2016 season preview: Kentucky Wildcats

Fourth-year coach Mark Stoops enters a pivotal year after finishing last season 5-7. Jeff Moreland/Icon SMI

Next up in our team-by-team preview of the SEC is a Kentucky Wildcats team that is desperate to make a bowl game under fourth-year coach Mark Stoops.

Key question heading into Week 1: Which Drew Barker will we see week in and week out this season? Barker, a former ESPN 300 recruit, has the talent to be one of the better quarterbacks in the SEC, but he was inconsistent in limited action last year. The low point came against in-state rival Louisville when Barker went just 6-of-22 passing in a 38-24 loss to close out the season. Some will chalk up his struggles to the fact that he was just a freshman who was thrust into the starting role midway through the season. But now Barker has had a full offseason knowing he will be the starting quarterback. He also has plenty of weapons around him with the likes of Stanley “Boom” Williams, Jojo Kemp, Dorian Baker and Garrett Johnson in the mix. Can he fulfill the expectations that came with him when he signed with the Wildcats?

Position battle to watch: Kentucky’s linebacker corps continues to take shape after an overhaul from last season. Two of the spots are locked up with Denzil Ware, the team’s top pass-rusher, at Jack linebacker (hybrid DE/LB), and Courtney Love, a transfer from Nebraska, taking over at middle linebacker. But the other two spots remain up in the air. Jordan Jones and Eli Brown split reps with the first-team defense at the weakside linebacker spot during Monday’s scrimmage. And both Kobie Walker and Josh Allen are in the mix at the strongside position. Kentucky also has De'Niro Laster, another Big 10 transfer, who could see time at multiple linebacker spots. There’s going to be a transition period when you lose six of your top seven tacklers from the year before, and the Wildcats are still trying to put all the pieces together on defense.

Missing in action: Kentucky’s defense suffered a major blow earlier this month when Stoops announced that junior defensive tackle Regie Meant would be out indefinitely to deal with a personal issue. Meant recorded 31 tackles in 10 games last year and was expected to start for the Wildcats this fall. The most likely candidate to replace him to this point has been junior-college transfer Courtney Miggins, who moved from end to tackle, but true freshmen Kordell Looney and T.J. Carter could see extended playing time with Meant out.

Make-or-break stretch: The toughest stretch comes in November when Kentucky has to play three ranked teams in four weeks, which makes the three games leading up to that stretch critical for Stoops and his team. Following a bout with No. 1 Alabama, the Wildcats play back-to-back home games against Vanderbilt and Mississippi State with an off week in between. Then they travel to Missouri for another winnable conference game. If Kentucky wins all three of those games, it’s practically a shoe-in for a bowl game. Even at 2-1, there looks to be enough winnable games on the rest of the schedule to get to six wins.

Best-case scenario: Looking at the schedule, if you count the games that Kentucky should win, plus the toss-up games, there’s the potential for seven wins. But this team also has enough talent to surprise one of the upper-echelon teams. The Wildcats aren’t beating Alabama, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see them win at Florida or at home against Georgia. And maybe this is the year they break the streak against Louisville in the Governor’s Cup. Either way, eight wins is probably the best-case scenario for a Kentucky team that is still building.

Worst-case scenario: Five wins or fewer. Kentucky can’t afford to have a fast start only to see it all fall apart in the second half of the season. It’s happened two years in a row now. This team is long overdue for a bowl trip under Stoops, but they have to beat teams like South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State to do that. If not, it will be another cold postseason in Lexington, and that will not sit well with the fans.