With all the changes in the daily life of all Americans due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is both refreshing and needed to focus on something different than the virus.
Hopefully, this column achieves that purpose.
Coming off a phenomenal 2019 campaign which saw the Kentucky Wildcats win eight games and the Belk Bowl behind a steamroller offense and opportunistic defense, not to mention one of the best individual seasons ever from All-American Lynn Bowden Jr., the Cats are in a position to do something anyone associated with the program has longed for: becoming an SEC power.
For UK to make the next level, however, the Cats must make the next step in their development and become a program that both takes care of business against lesser and equal teams, and has the ability to go against the big boys of the conference and have the ability to win.
The 2020 season, although exclusively SEC schools, is set up for the Cats to make another leap forward.
Let’s look at how this special season could play out.
Game 1- at Auburn
This matchup could set the tone for the entire season. A win here could catapult the Cats into the national discussion as a team firmly on the rise; a loss could cause the Cats to struggle to a .500 record. I think the Cats have the ability to go to the Plains and win behind a power run game and a stout defense. I’m going with the Cats in a close one.
Cats 30, Tigers 24
Game 2- Ole Miss
Three things work in UK’s favor in this one. The Rebs have a new system under coach Lane Kiffin so there will be growing pains, whereas the Cats have a familiar recipe for success under coach Mark Stoops. The Cats have a run game that translates well in SEC play and they play this one at home. The Cats run their record to 2-0.
Cats 33, Rebels 20
Game 3- Mississippi State
The other team from the Magnolia State makes the trip to Lexington as new coach Mike Leach brings his Air Raid offense to his old stomping grounds. This game could either be a shootout or a blowout. Again, I’ll go with the Cats' experience, depth, and power game to counteract the Dawgs passing game and go to 3-0.
Cats 38, Bulldogs 28
Game 4- at Tennessee
The second road game of the season takes the Cats to Knoxville to face an improving Volunteer squad under coach Jeremy Pruitt. In some ways, the Vols and Cats mirror each other. Both teams have defense-oriented coaches, like the running game, and want to get after their opponents. This game should be a lower scoring affair with UK relying on their depth at running back and their defense forces a couple of turnovers. The Cats stay undefeated (4-0) and could be Top 10 by the following Sunday.
Cats 23, Vols 17
Game 5- Georgia
I wouldn’t be surprised to see ESPN College Gameday in Lexington for this SEC East matchup if both clubs are Top 10. I see the Cats going toe-to-toe with UGA for 60 minutes. Unfortunately, the Cats just don’t have enough “hay in the barn” to get over the hump against a top-five program. Georgia scores a couple of touchdowns late to seal the first loss for the 4-1 Cats.
Bulldogs 28, Cats 17
Game 6- at Missouri
I think this game has the makings of a trap game for the Cats coming off their emotional matchup the previous game with Georgia. Mizzou is under new direction (Eliah Drinkwitz) and will be going through its own growing pains. The Tigers usually play well in Columbia, but the Cats use their familiar recipe of power and experience to win another tough one on the road to move to 5-1 on the season.
Cats 27, Tigers 20.
Game 7- Vanderbilt
It wasn’t too long ago that Vandy and coach Derek Mason were hot properties and a program on the rise. How times have changed. More than likely Mason and the ‘Dores are just playing out the string with Mason probably being replaced soon. This game will be competitive early just because UK/Vandy usually is. However, the Cats pull away and win comfortably to move to 6-1 on the season.
Cats 38, Vandy 14
Game 8- at Alabama.
Just think, this game could match up an undefeated Bama squad against a one-loss Wildcat team. My how times have changed in Lexington. I look for a very physical matchup. The Cats will compete as they did against Georgia. But like the UGA game, the Cats just don’t have enough at the end to close it out and drop to 6-2.
Bama 35, Cats 14
Game 9- at Florida
I hope the Gators kind of overlook the Cats, especially if Florida is either first or second in the SEC East. If they do, UK will go into Gainesville and win fairly easily. But alas, I don’t think they will. In another war, I think the Gators score late and beat the Cats. UK’s record drops to 6-3.
Gators 30, Cats 27
Game 10- South Carolina
Just exactly how many coaching lives does USC coach Will Muschamp have? I think we find out in the Cats season-ending matchup with the Gamecocks. Much like Vandy coach Derek Mason, Muschamp will probably come to Lexington faced with the real possibility of being removed as coach. The Cocks will compete to salvage maybe a .500 season, but again UK’s depth and power game are too much for them to withstand. UK closes its regular season with a sterling 7-3 record.
Cats 27, USC 14
So there you have it. The Cats continue to turn the corner to become an SEC force, and if there is a bowl season, look to be playing over the holidays. Now that’s something to look forward to.
Shane Shackleford is a regional sports columnist from Speedwell, Tenn. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and at A Sea of Blue, KySportsStyle.com Magazine and HarlanCountySports.com.