We are only 84 days away from the start of the Kentucky football season.
Between now and September 1, there will be previews of players, position groups and plenty of preseason rankings. In mid-July the talking heads will assemble in
Hoover Atlanta for SEC Football Media Days. The prognosticators will condemn the Cats, pump up Will Muschamp’s South Carolina Gamecocks and proclaim Kirby Smart as the heir apparent to Nick Saban.
Kentucky’s opponents will receive plenty of praise. As people predict records, they probably won’t take into account match-ups, timing, etc. Allow me to handle that responsibility by ranking UK’s opponents, from least to most difficult.
12. Murray State
Kentucky hasn’t easily handled FCS opponents under Mark Stoops, but Murray State is still an FCS opponent. The early noon kickoff means Kentucky will start slow, but ultimately leave Kroger Field with a decisive victory in the third week of the season.
11. Middle Tennessee State
There are a couple reasons why this game is potentially scary. The Blue Raiders have a fifth-year senior quarterback who is the coach’s son. Brent Stockstill has a big arm and he’s big enough to take some licks and keep running. Their offense is led by Tony Franklin, Hal Mumme’s former UK assistant, who let’s the ball fly early and often.
MTSU has a lot of potential to score a ton of points, but last year their offense actually struggled. The Blue Raiders’ scoring offense was ranked 87th, scoring just 26.5 points per game. The game also falls on Senior Day. The most-impressive senior class of the Stoops era will refuse to lose their final game at Kroger Field.
10. Central Michigan
The Chippewas ain’t no joke. They won eight games last year and have been to four straight bowl games. Kentucky should be able to take care of business in the season-opener, but Southern Miss taught us in 2016 that you can’t take the season-opening mid-major opponent for granted.
Kyle Shurmur was actually second in the SEC in passing yards per game (235.3) in 2017. That’s really the only good thing Vandy has going for them. Despite their many losses on defense, Vandy’s biggest problem is that Alabama destroyed their soul. A year isn’t long enough to recover from that L.
8. South Carolina
I will never understand the media’s fascination with Will Muschamp. The bowl victory over a bad Michigan team should not validate their confidence in the Cocks, but it will. I’ll commend South Carolina for still winning eight regular season games without Pharoh Cooper. Jake Bentley is the SEC’s darling, and could have his best year yet, but I’ll believe South Carolina can beat Kentucky when I see it.
7. at UofL
It’s easy to be skeptical about this year’s Louisville team. They lost their best player ever, who is being replaced by a guy whose first start will be against Alabama’s vicious defense. If Jawon Pass’ will is not destroyed by the Crimson Tide, the Cards will probably have another high-scoring offense. But their defense…
Louisville’s defense could only do anything right when Jaire Alexander was in the lineup. Now he’s gone, and so is Petrino’s fall guy, Peter Sirmon. His replacement, Brian VanGorder, has a long track record of being very average and that’s exactly what Louisville will be this year. When the two teams meet in the final week of the season, it would not shock me if Louisville was playing for bowl eligibility (but in reality both teams will probably be 6-5 entering Thanksgiving weekend).
6. at Tennessee
The only reason this game is ranked so high is because Kentucky has not won at Neyland Stadium since 1984. Jarrett Guarantano is the Vols’ only redeeming quality. Jeremy Pruitt should bring the trash can back to the sideline to remind his players what they are.
5. Mississippi State
Dan Mullen’s departure should make the annual game against Mississippi State more winnable, but that change will not happen immediately, thanks to Nick Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald is Kentucky’s most frightening opponent this season. He’s “Tim Tebow Light.” One can only hope the massive dual-threat quarterback takes a step back while learning Joe Moorhead’s offense.
4. at Missouri
Mizzou is by no means a scary place to play. The last time Kentucky traveled to Columbia, there were about as many animals in the petting zoo as there were fans in the stands. However, a lot has changed since the Cats beat the brakes off the Tigers in 2016.
Drew Lock will probably throw for 4,000 yards in 2018. It took the Tigers’ offense some time to click in 2017. They figured it out in the halftime locker room at Kroger Field. After the Cats escaped with a victory, Mizzou lost to Georgia, then rattled off six straight wins by scoring an average of FIFTY ONE POINTS.
The No. 14 scoring offense in America in 2017, they’ll be in the top five in 2018. Kentucky’s defense should be its best since Mark Stoops got to UK, but you can’t expect them to stop the Missouri offense, just slow it down a little. If UK can play ball control with Benny Snell, the Cats can escape with a victory, but they’ll need at least 35 points to do so.
3. at Texas A&M
The most mysterious team on the schedule, who knows what Jimbo Fisher will throw on the field when the season starts in September. Unfortunately, this game is six weeks into the season. Whatever kinks Jimbo has to work through (like finding a quarterback) should be fixed by the time UK travels to Kyle Field, the second-most difficult venue on the schedule.
2. at Florida
The Swamp. That place will be rocking for the 7:30 kickoff on September 8. Dan Mullen’s second game as the Gators’ head coach, the former Florida offensive coordinator has a knack for making the most out of his quarterbacks. Felipe Franks has the most experience, but incoming All-American Emory Jones is the one that should make you worry. Recruited to play in Mullen’s system, the dual-threat quarterback is the ideal candidate to come off the bench and have a breakthrough performance, a la Lamar Jackson in 2015.
There is some hope. Three of the last four against the Gators have been decided by a combined 12 points. Maybe vengeance from last year’s loss is enough to motivate them to surprise Mullen’s team. Or maybe Mullen will continue to have the Cats’ number. It took a 51-yarder as time expired to handle Mullen his only loss to UK in nine years as Miss. State’s head coach.
Is there a scenario where Kentucky beats the defending SEC Champs? If Kentucky could beat a No. 1 team that eventually won the National Championship in 2007, it is possible (but highly, HIGHLY unlikely).