Two football seasons ago, when Kentucky’s football schedule seemed relatively manageable, a typist sitting at a keyboard (blush) boldly predicted eight victories for the Wildcats and mentally began to pack for a trip to a lush, warm bowl game site.
Wrong. SO wrong.
The chances were there, but a 4-1 start evaporated in an acidic five-game losing skid that forced most prognosticators last year to only tepidly embrace Kentucky’s shot at post-season play.
Of course, at the end of the regular season we all quickly packed for Jacksonville.
The typing is underway again as we try to predict our way through the upcoming season. Are we packing tropical clothing again, this coming December? I’ll let you know in a few paragraphs.
Sept. 2 at Southern Mississippi
With quarterback Drew Barker last year slinging the football all over the park in the first half, Kentucky couldn’t have started the season any better. But as their emotions burned fast and white-hot, the Cats had nothing left in the second half as the Golden Eagles completed their astonishing comeback, scoring the upset victory.
It says here, the veteran Wildcats will remember and the newbies will contribute enough depth to help Kentucky overcome what likely will be a muggy afternoon in Hattiesburg. It also helps that talented QB Nick Mullens has moved on from Southern Miss. It should add up to an Opening Day road win for the Cats. (1-0)
Sept. 9 vs. Eastern Kentucky
Two years ago, Patrick Towles led an impressive, come-from-behind win over the upset-minded Colonels. Had it not been for two terrific touchdown catches in the closing minutes by Dorian Baker, UK’s current special teams coordinator, Dean Hood, might still be EKU’s head coach.
Mark Elder’s team has 116 players on its roster. A total of 66 are either true or redshirt freshmen. They’ll enjoy testing themselves against an SEC team but they won’t be happy with the result. It should be a Wildcat Walk. (2-0)
Sept. 16 at South Carolina
Kentucky has won three straight against the Gamecocks, including a victory in Columbia two seasons ago. In 2013, the Cats played the ‘Cocks into the final minutes before losing by a touchdown. That UK team couldn’t come close to this one in talent, although SC is better as well.
Last year, Carolina lost four of its first six, averaging only 14 points per game before Will Muschamp burned the redshirt on QB Jake Bentley. The Gamecocks doubled their point production and qualified for a bowl game. They’ve improved enough to protect their home turf this time. (2-1)
Sept. 23 vs. Florida
Jim McElwain has suspended 10 players heading into the Gators’ season-opener with Michigan. And that’s not the only tough decision he’s made. Florida’s head coach has named Feleipe Franks, a 6-foot-6, 219 lb. freshman his starting quarterback, choosing him over Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire and incumbent veteran Luke del Rio, who led Florida to an impressive win over the Wildcats last season.
Everybody knows Kentucky has lost 30 straight to the Gators, the longest active losing skid against an opponent in all of Division I football. The streak is bound to end some time, although it actually should have disappeared in 2014, when the Cats took a controversial overtime loss in the Swamp. We’ll have to see it to believe it. (2-2)
Sept. 30 vs. Eastern Michigan
After falling to Florida, the Wildcats might get off to a slow start against an EMU team that played in the Bahamas Bowl season after finishing 1-11 the year before. But Mark Stoops and company will push the proper buttons to get the Cats back on course. (3-2)
Oct. 7 vs. Missouri
Missouri joined the SEC about as impressively as a team can, short of winning a conference championship. In fact, the Tigers had chances both in 2013 and ’14, making it to Atlanta both seasons. Since then, they’ve been an absolute non-factor in the East and they’ve dropped two straight to Kentucky, which clearly out-classed Mizzou in Columbia last season.
The Tigers will be improved this season, but not enough to hang up a victory in Lexington. (4-2)
Oct. 21 at Mississippi State
In the second-most exciting game of the season last year, the Wildcats rallied to beat the Bulldogs with a last-second drive, culminating in a game-winning field goal by Austin MacGinnis in Lexington. It was the only time the Cats have beaten MSU since Dan Mullen took over as head coach.
State will struggle to stay out of the SEC West basement this season but the Dogs still have a strong-armed, nimble-legged quarterback in Nick Fitzgerald. And he’s just the kind of QB who’s given Kentucky nightmares over the past few years. (4-3)
Oct. 28 vs. Tennessee
That magical day in 2011 keeps getting smaller and smaller in the Wildcats’ rear view mirror as their last win over the Volunteers fades from sight. They have a great chance this year at re-establishing themselves in what’s become a lopsided series.
The Volunteers may have lost more talent from last season than any SEC team this side of Alabama, including QB Josh Dobbs, who made a habit of crushing the Cats. UT has averaged nearly 51 points per game vs. UK in the past three seasons.
The Big Orange faithful is restless. Butch Jones has recruited superbly in Knoxville but his team has made a habit of getting well against the league’s have-nots. It’ll be the Wildcats getting well this time, touching off an epic night of partying in Lexington. (5-3)
Nov. 4 vs. Ole Miss
Kentucky’s rotating SEC West opponent last year was Alabama – in Tuscaloosa. The Wildcats traded the Tide this year for a Mississippi team that is caught in the throes of an NCAA investigation. Here in Lexington, we’ve seen what that can do to a football program, firsthand.
There is talent in this Rebel team that is accustomed to scoring in bunches. But on this night, they won’t have enough. (6-3)
Nov. 11 at Vanderbilt
It’s one of the certain victories on the UK schedule each year, right? Of course, Vandy fans say the exact same thing about Kentucky, and why not? The series stands at 43-42-4 in UK’s favor.
To find a Wildcat victory in the Music City, you have to go back to 2009, when a guy named Randall Cobb scored two touchdowns and Derrick Locke rushed for a career-high 144 yards. The Cats will find another one as they match their victory total from last season. (7-3)
Nov. 18 at Georgia
The Bulldogs might have the second-most impressive roster in the SEC and look to be the East team that will challenge Alabama in the conference championship game.
They’ve beaten Kentucky seven straight times, UK’s last win coming in Athens, as the Cats used three different QBs (Cobb, Morgan Newton and Will Fidler) to pull the upset in 2009. UK will be a hot team when it steps between the hedges, but the Dawgs will have too much. (7-4)
Nov. 25 vs. Louisville
By then we’ll know if Lamar Jackson has a shot at a second consecutive Heisman Trophy and if the Cardinals figure into the national playoff picture. Part of their 2016 late-season collapse, of course, was an upset loss to Kentucky at home.
The Wildcats, by the end of the regular season, will be playing with enough confidence that they’ll be able to shake off the loss at Georgia and prove that last year’s upset was no fluke. (8-4)
There it is: Eight regular season wins, the most since Jerry Claiborne roamed the sidelines at what we knew long ago as “Commonwealth Stadium.” So, yes – you can pack for a bowl game and it just might be at a warm spot – say, the Outback Bowl in Tampa.
But eight wins also could be a ticket to Nashville, Memphis, Charlotte or Houston. And if, somehow, the Wildcats could slip another victory onto their worksheet (South Carolina/Mississippi State are distinct possibilities) – they might be able to make a run at the Citrus Bowl.
Orlando would be a lot of fun on New Year’s Day.