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Top non-conference opponents UK could play

After participating in the 18th bowl game in program history—a 27-24 Citrus Bowl victory over Penn State—and landing just the second five-star recruit since 2002 (when Rivals.com began ranking recruits) in Justin Rogers, Kentucky football is riding high. While the recent success is cause for celebration, the program cannot rest on its laurels. This is a pivotal point for the football program, one where they can take the next step and gain recognition as a legitimate national competitor. The key to achieving this is for the program to schedule tougher non-conference opponents.

Being a member of the Southeastern Conference means Kentucky has an inherently difficult schedule, and with eight SEC opponents every year and a home-and-home series with Louisville, UK’s non-conference flexibility is limited to three games. Also, the Wildcats prefer to play two out-of-conference games at home, and they are not yet to the level where premier opponents would be willing to travel to Lexington. Essentially, this means that there is only one game available per year, and that Kentucky would have to make the trip.

Still, were the Cats to volunteer to travel to tough road venues, it would show a willingness to seek out the best competition, which would help improve their national reputation and give the Big Blue Nation a chance to visit some historic stadiums. Also, a tough out-of-conference game would help prepare the Cats for when they travel to hostile environments within the SEC.

So, if Kentucky is willing to take the next step by scheduling better, here are five theoretical opponents the program should consider adding to its schedule to increase its national profile:

5. Any decent Pac-12 team

A prerequisite for being a national program is putting together a national schedule. Washington and Oregon have each made the College Football Playoff, Washington State is a consistently solid program and USC, while in the midst of a rebuild, has one of the richest histories of any football program.

The Pac-12 has been down in recent years, but the conference should be looking to reinvigorate their own national reputation by getting opponents from other Power 5 conferences, particularly the SEC, to compete with their teams. The Cats would have a good chance of winning against any opponent, despite the trek from Lexington to the west coast. Recording a marquee win over a big-name school could open up a new area of recruiting for the program and finally allow UK to travel west of the Rockies.

4. Ohio State

It would be a long shot not only for the Wildcats to win this game, but also for them to simply schedule it. Ohio State is in the upper echelon of programs and already look to schedule a tough Power-5 opponent every year, so they may not be inclined to add an on-the-rise Kentucky team to their non-conference schedule.

If the matchup does occur, the fact that Kentucky and OSU constantly vie for Ohio prospects would provide plenty of intrigue for the matchup in terms of future recruiting battles. Also, should the Cats actually prevail in Columbus, it would not only aid in terms of recruiting but be one of the greatest moments in the history of Kentucky football. It’s just a shame that Ohio native Benny Snell wouldn’t be on the UK roster to add to the hype.

3. Notre Dame

Notre Dame is arguably the most historic program in the history of college football. They have recently scheduled an SEC opponent annually, facing Vanderbilt in 2018 and Georgia in 2017, with a rematch scheduled this season in Athens. If the Wildcats want to throw their hat in the ring, the Irish could be a willing participant.

What’s more, playing in Notre Dame stadium could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for UK fans, coaches and players. Notre Dame is a brand that Kentucky should strive to match, and scheduling this game would improve UK’s profile among even casual college football fans.

2. Penn State

Kentucky’s victory over Penn State in the Citrus Bowl proved they could compete with top-tier programs. That victory may have left enough of a sour taste in the Nittany Lions’ mouths for them to want some revenge.

Happy Valley, much like Columbus (Ohio State) and South Bend (Notre Dame), is a premier environment for players and fans to experience. Also, the Nittany Lions are another program that consistently competes with the Cats for Ohio recruits. Another victory would give Kentucky some extra cachet when recruiting against Penn State, and give the Cats experience with a tough road test. Plus, Mark Stoops handing James Franklin another loss, this time on his turf, would be a nice bonus.

1. West Virginia

This is the top choice on this list because it is probably the most realistic to achieve and would arguably be the most intriguing matchup on paper. The relative proximity of the two schools would make it a convenient trip for the fans, while Mountaineer’s head coach and Boyle County native Neal Brown’s stint as a wide receiver and offensive coordinator for the Cats already provides an interesting link for both programs.

Brown has put together a high-powered offense, as is typical of Big 12 teams, while Mark Stoops is a defensive-minded coach who has molded the Wildcats into a stout test for any offense. This game could provide the college football equivalent of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge, but most importantly, WVU might be the most willing program on this list to arrange a home-and-home series, allowing the Big Blue Nation to see a Big 12 opponent come to town.

