As the offseason approaches, we’ll begin looking at the key questions facing each team in the league. Next up, the Kentucky Wildcats.
1. Who will be the starting quarterback?
After leading Kentucky to its first bowl appearance in six years, it would only make sense that Stephen Johnson would return as the team’s starting quarterback in 2017. He took over when Drew Barker went down in Week 3 and finished with 2,037 yards passing, 13 touchdowns and six interceptions. More importantly, the Wildcats won six of their last nine regular-season games with Johnson under center. But Barker is expected to return from a season-ending back injury, and even head coach Mark Stoops admitted last month that it might be a little awkward. The most likely scenario is that Stoops will let Johnson and Barker compete for the starting job during spring practice just like they did a year ago. But unlike last year, Johnson should have the edge going in based on how the offense responded when he was taking snaps.
2. What should we expect from the defense?
Stoops is a defensive-minded coach, but it was his offense that carried Kentucky in wins over Mississippi State, Missouri and Louisville. The defense never seemed to catch up and continued to struggle in the bowl game, giving up 371 yards and 33 points to Georgia Tech. There’s hope, though. The Wildcats return nine starters on defense, including their leader in tackles and tackles for loss (Jordan Jones), their leader in sacks (Josh Allen), and their top two cornerbacks (Chris Westry and Derrick Baity). Kentucky also has 12 defensive players either committed or signed for 2017 that will help provide depth and in some cases, immediate contributions on the field. The defense should be improved. How much so? We’ll have to wait and see.
3. Can the Wildcats take the next step?
So Kentucky finally got over the hump, earned that sixth (and seventh) win and made a bowl game. That made the 2016 season a success for Stoops and the Wildcats. But why stop there? What’s stopping this team from not just going back to a bowl game in 2017 but competing for a division title? The quarterback -- both of them -- are in place. Benny Snell has a chance to be one of the SEC’s top running backs after a breakout freshman campaign. Four of the team’s top five pass-catchers are expected to return. And the defense will have nine starters back. This team has been so focused on just making a bowl game the past few seasons that winning the division felt out of the realm of possibility. Now that they’ve made the bowl game, the pressure is off. Maybe now Kentucky can compete with Florida, Georgia and Tennessee in the East.