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Bob Dixon

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SHANE SHACKLEFORD: Cats Preparing To Take The Next Step This Season

Coming off a 10-3 season that saw the Kentucky Wildcats finish inside the top 20 nationally and return a bevy of talent on both sides of the ball, the question on the lips of many UK and SEC fans is simply this; can the Cats make that critical next step up and be a perennial contender in the meat grinder known as the SEC?

Well, there are plenty of reasons pointing to the Cats doing just that. Heck, they even are pegged as an SEC East division favorite to topple Georgia and a College Football Playoff contender.


Yeah, the CFP. The elite of college football elite.


Now before we get to that, we might need to pump the brakes a bit. The Cats are good -- really good -- but to get to those lofty heights, UK has to survive and thrive in the SEC.


Speaking of which, let’s get into some predictions. That’s what you’re here for anyways, right?


Week 1: Miami (Ohio). The Redhawks come to Lexington as a preseason MAC favorite. The Hawks will be well-coached, but I think the Cats have too much SEC-type talent. And there is a difference between top MAC talent and top SEC talent.


PREDICTION: Win. (1-0)


Week 2: at Florida. If there was ever a time to catch Florida at home, this is it. The Gators are rebuilding behind new coach Billy Napier and his staff of a thousand (see their team pic.) I’ll take the Cats' staff all day and twice on Sunday.


PREDICTION: Win. (2-0)


Week 3: Youngstown State. Wildcat coach Mark Stoops and ace assistant Vince Marrow are from the Youngstown Ohio area and recruit the area heavily, which has helped lead to the Cats' meteoric rise. I like Penguins, the Youngstown mascot, too. But it will be way too much Kentucky in this one.


PREDICTION: Win (3-0)


Week 4: Northern Illinois. The other MAC favorite makes a trip to the LEX. Not going to lie, this one will be a very close game I think. The Huskies are tough and solid. The Cats don’t put them away until the fourth quarter.


PREDICTION: Win (4-0)


Week 5: Ole Miss. The next SEC test comes to town in the form of Lane Kiffin and the Ole Miss Rebels. The last time they came to the house, quarterback Matt Corral went off and offensive coordinator Jeff Lebbe called a near-perfect game and the Rebels won in a shootout. Corral has made his way to the NFL now, Lebbe is at Oklahoma, but the Rebs will be a lot of the same. However, I think the Cats will be able to adjust defensively and the offense makes enough plays to win.


PREDICTION: Win (5-0)


Week 6: South Carolina. Don’t buy into this Mark Stoops versus Gamecock coach Shane Beamer hype. USC is good and the Cats know it. They have a very good quarterback in Spencer Rattler and SEC talent scattered across its roster. However, the Cats have their own stud signal caller in Will Levis, and he lives for this type of hyped matchup. Plus, at this point all-conference back Chris Rodriguez Jr. should be rounding into form from his suspension by now. Give me the Cats at home.


PREDICTION: Win (6-0)


Week 7: Mississippi State. The Cats should be rolling by now obviously. They’ve seen high-level offenses in Ole Miss and South Carolina that is pass heavy, so the Air Raid of Mike Leach and quarterback Will Rogers shouldn’t be a shock. Plus this game isn’t at Starkville and those awful cowbells rattling endlessly.


PREDICTION: Win (7-0)


Week 8: at Tennessee. Here it is folks. If the Cats are 7-0 and the Vols are 5-2 or better, this game is ESPN College Gameday-type material and the most anticipated UK-UT matchup ever. It is well known the struggles of the Cats in Neyland Stadium, but this isn’t your father’s or grandfather’s Cats and the last time UK was there they blistered the Vols 35-7. That said, the Cats are primed for a setback, and the Vols can deliver it. Give me the Vols in a nailbiter and I’ll have to watch it at home in safety.


PREDICTION: Loss (7-1)


Week 9: at Missouri. If by the chance the Cats go to Columbia undefeated and beat the Vols then this game has trap written all over it. The Cats have struggled there as much as any place in the SEC. But I’m thinking the Cats lose in Knoxville and are an angry bunch going to Mizzou. The Cats were pushed around the last time there; that’s not happening again. A physical Kentucky does the pushing this time.


PREDICTION: Win (8-1)


Week 10: Vanderbilt. It could be said that this game is the trap game with Georgia coming to town next, and that could be a possibility. But to be a trap game, the team doing the upsetting has to be comparable to the team being upset usually. Unless the Cats literally fall on their face, I don’t see it.


PREDICTION: Win (9-1)


Week 11: Georgia. The Dawgs are the defending national champs and are not ready to give up the ghost and go away quietly. They heard at length how teams like Kentucky are closing the gap on them. Thing is, the division is closing the gap. UGA is still loaded with talent, albeit not like the group that pretty much were NFL Draft picks in 2021. They are the kings of the hill that the Cats must topple. I think UK has closed the gap, but just not enough to win.


PREDICTION: Loss (9-2).


Week 12: Louisville. Oh, U of L. You always open every season full of hope, full of love, and full of…well, you get the meaning. Yes, you have a good signal caller in Malik Cunningham and recruited a very good class to the Ville. But the Cats will be waiting and Bobby Petrino isn’t walking through the door (or is he- just kidding). The Cats prove a point that they are the flagship football program in this state.


PREDICTION: Win (10-2).


There you have it. The Cats go 10-2 and play on New Year’s Day. The gap is indeed closing for Kentucky to get to elite status, and actually, all 12 games are winnable. If one of those two losses are wins, the Cats could be in Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game. Win there and everything is on the table.


Everything.


Shane Shackleford is a regional sports columnist from Speedwell, Tenn. He is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and the United States Basketball Writers of America. He has written and published his first book “Bounce: A Basketball Love Story” which can be found on Amazon currently and has another book project in the works. You can find Shane on KySportsStyle.com Magazine, A Sea of Blue, Go Big Blue Country, The Mountain Advocate, Harlan County Sports, Middlesboro News, Claiborne Progress, and The Mountain Eagle. Contact Shane by email at coachshack50@gmail.com and on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok.

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