College football schedules are set years in advance, so it could take several years before any of these matchups becomes available. However, that means that the athletic department must act swiftly to ensure they can schedule a difficult non-conference opponent. Doing so would pay dividends for the program on the recruiting trail and help develop the Cats’ national profile—and possibly give basketball a run for its money in the Bluegrass.


Kentucky’s run defense will set the tone in 2019

Kentucky’s run defense will set the tone in 2019

For the first time since his arrival last season, Mark Stoops fielded a top notch defense. The Wildcats were paced by a bunch of seniors including All-American edge Josh Allen who became the best individual defender in the country. Thanks to these efforts, the Wildcats finished 15th in defensive efficiency per S&P+, ranked 37th in the country in yards per play allowed, and ranked second in the SEC in scoring defense. Kentucky did all of this with just 20 takeaways forced (ranked 57th nationally). That’s really impressive.

Gone are Allen and all of UK’s secondary starters to the NFL. So it’s clear where first year coordinator Brad White is having to rebuild heading into 2019. Leaving the spring session, Kentucky still has major concerns at corner in addition to finding a consistent option to play the edge opposite of Boogie Watson (Florida State transfer Xavier Peters could help in this regard). However, UK looks to be very strong in the belly of the defense. You usually would rather have that opposed to the opposite.

It starts in the middle of the unit with your Mike linebacker and Kentucky has a good one in Kash Daniel. The former blue-chip recruit finally lived up to his recruiting hype last season in his first time starting. The Paintsville native posted 84 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss in 12 starts. Very solid numbers for any linebacker in their first year starting.

Where Daniel really shined was defending the run. He has some kinks to work out when asked to play in space, but he was excellent when playing downhill. The inside linebacker flashed some really solid instincts shown by his ability to consistently get home on run blitzes and having great timing when shooting gaps. His 9.5 run stuffs (tackles at or behind line of scrimmage on rushes) ranks fourth among all inside linebackers returning to the SEC in 2019. He’s a quality starter and will be a key cog in UK’s run defense.

During the draft season the story of Josh Allen and his development within the Kentucky football program became national news. The former high school receiver went from two-star to top 10 pick after just four years in Lexington. Following the historic year, he collected every individual award you could nab and will go down as one of the greatest to ever wear the blue and white. It will be hard to top his story, but the one of Calvin Taylor, Jr. has put together will be pretty close.

The Georgia native was an unranked recruit out of high school and a late addition to the class of 2015. Recruiting services pegged the 6-foot-9 prospect as an offensive tackle, but the UK staff liked what they saw from Taylor on the defensive side of the football. After two years of development, he finally cracked the rotation in 2017.

That year as a bench piece, Taylor ranked second among all defensive linemen with 22 stops before breaking through as a redshirt junior. This past fall he posted 26 tackles, but became much more effective with his six tackles for loss. But where Taylor really made an impact was in the running game.

The upperclassmen who has played both defensive tackle and defensive end in UK’s 3-4 scheme and recorded 9.5 run stuffs which tied for second on the defense. Obviously, Josh Allen left some big holes after posting 24 run stuffs, but Taylor feels like a guy who be due for a big time senior season. Keep up the development and the versatile defensive lineman who will be a very intriguing 2020 NFL Draft prospect.

Despite recording over 90 tackles and 19 sacks on a very good Cordova High School team in the Memphis area his senior year, Quinton Bohanna was marked a low three-star prospect by the recruiting services. Despite the ranking, Bohanna quickly became one of the most valuable players out of the class of 2017. The nose guard was a full-time starter by the end of his true freshman season and seemed poised for a breakout sophomore year. Unfortunately, an ankle injury suffered against Florida limited him this past season.

Despite the issues, Bohanna flashed during his sophomore season and recorded four tackles for loss to go with 4.5 run stuffs. He will need to prove he can stay healthy and play for a larger sample size, but he has the frame (now over 360 pounds) and ability to make a prominent  impact.

Quinton Bohanna, Kash Daniel, and Calvin Taylor, Jr. are set to be key cogs in Kentucky’s defense this fall. New defensive coordinator Brad White needs each to play at a high level. However, they are not the only answers this defense will have. Chris Oats and Joshua Paschal were both blue-chip recruits entering their sophomore season. They could be due for a big leap. T.J. Carter, Phil Hoskins, and Kordell Looney are three defensive linemen who have all played a lot of snaps. Davonte Robinson has all of the tools to become UK’s next draft pick out of the secondary.

The secondary and edge rush is a concern that will not be solved until the real football is played. It is vital that the belly of the defense steps up their game during this transition time. It’s clear that they have the personnel to take advantage. Stop the run and you’ll a great shot at success no matter who you’ll play in the SEC.

