The football Wildcats should be better this fall.
That’s what the preseason college football yearbooks are saying about fourth-year coach Mark Stoops’ Cats, who have struggled to reach .500 after posting an overall 12-24 mark, including a dismal 4-20 SEC worksheet, in the past three years.
Last summer, all three publications – Athlon Sports, Lindy’s Sports and Sporting News – had listed UK at No. 6 with Vandy last in the SEC East Division.
But this time things are looking more promising for Kentucky, which feature a couple of offensive stars — preseason All-SEC picks in running back Boom Williams and center Jon Toth.
Athlon Sports has selected UK at No. 4 in the seven-team East Division with a projected 6-6 mark (3-5 in league), ahead of Vanderbilt, Missouri and Steve Spurrier-less South Carolina. While the forecast may be optimistic, we should remember the Wildcats have four winnable SEC games, including the South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State matchups at home. The other one takes places at Missouri.
All four of these beatable opponents are expected to struggle this season. South Carolina and Missouri will be learning to play under new coaches Will Muschamp and Barry Odom, respectively, while MSU’s Dan Mullen will try to find a suitable replacement for record-setting QB Dak Prescott. After a couple of exciting 9-4 seasons under James Franklin, who is now the boss at Penn State, Vanderbilt finally came back to earth in 2014. And this fall we’ll continue to see Vandy trying to climb out of the basement in the division race.
In Sporting News, Kentucky is No. 5, just behind fourth-place Missouri, and ahead of South Carolina and Vanderbilt.
Lindy’s Sports has UK at No. 6, just ahead of lowly Vanderbilt. But the Birmingham-based publication also had encouraging comments from an unnamed opposing coach who said the Wildcats will be much better.
And Stoops agreed when asked last April if the Wildcats are strong enough to compete in the SEC. UK has “much improved,” said the coach, but still has to face “awfully physical” teams like Alabama this season. The Cats, nevertheless, are climbing closer to the SEC-physical level, he added.
Meanwhile, the experienced Volunteers, who return a sizable load of returning starters, including star QB Joshua Dobbs, are getting lots of attention this time. All three yearbooks are predicting a banner year — a first-place finish in SEC East — for Butch Jones’ UT squad. On the national level, Lindy’s and Athlon picked Tennessee at No. 6 and No. 7, respectively, behind top-ranked Alabama. Sporting News also ranked the defending national champion Crimson Tide No. 1, while placing Tennessee at No. 13.
Last season, UT compiled a 9-4 record despite losing several nail-biters, including a two-overtime setback to Bob Stoops and his Oklahoma Sooners in Knoxville.
And Kentucky plays at Tennessee in mid-November. After a 52-21 blowout loss to the Vols in Lexington on Halloween Night last season, the Wildcats have lost 30 of their last 31 games with UT. Kentucky’s lone victory against Tennessee in recent years was a 10-7 margin in 2011 when wide receiver Matt Roark played QB in leading the Cats to a shocking win.
The Wildcats also travel to Tuscaloosa for a tough Saturday date with Alabama on Oct. 1. Coach Nick Saban has won four national titles at Bama in seven years plus one more while at LSU. He is catching up with legendary Bear Bryant who won six national championships, all at Alabama.
In UK’s regular season finale, Kentucky faces arch-rival Cardinals, who are a Top 25 team.
As you can see, the Wildcats’ road schedule is murderous. But their seven-game home slate will help with three beatable conference foes on the list. UK’s opener with formidable Southern Miss at home, however, is a concern.
So how will the Cats fare this year? Well, if you want my thoughts, I’ll have the game-by-game forecast in a future column.
Other than division favorites Alabama and Tennessee, Les Miles’ LSU and Hugh Freeze’s Ole Miss are the other highly-ranked SEC schools (no lower than No. 13 nationally in preseason polls). But watch out for the dangerous Top 20 Georgia Bulldogs club, which has first-year coach Kirby Smart, a Nick Saban disciple.
By the way, don’t forget former Kentucky QB Patrick Towles at Boston College in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The graduate transfer may get to play in a bowl game for the first time in his collegiate career. Two yearbooks are projecting a Military Bowl party for the Eagles in Annapolis, Md., near the Baltimore-Washington, D.C., area.
And I also loved reading a piece about the coaches who are on the hot (and warm) seat. SEC has five of them listed, including UK’s Stoops.
Needless to say, the colorful yearbooks are loaded with stories, predictions and photos. They are available at stores and online (athlonsports.com, lindyssports.com and snyearbooks.com). If you are a football junkie, you can get all three for around $25.
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor 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 [email protected]