Are you ready for college football campaign to kick off? Well, I am. Here’s my annual game-by-game forecast of UK’s 2018 schedule.
**CENTRAL MICHIGAN (Sept. 1, Lexington): The Chippewas, who are coming off an 8-5 mark last fall, have been showing up for post-season bowl parties five times in the last six years. However, since Central Michigan has lost several key players, the Chippewas aren’t expected to do much this fall. By the way, former SEC commissioner Roy Kramer is grand marshal for CMU’s 2018 homecoming celebration. Kramer once led CMU to a national championship in 1974 when the school was in NCAA Division II. Here’s another interesting tidbit: Central Michigan has Alabama on its 2023 schedule. Ouch! The 2018 season opener will be televised by ESPNU, beginning at 3:30 p.m. UK by 17.
**FLORIDA (Sept. 8, Gainesville): After posting a disappointing 4-7 record in 2017, the Gators now have a new coach in Dan Mullen, the former Mississippi State mentor who is 8-1 against Kentucky. Florida, which got lucky in beating the Cats 28-27 last year in Lexington, should be better this time. SEC Network will carry the 7:30 p.m. matchup. UF by 10.
**MURRAY STATE (Sept. 15, Lexington): The Racers have been picked to finish No. 8, just ahead of last-place Tennessee Tech, in the Ohio Valley Conference race, according to a recent preseason media poll. The noon contest will be seen on SEC Network Alternate. UK by 21.
**MISSISSIPPI STATE (Sept. 22, Lexington): The new Bulldogs coach is Joe Moorhead, who comes to Starkville from Penn State where he served as the offensive coordinator. MSU, which whipped visiting UK 45-7 last fall, features mobile senior QB Nick Fitzgerald, who will be a challenge for the Wildcats defense. This should be a nail-biter. UK by 3.
**SOUTH CAROLINA (Sept. 29, Lexington): Will Muschamp is beginning his third year as USC head coach after 6-7 and 9-4 seasons. His Gamecocks, who have junior Jake Bentley at QB, are looking to increase their scoring production with eight returning starters on offense and a new offensive coordinator. UK beat South Carolina 23-13 on the road last season. Like the MSU game, this should be another nail-biter. UK by 1.
**TEXAS A&M (Oct. 6, College Station): UK coach Mark Stoops will be facing his former boss at Florida State in Jimbo Fisher, who was hired to take over the Aggies program. While Texas A&M has talent, it isn’t expected to do a lot in SEC West Division. Texas A&M by 12.
**VANDERBILT (Oct. 20, Lexington): The seat of coach Derek Mason, now in his fifth year at Vandy, is getting warmer so he needs to produce a winning squad immediately. The Commodores, who will play at Notre Dame in mid-September, still have one of SEC’s top returning QBs in senior Kyle Shurmur. UK by 7.
**MISSOURI (Oct. 27, Columbia): The Tigers, who posted a 7-6 mark during their Texas Bowl campaign last season, have a powerful offense led by senior QB Drew Lock. They also have a new offensive coordinator by the name of Derek Dooley. Remember that name? He once coached at Tennessee for three years. The Wildcats defeated Missouri 40-34 in Lexington last fall. Missouri by 6.
**GEORGIA (Nov. 3, Lexington): The Kirby Smart-coached Bulldogs, along with the Crimson Tide, are among the leading contenders for the national title. Georgia, which lost to Alabama 26-23 in overtime in last season’s national championship showdown, has 2017 SEC Freshman of the Year Jake Fromm back at QB. The Bulldogs have lots of talented rookies, including running back Zamir White, who was nation's No. 1 high school running back. Georgia by 24.
**TENNESSEE (Nov. 10, Knoxville): After a disastrous coaching search, the Vols still managed to come up with a pretty good hire in former Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. UT will be in a rebuilding mode after a winless 0-8 SEC record (4-8 overall) last fall. Kentucky has not played well at Neyland Stadium for years. This is a tough call, but UK by 1.
**MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE (Nov. 17, Lexington): This is a trap game for the Wildcats. Phil Steele’s college football yearbook is projecting the Blue Raiders to have a bowl campaign after posting a respectable 7-6 mark in injury-marred 2017. Redshirt senior QB Brent Stockstill, son of Middle Tennessee coach Rick Stockstill, is back after missing six games. The Blue Raiders also face two other SEC teams Vanderbilt (Sept. 1 on SEC Network Alternate) and Georgia (Sept. 15 on ESPN2) this fall. UK by 6.
**LOUISVILLE (Nov. 24, Louisville): Lamar Jackson is gone but coach Bobby Petrino is still guiding the Cardinals. His Cards are not getting much respect from the media in the Atlantic Coast Conference as they are picked to finish No. 5 in a seven-team Atlantic Division. U of L opens its season with powerhouse Alabama in Orlando, Fla. UK by 6.
So that leaves Mark Stoops and his Wildcats with an 8-4 mark (4-4 in SEC) and a third straight bowl appearance. Actually, I’m somewhat surprised to see Kentucky at 8-4. Before going through this game-by-game analysis, I was kind of expecting a 6-6 campaign. If you know me, I’m usually pretty conservative when it comes to forecasting.
Well, I guess it’s time for the hungry Wildcats to come up with a more memorable year after two straight 7-6 bowl campaigns. If the Cats capture eight regular season games, as predicted, it would mark the first time UK has done so since Coach Jerry Claiborne’s 1984 Wildcats posted a 9-3 mark, including a bowl win over Wisconsin.
What do you think? It should be an exciting time for 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 and founder 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.
UK-Ole Miss Game Photo by Jamie H. Vaught