With Georgia set to lose several starters, Florida beatable and everyone else a question mark the Kentucky Wildcats have a chance to steal the SEC East crown in 2020.
In the seven seasons, Mark Stoops has been head coach of the Kentucky Wildcats; the program has achieved a lot of firsts.
The program had its first calendar year that saw two bowl victories (2019), its first player named the Bronko Nagurski defensive player of the year (Josh Allen, 2018), first Ray Guy Award winner (Max Duffy, 2019) first Paul Hornung award winner (Lynn Bowden 2019) and saw two players named first-team All Americans in back to back seasons (Bunchy Stallings & Josh Allen 2018, Lynn Bowden & Max Duffy 2019).
One thing the program has yet to accomplish in their long history is an SEC East division championship.
Yes, the Wildcats did win the SEC in both 1950 and 1976, but both came before the creation of division play and an SEC championship game in 1992.
Since division play began, the Florida Gators have won the East 14 times. Behind them, the Georgia Bulldogs have won 10 while Tennessee has won six, the division’s newest member Missouri has won twice, and South Carolina’s won once.
This leaves only Kentucky and Vanderbilt without a division crown.
In 2020, that has a legitimate chance of changing as the Wildcats roster is becoming closer and closer in talent than their East division counterparts.
In Stoops’ first season in Lexington, the Wildcats went 2-10 and finished a winless 0-8 in conference play to earn a second straight last-place finish in the SEC East. Thus, Kentucky had to catch each team in the division in order to claim it’s first trip to Atlanta.
The Wildcats began to chip away in 2014 when they defeated both South Carolina and Vanderbilt.
Kentucky’s win over South Carolina would be the first in an eventual five-game win streak over the Gamecocks as they’ve been the more consistent program of the two since that day.
As for Vanderbilt, Kentucky has defeated the Dores’ in four of the last five games played since then and have not finished behind them in the East standings since 2013.
With South Carolina and Vanderbilt passed, the Wildcats began to check another opponent off the list when they took down the Missouri Tigers in 2015. The 2015 win over Missouri was the first of what is now a five-game winning streak for the Wildcats in that matchup.
Next up, the rival Tennessee Volunteers. In 2017, Kentucky defeated the Vols for just the second time in 31 years. While the Vols have won each of the last two matchups, Kentucky has won eight more games than Tennessee since 2017, including two bowl titles to the Vols one.
Kentucky still needs to prove they can beat Tennessee on a year in year out basis to win a division title and in 2020 will need to go to Neyland Stadium to win in Knoxville for the first time since 1984 if they want their first SEC East crown.
All in all, Kentucky has won more games in recent years, meaning they’re closer to a division title than the Vols.
That leaves two teams, Stoops and company need to pass in order to win the east; The Florida Gators and Georgia Bulldogs.
In 2018, Kentucky broke their historically long 31-year losing streak to the Gators.
As of now, Kentucky could easily be on a three-game win streak over Florida as they had double-digit leads entering the fourth quarter in both 2017 and 2019 but could not finish the job in either contest.
After going 4-8 in 2017, the Gators are coming off back to back double-digit win seasons under Dan Mullen, but in 2020 have some question marks that might make them vulnerable.
Kyle Trask did an outstanding job in 11 games as Florida’s starting quarterback after Felipe Franks went down with a season-ending injury, but 2020 will mark his first full season as the Gators starting quarterback.
In his first full season as the starter, he will not have 2019 starting running back Lamical Perine, three of his top receivers in Van Jefferson, Freddie Swain, Tyrie Cleveland and Josh Hammond, and starting center Nick Buchanan who are all out of eligibility.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Gators return much of their talent but will be without First-Team SEC corner C.J Henderson who declared for the NFL Draft.
While Florida always seems to have depth, much of their offense will be young, and their top defensive playmaker will be gone, which could help Kentucky who will have experience on both sides of the ball defeat them when they matchup in Gainsville week two.
The other team Kentucky needs to conquer to win the East is Georgia.
Georgia has won the division each of the past three years and took Alabama to overtime in the 2018 National Championship game.
