By Jamie H. Vaught
As we all know, UK has a football program on the rise, but the preseason folks are still cautious about the team’s outlook.
Last season, as you’ll recall, the Wildcats did really well in the SEC East Division en route to their first bowl trip since 2010. Even though Kentucky dropped to Georgia Tech in Jacksonville’s TaxSlayer Bowl, the Cats still finished on the winning side with a 7-6 mark, including a three-way tie for second place (with Georgia and Tennessee) in the SEC East with a 4-4 record.
And will the Wildcats finish second in the division again? No, not this time, according to two 2017 college football yearbooks -- Street & Smith’s (formerly Sporting News) and Athlon Sports.
In its annual preview, Athlon has predicted UK will finish at No. 5 in the SEC East, just ahead of Vanderbilt and Missouri. Georgia Bulldogs, who still has star running back Nick Chubb back for his senior year, are the slight favorite to capture the division crown.
Athlon’s Matt Hinton, however, points out that Kentucky could be a dark horse for the SEC championship game party in Atlanta. “Kentucky? Really? Sure, it is a leap, but it’s not completely crazy,” he wrote after seeing UK make substantial improvement during coach Mark Stoops’ fourth-year at the Wildcat helm last fall and the team has several key returnees back from that 2016 squad.
In Athlon’s preseason national rankings, UK is placed at No. 45 with several SEC teams close by -- Arkansas (No. 29), Mississippi State (No.30), Texas A&M (No. 37), South Carolina (No. 40), Ole Miss (No. 46), Vanderbilt (No. 48) and Missouri (No. 55). Unlike the recent past, that shows Kentucky is a formidable SEC team on the rise.
It is no surprise that Nick Saban’s Alabama and Urban Meyer’s Ohio State are ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in both yearbooks’ preseason poll.
One of the more interesting feature articles in Athlon is Editor’s Roundtable where the yearbook folks ask and answer some of the biggest questions in college football. The yearbook also had a ranking of the 50 most significant college football developments of the last 50 years, going back when Athlon published its first SEC preview magazine in 1967 and that was interesting.
The No. 3 ranking on the list discussed the integration of the SEC where it somehow misspelled the name of Nate Northington as Nat Worthington. Northington, a former Wildcat, was the first African-American to play SEC football.
Hal Mumme’s “Hurry-Up” offense at Kentucky and other schools was also rated on the “50” list.
Remember the legendary name of Street & Smith’s, which arguably was considered the premier yearbook in several sports during the old days? After taking over Street & Smith’s in 2007, the yearbook folks from the Sporting News have decided to rename its annual publications and call them Street & Smith’s. Wise choice.
“As a sports fan growing up, there was no other choice for me when I made my pilgrimage to the local drugstore than the latest Street & Smith’s yearbook,” wrote Scott Smith, the editor of Street & Smith’s Yearbooks. “… It was just somehow different than the other sports annuals, more genuinely authentic and unique.”
Street & Smith’s don’t see the Wildcats leapfrogging to the top of the East Division. The yearbook has Kentucky at No. 5, but says Coach Stoops’ troops may be a real threat this year. It also points out the division race can be brutal if South Carolina can get things going and if Vanderbilt makes its second straight bowl trip. It has Florida the favorite to win the East title.
Because of powerhouses at Alabama, Auburn and LSU, the SEC West Division has a better reputation than the East, right? Well, Street & Smith’s interestingly has projected six teams from the East will be bowling, while only five from the West will attend a post-season party.
Like Athlon, Street & Smith’s is also loaded with excellent articles such as Heisman Watch, the Great Debate about college football playoffs, the most overrated and underrated teams, to name a few.
As for the preseason All-SEC first-team honors, linebacker Jordan Jones is the only Kentucky player on Athlon’s list. Jordan, who is from Youngstown, Ohio, also earned All-American third-team honors.
Street & Smith’s, on the other hand, has three Wildcats from defense -- junior Denzil Ware, junior Jordan Jones and junior Mike Edwards -- on its All-SEC first-team preseason list.
By the way, my annual game-by-game prediction of the football Wildcats will be out in late July or August just in time for UK’s season opener at Southern Miss during the Labor Day weekend.
Needless to say, it is sure a very exciting time for college football fans, including the long-suffering supporters from the Big Blue Nation.
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle.com 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.