Autumn is approaching, the temperature is cooling, and college football is in the air. KySportsStyle.com Magazine's Jamie Vaught laid out his pre-season predictions, and dropped an optimistic 8-4 on the table. Even though Kentucky returns virtually their entire defense except for linebacker Courtney Love and defensive end Denzil Ware, the optimism is a little unwarranted in my opinion.
Why? Because quarterbacks win games, and while everybody remembers
Stephen Johnson’s so-so statistics and some of the ugly duck passes he wobbled across Kroger Field, what people are forgetting is that the guy was a 4th quarter leader, perhaps the likes of which has rarely worn a UK uniform. Consider the last two seasons without his cool hand guiding the last-minute victories over Mississippi State and Louisville in 2016 or Tennessee in 2017. The picture isn’t pretty.
Either Terry Wilson or Gunnar Hoak will inherit some large shoes to fill, in a leadership sense.
The other major hole in this team is special teams. The kicker will go from being probably the best in school history, Austin MacGinnis, to either a former walk-on or a true freshman. The punter will likely be in his first college game as well. Given Kentucky’s razor-thin margin for error, this could cost them a game or two over the course of SEC play.
With that in mind, here’s my game-to-game guess for the 2018 Wildcats.
Central Michigan: I’ve preached caution about an eight-win team that played in a bowl last year, but wow, did this team lose a lot of players. While Kentucky has underperformed in recent season openers, this one looks pretty solid. UK by 21.
@ Florida: This is the glamour pick for UK’s upset, but unfortunately, with Jim McElwain being replaced by Dan Mullen, the best odds of ending the 31-year losing streak are out the window. Florida is very much a work in progress, but at the same time, whichever UK quarterback gets the call, he’ll be making his first road start ever in the Swamp. Gators by 10.
Murray State: Given the new redshirt rule, which allows players to compete in up to four games without losing the ability to redshirt, this should be an excellent game to get a look at some of the younger Cats. UK by 31.
Mississippi State: So if Florida is greatly enhanced by adding Dan Mullen, surely State falls back without him? Not really. Joe Moorhead’s high-scoring offense has many figuring on MSU as a dark horse CFP contender. I’m not that high on them, but I am high enough on them to project a victory. MSU by 14.
South Carolina: The most overlooked game on UK’s schedule? Sure, UK has had Carolina’s number. How else can you explain four straight wins in the series? But this is a veteran, balanced USC team which should have more offensive firepower than their last couple squads. USC by 7.
@ Texas A&M: Can Jimbo Fisher have A&M competitive right away? In the West, probably not. But at home against UK, I like their chances. A&M by 14.
Vanderbilt: If UK does come into this game at 2-4, there’ll be some grumbling against Stoops. This becomes a can’t-lose game. Fortunately, Vandy is the worst team in the SEC this year, and I’m not sure it’s very close. UK by 17.
@ Missouri: For the second straight week, UK faces a nearly must-win game. This one is much more competitive and could be pivotal for Stoops’s job security, but an improving defense will save the day here. UK by 3.
Georgia: This isn’t your older brother’s Bulldog team that will come in Kroger Field and be lucky to escape. This Georgia team is Alabama-lite, and they’ll deliver an Alabama-like result. UGA by 31.
@ Tennessee: By this point in the year, the phrase “must win” will be cliched, but here Kentucky will be again, in a game that looks pivotal to their bowl chances. Jeremy Pruitt is a good coach… but Tennessee is so far from good that it’ll take him several years to chip away at their mediocrity. UK by 8.
MTSU: Some UK teams would blow this game against a very decent Middle team which has a nice passing attack. This Wildcat team will see enough good QBs that it shouldn’t be surprised. UK by 20, clinching a bowl bid.
@ Louisville: It was suggested above that the QB play and the kicking game could each cost UK a game. On the other side, the defense is probably a lot better than I think, and that will steal a game back… and it’s this game. It’s Petrino who is hearing grumbles after this one, as a junkyard-dog defense stops Louisville’s final drive for a second straight win at PJCS—oops, CS. UK by 6.
I don’t see 8-4… but I’ll see 7-5, with this season ending in an eighth win in the Belk Bowl. Sounds pretty good to me.
Joe Cox is contributing editor for KySportsStyle.com Magazine. He grew up in Letcher County and Bell County, and has written seven books, with the eighth to come in 2019. His most recent, "The Immaculate Inning," was released in February 2018 and can be pre-ordered 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.