JAMIE VAUGHT: Annual Fearless Forecast of UK's Football Season Has Arrived
Well, after several miserable years of losing, Kentucky finally bounced back last season in a respectable fashion and came up with a nice TaxSlayer Bowl campaign with a final 7-6 mark.
And will the football Wildcats improve this fall? Or perhaps regress like USA Today's recent prediction, forecasting Kentucky at 5-7 with a 2-6 SEC mark, finishing in a tie for sixth place with lowly Vanderbilt in the East Division?
Anyhow, on paper, coach Mark Stoops’ club should be much better with several outstanding playmakers on offense and defense returning. We know playing in the always tough SEC battles isn’t easy, but the Cats have enough talent and depth this time to make some noise in the SEC. And they need to cut back on their costly turnovers we saw last season.
Here’s my annual game-by-game fearless forecast of UK’s 2017 schedule, which includes seven home games.
--SOUTHERN MISS (Sept. 2, Hattiesburg, Miss.) - It will mark Kentucky’s first trip to Southern Miss, which upset the Cats 44-35 in a stunning fashion last year in Lexington after the Golden Eagles overcame a 25-point deficit. A former Stoops assistant at Kentucky, Shannon Dawson is back for his second year at Southern Miss as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. The Golden Eagles, who play in Conference USA, are coming off a 7-6 campaign last year, including a victory over Louisiana-Lafayette in the New Orleans Bowl, but they lost QB Nick Mullens, who is school’s all-time leading passer. The 4 p.m. matchup will be televised by CBS Sports Network. UK by 7.
--EASTERN KENTUCKY (Sept. 9, Lexington) – Coach Dean Hood’s Colonels gave UK a big scare in 2015 when the surprisingly-close contest went to overtime before the Wildcats prevailed 34-27. Hood isn’t working at Richmond anymore. Instead, he is at UK, serving as the special teams coordinator and outside linebackers coach. A former UT assistant, Mark Elder is now in his second year as the EKU boss. His Colonels will kick off their season at Western Kentucky on Sept. 2 before the Kentucky game, which starts at 12 noon (SEC Network). Kentucky by 21.
--SOUTH CAROLINA (Sept. 16, Columbia) – This 7:30 p.m. conference matchup on SEC Network can go either way. It should be an exciting barnburner even though the Wildcats have beaten the Gamecocks three straight times. Coach Will Muschamp did "okay" last year in his first year at USC as his club finished at 6-7, including a loss to South Florida in Birmingham Bowl. UK by 3, improving its mark to 3-0.
--FLORIDA (Sept. 23, Lexington) – The Gators have swamped the Cats for a long time. For Kentucky, last year’s matchup wasn’t pretty as Florida dominated with a 45-7 win in Gainesville, extending a winning streak to 30 games in the series. Coach Jim McElwain’s squad is a leading favorite to win the East Division along with Georgia. A meaningful home field advantage along with electrically-charged atmosphere at Kroger Field won’t be enough for UK. Florida by 8.
--EASTERN MICHIGAN (Sept. 30, Lexington) – It will be the first time that both clubs are meeting. At the Mid-American Conference’s annual Media Day, Eastern Michigan was picked to finish fourth in the six-team West Division. UK, by the way, will be hosting high school bands from across the state of Kentucky as part of Band Day. UK by 18.
--MISSOURI (Oct. 7, Lexington) – Coach Barry Odom is beginning his second year at the Columbia school after posting a 4-8 mark. The Tigers are expected to struggle again. UK by 14.
--MISSISSIPPI STATE (Oct. 21, Starkville) – The Bulldogs will feature one of the country’s rising QBs in junior Nick Fitzgerald, who ranked third in the conference in total offense last season. Coach Dan Mullen has done a remarkable in building a respectable program in the middle of nowhere in the past several years. In addition, he has given UK a hard time, too, compiling a 7-1 record against the Cats. It is a winnable game for either squad. MSU by 1.
--TENNESSEE (Oct. 28, Lexington) – The Big Blue Nation is hoping for a better ending this time after watching the Wildcats drop to the rival Volunteers on regular basis (31 of the last 32 games). The Vols likely will be beaten up after playing at powerful Alabama in the previous weekend. And this time there is no Joshua Dobbs, who quarterbacked UT to a 49-36 win over Kentucky in Knoxville last fall. Also, former UK boss Rich Brooks and his bowl teams will be recognized at Kroger Field. Kentucky by 6.
--OLE MISS (Nov. 4, Lexington) – Times are very hard for the Rebel faithful in Oxford as NCAA has investigated their football program. Ole Miss also lost embattled coach Hugh Freeze, who resigned recently in a personal scandal. The Rebels won’t be attending a post-season party, either, after a self-imposed bowl ban by the university. UK by 10, improving its record to 7-2.
--VANDERBILT (Nov. 11, Nashville) – Well, it is same old pesky Commodores. Yes, I’ve made similar comments over the years. It is actually a winnable game for either school. Vandy is no pushover as Derek Mason coached the 6-7 Commodores to Independence Bowl in 2016. Kentucky by 1.
--GEORGIA (Nov. 18, Athens) – It seems like the Wildcats have struggled on the road often when facing the Bulldogs. Second-year mentor Kirby Smart and his squad are expecting a banner year with 18 starters back, including RB Nick Chubb and QB Jacob Eason. Georgia by 9.
--LOUISVILLE (Nov. 25, Lexington) – Wow! That's a tough game to predict. The emotional Cardinals will be so fired up after losing to Kentucky, a four-touchdown underdog, on their home field last season. U of L once again will feature a Heisman Trophy winner in junior QB Lamar Jackson. The Cardinals are a Top 15 contender and will be a tough opponent again for the Wildcats. Louisville by 6.
As it turns out, the Wildcats finish with an 8-4 mark, including a nice 4-2 worksheet in SEC action, and celebrate with a nice bowl trip during the holidays. 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 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.