The Kentucky Wildcats are just five days away from kicking off perhaps the most unique season in program history.
The 2020 season will look far different than past years amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Stadiums will be mostly empty, there will be no non-conference games and just 10 regular season contests consisting exclusively of conference games.
While it will look different, the Wildcats will still take the field with the expectation of putting the most talented roster in school history on the field.
Once the doormat of the SEC East, UK enters the 2020 season coming off back to back bowl championship seasons and with combined 18-8 over the past two years.
Expectations remain high, but putting together another remarkable season will be grueling with Alabama and Auburn on the schedule in addition to a loaded SEC East featuring three-time defending division champion Georgia, a national championship seeking Florida squad and an improving Tennessee team.
Can the Wildcats compete for their first-ever SEC East title in 2020? Here’s a look at their projected depth chart and game-by-game projections for the 10-game roller-coster season amid a global pandemic.
Projected Offensive Depth Chart
Projectes Starter: Terry Wilson
Projected Backup: Joey Gatewood *
Projected Reserves: Sawyer Smith and Beau Allen
After going down with a torn patellar tendon in just the second game of the 2019 season, Terry Wilson will make his return under center for the Wildcats in 2020 as he enters his senior season.
Wilson is an incredible 12-3 as Kentucky’s starting quarterback, including wins over Florida at the Swamp and Penn State in the Citrus Bowl. When at full health, he is among the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the conference and a proven winner.
If deemed eligible, Auburn transfer Joey Gatewood will likely be Wilson’s primary backup as he grooms to take over the starting position next season with senior Sawyer Smith and true freshman Beau Allen likely to be third and fourth on the depth chart.
Projectes Starter: A.J. Rose
Projected Backups: Kavosiey Smoke and Chris Rodriguez
Projected Reserves: Travis Tisdale and JuTahn McClain
Despite the depth UK has at running back, they have a clear cut starter in senior A.J. Rose. Rose served as the Cats No. 2 back in 2018 and primary running back in 2019 and has run for 1,305 rushing yards in his college career, leaving him just 464 yards behind Marc Logan for 10th place UK’s all-time rushing list.
Behind Rose, Kentucky’s three-headed monster also features Kavosiey Smoke and Chris Rodriguez who both ran for six touchdowns last season and will compete to get a leg up on one another to take over for Rose as the starter in 2021.
Projectes Starters: Josh Ali, Bryce Oliver, Allen Dailey Jr., DeMarcus Harris
Projected Backups: Clevan Thomas, Akeem Hayes, Isaiah Epps, Michael Drennen II and Tae Tae Crumes
Projected Reserves: Earnest Sanders, Kalil Branham and Izayah Cummings
Last season, Kentucky’s wide receivers were asked to shift their focus from catching passes to creating holes for Lynn Bowden on the ground. In 2020, they’ll be asked to become a much larger part of the offense as Wilson returns under center.
While there’s a lot of talent at the receiver position for the Wildcats, they lack a true go-to target. Josh Ali will likely be the primary receiver for Wilson as he caught 23 passes for 233 yards and three touchdowns last season, but outside of the senior, less proven guys such as Bryce Oliver, Allen Dailey Jr., DeMarcus Harris and Clevan Thomas who own just a combined two touchdown catches will be asked to step-up in a big way this season.
Projectes Starter: Justin Rigg
Projected Backup: Keaton Upshaw
Projected Reserves: Brenden Bates and Nik Ognenovic
Kentucky will look to get their tight ends more involved in the passing game in 2020 as the group combined for just 19 catches and a touchdown last season.
Senior Justin Rigg will be the starter for a second straight season after making 11 catches for 128 yards last season. Right behind him will be redshirt Keaton Upshaw who hauled in seven passes for 78 yards and a touchdown grab.
Projectes Starters: LT, Landon Young, LG, Austin Dotson, C Drake Jackson, RG, Luke Fortner, RT, Darian Kinnard
Projected Backups: Quinton Wilson, Naasir Watkins, Kenneth Horsey, Nick Lewis and Jermey Flax
Projected Reserves: Eli Cox, Jake Pope, RJ Adams, Deondre Buford and John Young
The biggest strength entering the 2020 campaign for the Wildcats is undoubtedly their offensive line. Landon Young, Drake Jackson and Darian Kinnard all enter the season as Preseason All-SEC honorees while Luke Fortner even was named to a 4th team preseason All-SEC squad.
