We continue our "most important game" series, which looks at the most important game for each SEC team in 2014. These are the games that will have the biggest impact on the league race or hold special meaning for one of the teams involved.
Today, we take a look at Kentucky.
Most important game: Sept. 13 at Florida
Key players: All eyes will be on the Kentucky quarterback ... whoever that might be. Mark Stoops and his staff have yet to name a starter, but sophomore Patrick Towles and true freshman Drew Barker are the favorites heading into fall camp. Neither took a snap last season, but they are both going to have to grow up quickly with a trip to the Swamp looming in Week 3. It will be a good barometer, not only for this Wildcats team but also for the quarterback position which holds the key to success this season.
If Towles and/or Barker struggle on the road, it’s up to the defense to keep Kentucky in the game. The good news is that if there’s one strength on this team, it’s the defensive line. Ends Alvin "Bud" Dupree and Za'Darius Smith combined for 13 sacks last season, and though they lost two seniors in the middle, 350-pound freshman Matt Elam has arrived to fill the void at defensive tackle. Florida’s offense was down right ugly at times last season, so it’s not a stretch to say this could end up being a low-scoring contest.
It might come down to one big play, and Kentucky has one of the league’s top home-run hitters in running back Jojo Kemp. If he gets loose, watch out.
Why it matters: Year 1 didn’t go as planned for Stoops. Kentucky finished 2-10, and the team seemed to play worse and worse as the season progressed. The setback hasn’t deterred him or his players, though. They still believe a turnaround is imminent.
“Next year will be our year,” Dupree said prior to spring practice. “Next year we’ll come out and we’ll shock a couple of people. We’ll start off with the first couple games in the non-conference schedule, and then against Florida, I think we’ll be ready to show how much Coach Stoops has changed the program.”
A win against Florida would do just that. The Wildcats haven’t beaten the Gators since 1986 and haven’t won in Gainesville since 1979. That is 27 straight losses. And it will be on the players’ mind leading up to kickoff. If they are looking for a statement win to help turn the program around, this is a prime opportunity.
Knock off Florida and there is a chance Kentucky starts the season 5-1 or even 6-0. At that point, we’re talking bowl game for the first time since 2010. However, a loss to the Gators, and the season could just as easily go in the other direction.