Kentucky has not defeated the Bulldogs in the Stoops era as their last win over Georgia came in 2009.
While the Bulldogs have had the Wildcats number the past 10 years, the gap is closing.
In 2016, Kentucky came within three of defeating the Bulldogs, in 2018 forced them into a winner take all game for the SEC crown and in 2019 had the game in a scoreless tie at halftime.
Georgia recruits, as well as anyone in the nation, but many of the names who departed after 2019, will be hard to replace in just one year.
Jake Fromm, who’s been the quarterback each of the past three seasons for Georgia, has declared for the NFL Draft and the man who was supposed to be his replacement Justin Fields transferred to Ohio State.
Thus, the Bulldogs don’t yet have a starting quarterback for next year and will need to replace a three-time division champion.
The Bulldogs will also lose the nation’s best running backs in DeAndre Swift and offensive tackles in Andrew Thomas.
In addition, they’ll also be without 2019 starting left tackle in Isaiah Wilson and left guard Solomon Kindley who declared for the NFL Draft and starting right guard Cade Mays who announced plans to transfer from the program.
Thus, the Bulldogs will have just one starting offensive lineman return next season.
Another reason scoring points may be tougher in 2020 for Georgia is the departure of kicker Rodrigo Blankenship. Blankenship won the Lou Groza Award in 2019 awarded to the nation’s best kickers and has been one of college footballs best the last four seasons.
On the defensive side, the Bulldogs will return much of it’s starting unit that was among the nation’s best in 2019. Thus, it appears the Georgia offense may struggle, but the defense will keep them in every game.
With Kentucky set to have experience on both sides of the ball and home field when the two teams square off in 2020, maybe this is the year the streak ends.
For Kentucky, their path to an SEC East crown is simple. They need to continue their winning ways against Missouri, South Carolina and Vanderbilt.
Of these three opponents, the only one Kentucky will face on the road in 2020 is Missouri.
Then, they need to find a way to at worst go 2-1 against Florida, Georgia and Tennessee.
Is this doable? Absolutely.
On offense, Kentucky will return four of their five starters on an offensive line that was ranked 5th by pro football focus a year ago.
They will also have all three of their running backs and three of their top five receivers, and most importantly, both Terry Wilson and Sawyer Smith will be back and healthy and ready to play quarterback with Lynn Bowden heading to the NFL.
On defense, Kentucky’s secondary that shocked everyone with an outstanding 2019 season will be fully intact and only be getting better with a healthy Davonte Robinson set to return and LSU Transfer Kelvin Joseph eligible to play.
The front seven is also in good shape. Starters Boogie Watson DeAndre Square, Josh Paschal, and Quinton Bohanna will all return. Junior Chris Oates, who has made a handful of starts, will move into Kash Daniel’s spot, and youngster J.J. Weaver and fellow pass rushers are ready to step in for Calvin Taylor and T.J. Carter.
Not to mention, the Wildcats are always fueled by a national media that never seems to pick them even to win six games.
I don't think Jake Fromm leaving Georgia means the Bulldogs shouldn't be the favorite to win the SEC East next season, the Bulldogs may have the league's best defense in 2020, but Florida and Tennessee now have to like their paths to Atlanta a lot more following this news.
— SEC Mike (@MichaelWBratton) January 8, 2020
Thank you 🙏🏾 https://t.co/G9N6HuRBZm
— Cbdjrp (@CedrickDjr) January 9, 2020
Think we a bunch of peons it’s cool tho
— Allen Dailey Jr. (@Ymm_Allen9) January 9, 2020
The wildcard in 2020 will be their cross-division game with Auburn down on the plains. Auburn went 9-4 in 2019 but will lose their top pass rushers in Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson and have an overall young roster. Thus, there’s a real chance Kentucky can go down to Auburn and leave with a victory.
If Kentucky can finish conference play 7-1 or 6-2 at the worst 2020 SEC East crown is there for the taking. Can the Wildcats rise to the occasion and snatch it? That’ll be up to them.