Sports & Swag’s College Football 2016 Preview continues! In this edition we continue with our SEC Power Rankings, counting down from number 14 to number 1. Today, we feature the #12. Kentucky Wildcats.
Head coach Mark Stoops, has had his share of ups and downs in Lexington. Mostly down. However, slowly but surely things finally seem to be on the upswing. Two consecutive seasons with a 5-7 record may not seem like much. But, when you consider the 2-10 records of the previous two seasons, then there’s a reason to feel some sense of accomplishment. Kentucky fans certainly are. There’s an excitement about football around Big Blue Nation that I haven’t heard in a long, long time. It’s not necessarily at a fever pitch, and not near the excitement we’re hearing from Tennessee fans, but it’s there. And, thats a very good thing.
The excitement probably would have been more of a fever pitch if the Wildcats had ended last season better. The Cats lost six of their last seven games to end the season. That was after a 4-1 start. The only loss was 14-9 in ‘The Swamp’ to eventual East division champion, Florida. A game Kentucky pretty much controlled. The game that really turned Kentucky’s season upside-down, however, was a 30-27 home loss to struggling Auburn. There was a lot of optimism surrounding that game for Big Blue. But, Auburn ended up winning it late. As a result, it proved to be the difference between Auburn ending up 6-6 and in a bowl (Birmingham Bowl) they didnt want to be in, versus the Wildcats being 5-7 and in a bowl they would loved to have been in.
The season went downhill in a hurry from there. Kentucky’s only win in those final six games was over Charlotte. This season, the Cats have a lot of experience coming back offensively. Will that be enough to overshadow a not so experienced defense and finally get bowl eligible? It’s too early to tell. Can this football team keep Big Blue Nation’s attention on football and not hoops? No. But, at any rate, let’s take a closer look at the 2016 Kentucky Wildcats.
12. KENTUCKY WILDCATS
2015: 5-7 (2-6) Offensive Rank: 10th (24.7 ppg) – Defensive Rank: 12th (27.4 ppg)
2016 Returning Starters: Offense 9, Defense 5
It’s very evident where the strength of Kentucky’s offense was in 2015, and it could be more evident in 2016. The Wildcats’ ground attack is one of the SEC’s best. Therefore, considering the insane number of talented back fields in the SEC, it’s also one of the nation’s best. Stanley ‘Boom’ Williams, of course, is a big reason why. ‘Boom’ Williams, is absolutely one of the SEC’s best, even though he didn’t reach 1,000 yards rushing in 2015. He fell just short at 924 yards. But, the main reason for that is he shared carries with Mike Horton , and especially JoJo Kemp.
In a lot of ways, this underrated trio of running backs was Kentucky’s offense in 2015. What they accomplished in 2015 (nearly 1,800 yards rushing) was very impressive. Especially, when you consider there was little help from the passing game. There probably won’t be much help from the air attack this season, either.
Gone is Patrick Towles, who was much more successful with his legs than his arm. Towles, transferred to Boston College. So, now, the Cats must depend on sophomore QB Drew Barker.
As a freshman, Barker started two games and completed passes at a 50 percent clip. To be fair, both quarterback’s numbers suffered from a lot of dropped passes from Kentucky’s receivers. Some of those drops were key in losses to Florida and Auburn. Win those games, and the Kentucky Wildcats finish 7-5, not 5-7.
This year, the receivers are more experienced. That should help. Juniors, Garrett Johnson and Dorian Baker are the leaders of this group of recievers. Combined they went for nearly 1,300 yards in 2015. They need to improve on those numbers for this offense to be successful.
The Cats improved defensively from 31 points per game in 2014, to 27 per game in 2015. There’s still room for much more improvement. However, they’ll have to do so with less experience in 2016. Only one of the Wildcats’ top eight tacklers return in 2015. The problem with that is that guy, Marcus McWilson, is Kentucky’s starting free-safety. Not a good thing when your leading returning tackler is your free-safety. McWilson and Blake McClain (nickel-back), both seniors, have by far the most experience in the secondary.
At linebacker, only sophomore Denzil Ware, has much experience. They’ll need major contributions from their young guys for this unit to hold up all season. One of those guys is junior, Courtney Love, who transferred from Nebraska.
Defensive end Reggie Meant, and nose tackle Matt Elam are the only returnees up front that received much playing time. Kentucky was slightly better against the pass (8th SEC) than the run (10th SEC) in 2015. Dont look for those numbers to change much in 2016.
Austin MacGinnis, returns for place-kicking duties. He looks to duplicate a 2014 where he made a school record 21 field goals (21-27). He also went a perfect 41-41 in extra points, which were the most in a season without a miss. In 2015, he only hit on 13-17 field goals. A drastic drop. Due in most part to injuries and an anemic offense.
2016 is Mark Stoops’ fourth season in head coach of the Kentucky Wildcats. While, a bowl trip may not be vital, it’s pretty important. Especially, with the Cats being so close a year ago. If, Kentucky can receive help from their passing game, the running game could offset defensive woes by controlling the clock.
The schedule makers weren’t kind to the Wildcats. Besides, Georgia in November, all of Kentucky’s tougher games are on the road. That includes a trip to Tuscaloosa. Something their East counterparts, Vandy and Mizzou, dont have to worry about.
Here’s a look at the Kentucky Wildcats full schedule for 2016.
Still, if Kentucky just holds serve, in terms of who they’re favored to beat and who they’re not, there should be six wins. Of course, there’s a possibility for more if they pull an upset or two.
The key stretch for Kentucky is home vs Vandy, at Missouri, and home vs Mississippi State. Each of these teams are quite comparable and should fight it out for bowl eligibility. Winning two or all three would put the Kentucky Wildcats on the right path for their first bowl since 2010.