JOE COX: How Far Will Stoops' Wildcats Go This Fall after Surprising 7-6 Campaign in 2016?
It’s almost football time in the Bluegrass. For those who have been through a couple dozen college football seasons, there have been few that have opened with as much optimism for the Kentucky Wildcats as 2017.
As I follow in the steps of Jamie and Shane and give you my projected season results, I find myself being a little leery of drinking the big blue Kool-Aid. Don’t misunderstand; I’m the guy who could stare 4-7 seasons in the face and see 6-5 or 7-4. And again, rarely has there been this much optimism for UK football.
But this year, I’m the guy who is pumping the brakes. To have another 2016 type season, with four SEC wins and an upset of a ranked opponent, would require a tremendous amount of good luck. Kentucky’s first 22 players match up with almost anyone. It’s once bodies start crashing and ACLs start tearing that UK can find itself in a world of hurt. This team’s defensive line is thinner than a supermodel at a yoga convention. There is one starting receiver listed on the depth chart who has caught 10 passes in his UK career. One. There are reasons to be excited in 2017, but the ups and downs of life often teach that a season bathed in good luck is followed by another that is a learning experience.
Don’t misunderstand; I’m bullish on Mark Stoops. I think this football program is healthier that it’s been in at least a decade, and maybe more like 35 years. There are lots of reasons why 2018 looks brighter to me than 2017. But enough yacking, let’s look at some football.
Week 1: @ Southern Mississippi
How many UK teams of the past would stumble out of this particular gate? Well, the 2016 one did, and that was in Lexington. While there’s no reason for anything except respect of RB Ito Smith, I don’t see Southern Miss pulling a second season-opening upset off. UK 34, USM 24
Week 2: vs. Eastern Kentucky
For that matter, two years ago, Eastern came up I-75 and almost delivered a shocker, leading by 14 in the fourth quarter and taking the game to overtime before falling. That was then. This UK team, while I have concerns, is much better. UK 48, EKU 10
Week 3: @ South Carolina
This is one of those spots where you have to worry that luck is evening out. Carolina has an outstanding QB, Jake Bentley, who was on the bench last year when UK beat the Gamecocks. UK has three in a row in this series, but I don’t see a fourth. USC 27, UK 24
Week 4: vs. Florida
I get the argument. If not now, then when will the Wildcats topple the mighty Gators? I have no idea. I just know that I’ve picked it to happen too many times and seen UK last five minutes before getting blown off the field. I don’t think that happens, but… UF 35, UK 24
Week 5: vs. Eastern Michigan
Hopefully, this is the game when a bunch of the talented freshman receivers will show their advances. Hopefully, the stadium isn’t half empty the week after Florida. UK 42, EMU 20
Week 6: vs. Missouri
If you’re in the crowd that sees this season truly going south, this is a game you might point to. Mizzou seems like a team that will score some points. But they did last season too, and defensively, they had absolutely no answer for Benny Snell. I don’t see that changing. UK 45, Mizzou 24
Week 7: Bye
Cats are 4-2 at the midpoint.
Week 8: @ Mississippi State
Before Cole Mosier got hurt, before Alvonte Bell left the team, I would have picked either SC or MSU to be a win. But the bottom line is that winning on the road in the SEC is next to impossible. How many road SEC wins does Mark Stoops have in four years? Only twice (one in 2015 and 2016) . I’ve got him winning one in 2017, but it’s not this one. MSU 29, UK 28
Week 9: vs. Tennessee
I think this Tennessee team is a garbage dumpster on fire. They lost most of their big time players, they just lost their best returning linebacker, they’re breaking in a new QB. So here’s proof that I’m not just being negative. UK 35, UT 28.
Week 10: vs. Ole Miss
See above game. I’m hearing a lot of talk that Ole Miss will circle the wagons and have a great season with nothing to lose. Nope. UK 41, OM 28.
Week 11: @ Vanderbilt
Remember that stuff I said about how hard it is to win on the road in the SEC? It kind of goes out the window when you’re playing at a half-empty stadium with no environment. I think Vandy takes a step back this year. UK 28, Vanderbilt 10.
Week 12: @ Georgia
Not going to happen. Does anybody else remember the UK/UGA game in 2014, when UK literally did not make a single stop in the entire game? UGA never punted. They could do that in 2017. UGA 49, UK 24
Week 13: vs. Louisville
This is the other place where Kentucky has to play out of their minds to equal the good luck they got last time around. I think Louisville is a bit weaker than last season, but motivation matters. UL 38, UK 35.
So there you are, I think UK goes 7-5, but this time wins the bowl game, giving fans something to look forward to. I could see 9-3, 10-2 kind of seasons, but I think 2018 is the earliest we could see those results. Will be glad to enjoy a nice serving of crow, if I’m wrong.
Joe Cox is contributing editor for KySportsStyle.com Magazine. He grew up in Letcher County and Bell County, and has written five books, and his most recent, Almost Perfect (a study of baseball pitchers’ near-miss attempts at perfect games), is available on Amazon or at many local bookstores. Joe is an attorney and lives in Logan County with his wife and children. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.