My bags are packed.
I’m ready to travel in December, to cover Kentucky’s trip to a bowl game. But as a matter of full disclosure: They’ve been packed since last year. That’s when I boldly (foolishly?) predicted an eight-win season and a nice visit to a warm stadium somewhere around Christmas.
This year? I’ll take Shreveport. Anything. Just get me to the post season, where a .500 record and a pulse qualify your team to go bowling. It may not be glorious, but I like covering college football and the more games, the better.
I do believe the Cats will make it, but not necessarily with the gaudy record I foolishly (boldly?) forecast in 2015. Here’s how the season will unfold:
SOUTHERN MISSISSIPPI , Sept. 3
Most football fans in the Big Blue Nation now know the name “Nick Mullens” almost as well as they know Drew Barker. Mullens is the guy who’s thrown for more than 8,000 yards and 63 touchdowns in his career for the Golden Eagles. Barker is the first-year starter, proud owner of one TD toss. USM lost significant personnel from last year on both sides of the ball. The UK pass rush will be suspect until the Wildcats prove otherwise, which means this game could be one of the most entertaining in the country on opening Saturday. We might see a track meet; last team with the football getting the victory. WINNER: UK
At FLORIDA, Sept. 10
The Gators are starting a new QB and they lost their top defensive lineman, linebacker and DB from last year. They won 10 games in ‘15, but suffered blowout losses to Florida State, Alabama and Michigan. Jim McElwain’s team is still developing but in the Swamp, the Cats will be hard-pressed to match the performance they turned in two seasons ago, when they were denied the chance to end a losing skid that now stands at 29. WINNER: FLORIDA
NEW MEXICO STATE, Sept. 17
The head coach is Doug Martin, who played QB at UK in the early ‘80s. Hal Mumme once coached football for NMSU; former UK assistant baseball Brian Green now is the head coach of the Aggies (he left Lexington for his alma mater). They’ve had only four winning seasons in the last 48 and their post-season drought is 55 years, the longest in the country. State should be improved, but Mark Stoops’ biggest problem this week might be battling his team’s overconfidence. WINNER: UK
SOUTH CAROLINA, Sept. 24
If SC’s Thursday night win over Vanderbilt is any indication, it could be another rough season for the Gamecocks. They needed overtime to beat the Commodores but their defense did have the Will Muschamp touches: it was aggressive and physical. Offense had barely enough. The Wildcats have a great chance to make it three straight wins over South Carolina for the first time in school history. WINNER: UK
At ALABAMA, Oct. 1
The last time the Cats visited Tuscaloosa, they threw a scare into the Tide, losing just 17-14 in 2008. There’s no Randall Cobb on this UK ballclub but, top-to-bottom, it may have more offensive firepower. However, that Kentucky team had three future NFL players on its defensive front. This one has a lot of questions that likely will have been answered by the time the Wildcats visit the defending national champs. WINNER: ALABAMA
VANDERBILT, Oct. 8
As painful as the Louisville loss had to be for the Cats last season, the most damaging loss was in Nashville. Kentucky turned in a dreadful performance against a Vandy team that won only three other games in 2015, a setback that helped keep the Wildcats out of post season play. Both teams should be better this year but the home team likely will protect its turf. WINNER: UK
MISSISSIPPI STATE, Oct. 22
The Bulldogs are without quarterback Dak Prescott, who led MSU to the top of the college football rankings two seasons ago. Then he lost a lot of his supporting cast and the Dogs fell back to reality, but still finished a solid 9-4. Prescott now is with the Dallas Cowboys, meaning Kentucky has a big chance to end a seven-game skid against a program that at one point was living a parallel life with the one in Lexington. WINNER: MISS ST
MISSOURI, Oct. 29
Every team suffers personnel losses at the end of the season but when the Tigers lost head coach Gary Pinkel, who is suffering from non-Hodgkin lymphoma, it was more devastating than anything graduation could have done to MU. Pinkel is the man who led Mizzou to back-to-back SEC East titles in the Tigers’ first two seasons in the conference. Missouri was 5-7 (1-7 SEC) last year, including a loss at Kentucky, which will have a big chance to pick up a coveted SEC road win. WINNER: UK
GEORGIA, Nov. 5
Fun fact: new UGA head coach Kirby Smart at one point was the defensive coordinator at Valdosta, working for head coach Chris Hatcher, once a UK graduate assistant coach. He’s moved up in the world. The former Alabama DC should be able to take full advantage of a roster full of talent and one of the best running attacks in the land. WINNER: Georgia
At TENNESSEE, Nov. 12
A team picked by most experts to win the SEC East looked mortal as it struggled to beat Appalachian State in overtime, thanks to a fortuitous end-zone fumble recovery. Still, by November Butch Jones’ team, stocked with the talent he’s brought there since landing in Knoxville, should be in full stride and bearing down on a divisional title. WINNER: Tennessee
AUSTIN PEAY, Nov. 19
Austin Peay was winless last year, which means the Governors have a new coaching staff this year. In fact, the Govs have won just one game in their last 34. APSU last season averaged only 248 yards and 12 points per game. The worst team in the Ohio Valley Conference will not enjoy its trip to Lexington. WINNER: UK
LOUISVILLE, Nov. 26
U of L’s opening win over Charlotte was no surprise; you could almost say the final score of 70-14 wasn’t much of a shock, either. Charlotte has a lot of work to do in the D-1 ranks. But there was an eye-opening number, thanks to Cardinals’ QB Lamar Jackson: he produced eight touchdowns – two with his feet, six with his arm. And he’s the reason it will be tough for the Wildcats to steal a win at the Big Slice. Kentucky has always had problems with dual-threat quarterbacks. WINNER: Louisville
My rudimentary math skills tell me I’ve predicted a 6-6 record – not quite as glistening as the 8-4 mark I assured everyone we would see last year. But a half-dozen wins in this bowl-game crazy world is good enough.
So I won’t unpack just yet.