 


CBS Sports lists Kentucky’s schedule as SEC’s second easiest

A new report by the folks with CBS Sports has ranked each SEC team’s upcoming schedule, and they’re predicting a relatively-easy season for the Wildcats, especially compared with the schedules waiting for the other teams in the conference.

Here’s what CBS’s Tom Fornelli had to say about his seeding for the Wildcats.

“Kentucky’s nonconference schedule includes Toledo, Eastern Michigan, UT-Martin and Louisville; that Louisville game would have been a lot more valuable two years ago than it is now. The Wildcats also benefit from a relatively soft draw from the West in Arkansas and Mississippi State, and while they get Georgia on the road, Florida, Missouri and Tennessee all come to Kroger Field.”

Fornellia makes a good point. Kentucky will have most of their traditionally-challenging games all inside Kroger Field this year – Florida, Tennessee and Louisville, for starters. Then add in Missouri at home. Sure, Georgia on the road is tough, but that game would be tough for the Cats even if they played it in Lexington.

The only team with an easier schedule than Kentucky is Alabama, who plays Duke, New Mexico State, Southern Miss and Western Carolina. The Tide will also avoid Georgia and Florida.

On the other hand, South Carolina is listed as having the most challenging road. The Game Cocks will play Alabama, Clemson, Texas A&M and Georgia. Like Fornellia says in his schedule breakdown, there have been three programs to compete in the College Football Playoff National Championship in the last two years, and USC will face all three of them. Oh yeah, and a Kentucky team they can’t seem to beat.

Here’s a look at the entire list:

  1. South Carolina
  2. Georgia
  3. Texas A&M
  4. Arkansas
  5. Ole Miss
  6. Tennessee
  7. LSU
  8. Mississippi State
  9. Florida
  10. Missouri
  11. Auburn
  12. Vanderbilt
  13. Kentucky
  14. Alabama

Do you agree with the report’s order? You can read the full justification for each team’s ranking below:

[CBS Sports]


LIVE: 5-Star OG Justin Rogers announces college decision

@AllAmerican52JR

Justin Rogers, the No. 1 offensive guard in the country, is about to choose between Kentucky, Alabama, Georgia, LSU, Michigan, and Tennessee. Watch his announcement below courtesy of the Detroit Free Press:


Five-star Justin Rogers to announce commitment Monday

@AllAmerican52JR

Five-Star offensive lineman Justin Rogers will announce his commitment tomorrow afternoon a 4pm at his high school. The Oak Park, Michigan native has long thought to be a Kentucky lean, but over the past two weeks, Alabama has entered the fold to possibly throw a wrench in the recruitment of the prospect.

A member of the class of 2020, Rogers is the No. 1 player in the state of Michigan and the No. 1 offensive guard in the entire country. Currently, 24/7 Crystal Ball has him as 59% Kentucky with Tennessee, Ohio State and Georgia filling out the remaining percentages.

It is hard to know the impact Alabama coming at him late will have on the prospect. He is coming off of official visits at Kentucky, Georgia and Tennessee over the past month, but hasn’t made a trip to Tuscaloosa.

For each prospect that 24/7 Sports rates, they give a specific rating/prediction on what their career will turn out to be. For example, they call recent Kentucky commit John Young a “Power Five Starter.” Rogers’ prediction is even better. The site says he is already a projected second round NFL pick. That fact alone should excite Kentucky fans.

It’s no secret what a player of Rogers’ caliber could do to the Kentucky program. When I heard a five-star guard is possibly committing to Kentucky, I never would have thought it would be on the gridiron. That, though, is starting to change. Stoops and company have changed the game in Lexington and if he can get one five-star, who says he can’t get another?

We’ll have an update on Rogers’ commitment once he makes his official announcement Monday afternoon. Stay tuned.


Watch UK commit John Young go to work at “The Opening”

John Young is doing plenty of work for Mark Stoops on the online recruiting trail, but he’s also keeping up his end of the bargain on the football field. The four-star Kentucky commit spent the day in Nashville, participating in “The Opening,” a national football camp that makes regional stops across the country.

The offensive tackle is listed as the No. 4 prospect from the Commonwealth and the No. 30 OT in the nation for the class of 2020, according to 24/7 Sports’ final rankings. Based on these videos, it’s easy to see why.

Young is currently listed at 6-foot-6 and 300 pounds. He currently attends the Christian Academy of Louisville, but soon enough, he’ll be a Wildcat.


Wesley Woodyard hosts free football camp (and talks some smack)

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Wesley Woodyard may still be a Wildcat at heart, but that doesn’t stop him from talking smack about some fellow former Kentucky boys. Or, at least about Benny Snell.

