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Season report card: Kentucky Wildcats

Through the first half of the season, Kentucky’s grades would have been much higher. The Wildcats started 5-1 and were one victory from becoming bowl eligible, and there was even some talk of winning the SEC East.

But that’s when the wheels fell off. Kentucky lost its final six games and missed the postseason for the fourth consecutive year. The program is still trending up under head coach Mark Stoops, but this season proved to be a difficult one for both the players and the fans.

Offense: Let’s start with the bright spots. Quarterback Patrick Towles looked to be the right choice early in the season, making throws some of us didn’t think he was capable of making. He tailed off down the stretch, but that wasn’t all on him. The running game was a disappointment given the talent in Kentucky’s backfield, but the emergence of freshman Stanley “Boom” Williams gives fans hope for the future. Williams rushed for 100 yards or more twice in the final three games and averaged 6.5 yards per carry on the season. The struggles came primarily up front on an offensive line that allowed 36 sacks and 84 tackles for loss. Grade: C

Defense: This was supposed to be the strength of the Wildcats, and it looked to be just that through the first six games. They were getting to the quarterback, forcing turnovers -- everything you want from your defense. However, it all changed after a 41-3 beatdown at LSU on Oct. 18. