replacing Richt, who has found a similar head coaching job at his alma mater Miami (Fla.), is Kirby Smart. The Bulldogs, featuring star RB Nick Chubb, will be tough to handle. Chubb had a serious knee injury last fall but now seems to be ready for action. Georgia by 14.
— TENNESSEE (Nov. 12, Knoxville): Butch Jones’ club is favored to capture the SEC East Division crown. After trying to forget the disappointing tenures of Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley, the Big Orange is ready for big-time college football. Last season, QB Joshua Dobbs and the Vols gave UK a Halloween nightmare by winning 52-21 and Dobbs is back for his senior year. UT by 24.
— AUSTIN PEAY (Nov. 19, Lexington): After barely defeating EKU in overtime last year, UK faces another Ohio Valley Conference team in Austin Peay, which is coming off a horrible 0-11 campaign. The Governors have a new coach and have lost 16 straight games. UK by 36.
— LOUISVILLE (Nov. 26, Louisville): Bobby Petrino’s Cardinals will be tough again. A Top 25 club, U of L features an explosive attack led by sophomore QB Lamar Jackson with 10 starters returning on offense. Kentucky had the 2015 U of L game won, leading 24-7 at half, before imploding in the second half as it dropped 38-24. Louisville by 9.
But the Big Blue Nation will celebrate as UK finishes with a 6-6 mark, including three SEC wins at home, and a bowl trip.
So what do you think?
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 or reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.