Woodyard, now a linebacker for the Tennessee Titans, spent some time back at his old stomping grounds this weekend. 

On Saturday, he hosted a golf scramble to raise money for his foundation – the 16Ways Foundation, which is focused on helping kids reach their full potential through education, physical activity and mentorship. Then, he spent his Sunday downtown at the Charles Young Center, where he put on a free youth football camp. Fellow Cat Keenan Burton and current Titans teammate Jurrell Casey also volunteered their time and talents at the camp.

The UK Hall of Famer also used the opportunity to catch up with reporters about the current state of Kentucky football. After one of the most successful seasons (and NFL Draft nights) in UK football history, Woodyard is excited to face-off against some fellow Cats in the league.

“I’ll see a couple of those guys. You know, Lonnie Johnson [and the Texans], I’ll see those guys twice a year,” Woodyard told WTVQ’s Austin Miller. “I’m pretty excited about that.”

Woodyard also hopes he’ll suit up against Benny Snell and the Steelers eventually – he’ll have a special message waiting for him.

“Of course, man, one day maybe I’ll get a chance to see Benny in the A gap or the B gap. And I’m going to say ‘Snell Yeah’ on top of him,” Woodyard laughed. 

To learn more about Woodyard’s foundation or to donate to his cause, click here


@MaggieDavisKSR


Vince Marrow previews each position, including the one he’s worried about

Vince Marrow is as plugged-in to the heartbeat of the Kentucky football team as anyone, and he has a good feeling about the Cats’ chances during the 2019-20 season.

The Big Dog made a surprise appearance on KSR this morning, where he chatted with our own Matt Jones about next year’s roster. First and foremost, he’s feeling good about his Wildcats.

“I think we’re going to be very good, I really do,” Marrow said. “The schedule sets us up.”

While Marrow recognized the team lost a lot of talented players to the NFL Draft this year (although, he argues more Kentucky guys should have been selected), that doesn’t mean this automatically turns into a “rebuilding” year for UK. Just because they lost experience doesn’t mean the Cats are downgrading their talent. In fact, Marrow argues they’ve done the opposite.

“Here’s the difference: I think we had experience with those guys, the class that just left, because they played a lot. But… our running back room may be more talented than Benny [Snell], and he’s the all-time leading rusher here – the potential is better.”

That potential doesn’t end with the running backs.

“The tight end potential is better,” Marrow continued. “Y’all loved CJ Conrad; y’all are going to love Justin Riggs. Justin Riggs is one of the most complete tight ends that, when I look at it as an NFL guy, he’s 6’6″, 260 and running a 4.7, so he’s going to be a good player.”

He also added some praise for Kentucky’s quarterbacks – both of them.

I think Terry Wilson is going to be 110 percent better,” Marrow said of the Cats’ starter. “I loved the way he played, but you know, you’ll always have critics.”

And as for the Cats’ backup? Well, that’d be Sawyer Smith, and Vince Marrow is pretty happy with him, too.

“He was tutored by Neal Brown; came in and won nine games [for Troy] when their quarterback got hurt. He wanted to be here; he wanted to be here.”

That last part could be confirming the idea Smith was the one who actively reached out to the Kentucky staff, realizing they needed a backup QB option for next season.

But Marrow is always honest, so he did mention one position of concern: the cornerbacks.

“The only thing I’m worried about, and [cornerbacks coach Steve Clinkscale] is going to get mad at me for this, our corners.”

He reminded listeners of his similar worries last season with the team’s defensive line, and he says he was proven wrong, as “it ended up being the best position… The D-line played very well.” But the corner position is going to look very different than it did last year, with the Cats losing years of experience and NFL-level talent in Lonnie Johnson, Derrick Baity and Chris Westry.

To compensate for some tough losses at that position, Stoops, Marrow and the rest of the staff hit the recruiting trail. They brought in two JUCO transfers: Brandin Echols (a former three-star prospect) from Northwest Mississippi Community College and Quandre Mosely from Eastern Arizona Community College. They’ll also have Jamari Brown, Stanley Garner and Cedrick Dort Jr, who all took a redshirt last year.

Even with his worries at corner, Vince Marrow is ready to prove the haters wrong – again.

“Look at the pre-season rankings again. Look at all this stuff again,” Marrow said of a national bias against the Cats. “Hell yeah, it bothers me. It might not bother everybody else, but it bothers me.”

Let’s hope that bother once again pushes that Cats to a successful season – and provides some extra motivation for the cornerbacks.