The only question for the UK offensive line will be who starts at left guard, replacing four-year starter Logan Stenberg who is now in the NFL. The answer will likely be Austin Dotson, who has impressed at camp this summer while Kenneth Horsey is also in the mix.
Projected Defensive Depth Chart
Projectes Starters: DE, Josh Paschal, NT, Quinton Bohanna, DT, Phil Hoskins, DE/JACK Jordan Wright
Projected Backups: Abule Abadi-Fitzgerald, Marquan McCall, Kordell Looney and J.J. Weaver
Projected Reserves: Justin Rogers, Same Anaele, Josaih Hayes and Jerquavion Mahone
Josh Paschal will be moving back to his natural defensive end position after spending 2019 at outside linebacker, Quinton Bohanna is back in the middle of the line, Phil Hoskins returns after missing 2019 due to injury and Jordan Wright is set to take over for Taylor at the defensive end/jack linebacker spot.
Projected Starters: WLB, DeAndre Square, MLB, Jamin Davis, SLB, Boogie Watson
Projected Backups: Marquez Bembry, Jared Casey and K.D. McDaniel
Projected Reserves: D’Eryk Jackson and Torrance Davis
Perhaps the biggest question mark on the Wildcats depth chart is the linebacker position.
While UK has a reliable, strong-side linebacker in Jamar “Boogie Watson,” there are questions in the middle as Chris Oats is not expected to play this season due to a non-COVID-19 related health condition and Kash Daniel has graduated.
Projected Starters: CB, Brandin Echols, SS, Quandre Mosely, FS, Yusuf Corker, CB Kelvin Joseph, NB, Davonte Robinson
Projected Backups: Cedrick Dort, Tyrell Ajian, Jamari Brown, Moses Douglas, MJ Devonshire and Taj Dodson
Projected Reserves: Vito Tisdale, Joel Williams, Jalen Geiger, Carrington Valentine, Andru Phillips
Despite losing five players from their 2018 secondary to the NFL, the Wildcats finished second in the nation only behind Ohio State in 2019.
This season, the group should be even better as Brandin Echols, Yusuf Corker, Cedrick Dort and Quandre Mosely all return while Davonte Robinson returns after missing all of last season with injury and LSU transfer Kelvin Joseph is now eligible.
UK also has depth in players such as Jamari Brown, Tyrell Ajian, Moses Douglas and Taj Dodson, who all have experience and true freshman Vito Tisdale, who has been one of the most talked-about newcomers during training camp.
Matt Ruffolo celebrates his 50 yard field goal. Photo by Brandon Turner/Big Blue Insider
Projected Special Teams Depth Chart
Projected Starter: Matt Ruffolo
Projected Backup: Chance Poore
Projected Starter: Max Duffy
Projected Backup: Colin Goodfellow
Projected Starter: Cade Degraw
Projected Backup: Jordan Morrow
Projected Starter: Zach Johnson
Projected Backup: Travis Tisdale
Projected Starter: Josh Ali
Projected Backup: Travis Tisdale
Sept. 26 at. Auburn: Kentucky has a great chance to pull off an upset Week 1 when they travel to the plains to take on Auburn. The Tigers will be without their top two defensive linemen in Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson for a year ago and with Kentucky’s tremendous offensive line, may have a hard time stopping the run. Look for an upset victory from the Cats to kickoff 2020.
Prediction: Kentucky 23 , Auburn, 20
Oct. 3 vs. Ole Miss: Kentucky will play an unexpected game against the Ole Miss Rebels Week 2 in what will be the Cats home opener. The Rebels are under new leadership in 2020 as Lane Kiffin takes over as head coach after getting his career back on track at Florida Atlantic. He’ll have one of the SEC’s most talented offenses at his disposal with John Rhys Plumlee and Jerrion Ealy leading the way. Despite this, there are questions on defense for the Rebels and a new offensive system to learn; thus, UK should have the advantage in this early season matchup.
Final Score: Kentucky 28, Ole Miss, 21
Oct. 10 vs. Mississippi State: Another well-known head coach new to the SEC will be bringing his new squad into Kroger Field in Week 3 as Mike Leach and the Mississippi Bulldogs will come to town. Kentucky has not lost at home to the Bulldogs since 2014 but lost last seasons’ matchup 28-13 in Starkville. 2020 will likely be a bit of a rebuilding season for Mississippi State as much of their starting defense from a year ago is in the NFL and they lack experience on the offensive line which should allow UK to extend their home winning streak over their yearly SEC West foe to three.
Final Score: Kentucky 24, Mississippi State, 14
Oct. 17 at. Tennessee: While Kentucky has eight more wins than Tennessee since 2017, UK has only been able to beat the Volunteers once head to head in that span and have yet to win a game at Neyland Stadium since 1984. This season, the Vols figure to continue to improve after they finished the 2019 season on a six-game winning streak including defeating UK in Lexington and winning the Gator Bowl in Indiana. With Kentucky’s poor track record in Knoxville, it’s hard to pick them to come out with a victory here.
Final Score: Tennessee 20, Kentucky, 16
Oct. 24 vs. Georgia: Kentucky has not defeated the Georgia Bulldogs since 2009 and the past three years have been nearly impossible to do so. Georgia has won the SEC East each of the past three seasons, won the conference in 2017 on their way to the National Championship game. However, this season may see them take a step back with Jake Fromm, D’Andre Swift, Andrew Thomas and Isaiah Wilson all gone. With home field and more experience, UK has a chance to pull off the monster upset.
Final Score: Kentucky 20, Georgia 17
Oct. 31 at. Missouri: The Wildcats will spend Halloween in the Show Me State as they’ll take on the Missouri Tigers. Kentucky has won five straight over the Tigers which has included two straight wins at Faurot Field. Missouri is expected to have a rough 2020 season as they begin the Eli Drinkwitz era thus, UK should roll to a sixth straight win over the Tigers to enter November a projected 5-1.
Final Score: Kentucky 34, Missouri 17
Nov. 14 vs. Vanderbilt: After their bye week, Kentucky will return to action by hosting the rival Vanderbilt Commodores at Kroger Field. After reaching a bowl game in 2018, Vanderbilt struggled through the 2019 season as they went 3-9 and won just one conference game (Missouri). Kentucky defeated Vanderbilt 38-14 in Nashville last season and have now won four in a row over the Commodores and expect that to extend to five as Vanderbilt is likely to struggle with former UK quarterback Danny Clark taking over the starting job.
Final Score: Kentucky 38, Vanderbilt, 13
Nov. 21 at. Alabama: The SEC provided Kentucky no favors by scheduling them a trip to Tuscaloosa to take on Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide as one of their two add on games. Alabama missed out on the college football playoff last season for the first time since the playoff era began in 2014 but enter 2020 as SEC favorites with LSU losing much of their championship roster, Georgia also young and the Tide bringing back potential first round draft picks in Dylan Moses, Jaylen Waddle, Alex Leatherwood and Devonta Smith. While the jury is still out on Mac Jones under center, Alabama will likely prove too much for UK to handle.
Final Score: Alabama 38, Kentucky 20
Nov. 28 at. Florida: Despite dropping their 32nd game to Florida in 31 try’s last season, Kentucky will head to the Swamp riding a one-game winning streak at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. UK defeated the Gators in Gainesville in 2018 in a year that saw both squads win 10 games and in 2020, the Gators and Cats again figure to be Georgia’s main competition in the SEC East. Florida may be the favorites to win the division, however, with Kyle Trask returning under center, an improving offensive line and stingy defense, which may make a late-season game in the Florida heat a tough one to ask UK to win.
Final Score: Florida 34, Kentucky 26
Dec. 5 vs. South Carolina: The Wildcats will finish the 2020 regular season by playing host to the South Carolina Gamecocks. UK saw their five-game winning streak over South Carolina snapped last season in Columbia with a 24-7 loss, but with a young South Carolina offense and defense that will not bring back first round draft pick Javon Kinlaw, UK should be considered the favorites to extend their home winning streak over South Carolina to four.
Final Score: Kentucky 28, South Carolina 17