As Kentucky prepares to follow up on the program’s most successful season since 1977, much of college football’s media appear to believe that the Wildcats were a one-year wonder. Many media outlets projected Kentucky into a lower-tier bowl appearance for 2019, suggesting a 6-6 or 7-5 season. Some, including prediction guru Phil Steele, even predict the Wildcats to miss out on a bowl game. The AP poll voters dropped Kentucky from No. 11 at the close of the 2018 season to not only unranked, but not getting a single vote in the preseason poll.
Cue Mark Stoops putting that chip labeled “disrespect” back on his team’s shoulder once again.
For those who have watched Kentucky carefully in the past three seasons, it’s apparent that while the heady results of 2018 might not be equaled this season, this program hasn’t been built on smoke and mirrors. Kentucky did lose a ton of talent—Benny Snell, Josh Allen, Lonnie Johnson, Mike Edwards, C.J. Conrad, and so forth. UK also returns a lot of talent, perhaps more than in any prior season.
While most preseason prediction columns run down the UK schedule game by game, here’s a different way to see the season.
How successful has Mark Stoops been in bridging the gap between the SEC’s haves and have nots? Well, there’s only one game on Kentucky’s schedule that looks all put totally unwinnable out of hand. Kentucky’s October 19th trip to Georgia is a very likely loss. The Wildcats last beat Georgia in Athens a decade ago, in a game in which a quarterback with the same name as this columnist played so badly for the Bulldogs that he could have been shaving points. Once again, given the massive amount of talent Kirby Smart has stockpiled, for Kentucky to beat Georgia, the Bulldogs will have to give them the game. Which could happen. But probably won’t. 0-1.
Now, on the other side of the ledger, the Wildcats have six games that they realistically should win. The entire non-conference schedule is at home and games against UT-Martin, Eastern Michigan, Toledo, and Louisville should all be wins. Granted, there are no sure things. Toledo and EMU both went to bowls last season, and will give Kentucky a good game. Louisville is likely to be so beaten up by the end of the season that they may not, although it is a rivalry game and anything could happen. Similarly, SEC games at home against Arkansas and at Vanderbilt are games in which the Wildcats will be solid favorites. Expecting a 6-0 mark in these six games might be a bit much, but it’s reasonable that UK would go 5-1 over the group, and 6-0 is not outside the realm of possibility.
That leaves five remaining games that will determine Kentucky’s season. Lose one of the should-wins and drop all five and the Cats don’t go bowling. Go 3-2 or 4-1 (or even 5-0) in these tell-tale five games and Kentucky’ll be back in a major bowl game and the Top 25 poll.
The pivotal group of five includes three home games (Florida, Missouri and Tennessee) and two road matchups (Mississippi State and South Carolina). Kentucky will be something between a mild underdog and a mild favorite in each game. ESPN’s FPI currently regards Kentucky as an underdog in all five, but it does give the ‘Cats a 48 percent shot at beating each Missouri and Tennessee. Realistically, FPI suggests that Kentucky goes 2-3 in those games, beating either Mizzou or UT at home and then one of the remaining three (UF at home, USC on the road, MSU on the road). That would leave the Wildcats at 7-5, assuming a stumble in one of the “should win” six, which is consistent with UK’s historical performance (remember last year’s loss in Knoxville?)
So where does this columnist come down? Predicting cap on, looks like Kentucky will go 5-1 against the six “should win” games, with a stumble at Vanderbilt. FPI has Kentucky as a 56 percent shot to win that game, so it’s nearly a coin flip. Crystal ball also says that Kentucky ends up 3-2 against the five teams that will define the season. Pencil this columnist down for a win over Tennessee and a win over Carolina, who will be hiring a new coach after the season. The flip side of Kentucky losing a game they should win is the Wildcats winning a game they should probably lose, and that one looks like Florida in week three (If you were impressed with Florida’s week zero game against Miami, KySportsStyle.com has some swamp land that you might also want to buy in on).
So that’s an 8-4 season, an appearance in the Belk Bowl around New Year’s Day and a Top 25 ranking to end the season.
My Kentucky Predictions:
Toledo: W, 42-20
Eastern Michigan: W, 31-21
Florida: W, 29-28
@ Mississippi State: L, 31-28
@ South Carolina: W, 38-28
Arkansas: W, 41-21
@ Georgia: L, 49-24
Missouri: W, 35-31
Tennessee: W, 28-24
@ Vanderbilt: L, 34-31
UT-Martin: W, 55-6
Louisville: W, 51-17
Belk Bowl: W vs. Virginia Tech, 34-24
Joe Cox is contributing editor for KySportsStyle.com Magazine. He grew up in Letcher County and Bell County, and has written eight books. His most recent, "A Fine Team Man: Jackie Robinson and the Lives He Changed," was released in February 2019 and can be 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 email@example.com.