We are only two weeks away from Kentucky’s season-opener against Central Michigan. Instead of getting into the nitty gritty on the Chippewas, let’s think about the big picture.
Mark Stoops has set the bar at seven regular season wins after achieving the goal in consecutive seasons. With 18 returning starters, some fans are ready to see the Cats take another step forward by winning eight or nine games. The pessimists point toward a difficult schedule and uncertainty at quarterback to question whether Kentucky can even become bowl eligible.
Advanced analytics say Kentucky will struggle to win six. Bill Connelly at SB Nation crunched the numbers using the S&P+ metrics to conclude that Kentucky will only be favored in five games.
Being favored doesn’t ensure victory, just ask the 27-point favorite 2016 Louisville Cardinals. The formula for UK football success is simple: beat the teams you’re supposed to and pull of a few upsets. Here is how Kentucky gets to at least seven wins, and who they can potentially upset to get eight or more in the regular season, something that hasn’t happened since 1984.
Four Must-Wins: CMU, Murray State, MTSU and Vandy
Aside from Murray State, these games will not be easy. Central Michigan won eight games in 2017, Middle Tennessee runs Tony Franklin’s Air Raid with the head coach’s son (a three-year starter who can run) at quarterback and Vandy’s offense will put up points with Kyle Shurmur’s arm. At least two will be ugly wins, but wins are wins.
Two of Three Road Games: Mizzou, UofL and Tennessee
Last year the Cats had to win three road games to get to seven wins. In 2016 they beat Mizzou and UofL on the road to reach seven. Winning on the road isn’t something Kentucky fans are accustomed to, especially at Tennessee, but they must steal a few against comparable competition.
If you compare each position between UK and all three opponents, the talent is about even. Missouri’s offense has the potential to be the SEC’s best, if Derek Dooley doesn’t mess it up, but nothing about Columbia, Missouri is scary. Louisville is a rivalry game that is almost guaranteed to be close no matter where it’s played (as long as you don’t have an angry Lamar Jackson). Tennessee might be the worst team in the East, but Neyland Stadium hasn’t been a fun place for UK fans since the 1984 season.
If you take the logos off the helmets and put history aside, it’s easy to see how Kentucky can win two of these three games to get to six regular season wins.
One of Two Tough Home Games: Miss. State and South Carolina
There are so many uncertainties in the two home games that close out September. Kentucky could win or lose both, but if they win just one there will still be plenty of optimism for the rest of the year.
You’ll call me crazy when I say Miss. State might be the UK opponent with the most NFL talent on its roster. Montez Sweat and Jeffrey Simmons give the Bulldogs the best defensive line in the league, Aeris Williams is a powerful runner that’s hard to tackle, but not as tough to bring down as quarterback Nick Fitzgerald. Miss. State has won eight out of the last nine against UK, but Kentucky won the last game at Kroger Field and Dan Mullen has departed, leaving a little uncertainty on the shoulders of Joe Moorhead.
There are two reasons why beating South Carolina is uncertain:
- Beating a team five times in a row is tough.
- Deebo Samuel is arguably the SEC’s best playmaker.
Jake Bentley isn’t scary (I might take injured Stephen Johnson over Bentley). Some may cringe at South Carolina’s nine-win season, but you shouldn’t. Their ninth win came against a Michigan team that had no business being in the Outback Bowl (it should’ve been Northwestern, but name recognition). The defense that carried the Gamecocks (SEC’s No. 2 in turnover margin and No. 5 scoring defense) lost its entire secondary and Skai Moore, USC’s team captain that led them in tackles for four years.
UK will not be favored in either, but if they play clean football and control the clock with Benny Snell, the Cats have enough talent to pull off at least one upset to get to seven wins.
Massive Upsets: Georgia, at A&M and at Florida
Nobody expects Kentucky to win any of these games, but it is possible.
The Texas A&M and Florida logos are scary, but each have brand new coaches who are looking for a quarterback. Playing Florida in the second game of the year actually plays into UK’s favor as Dan Mullen tries to figure out his team. The timing also helps when A&M plays Clemson and Alabama in the weeks leading into the UK game. However, both games are on the road. The Swamp and Kyle Field are two of the most difficult venues in the SEC and each opponent will consider the UK game as a must-win.
Beating Georgia isn’t impossible. Near the end of the season, if Kentucky remains healthy and has developed a deep passing threat to stretch out the opponent’s defense, they can do what the 2007 Wildcats did against LSU: shock the world.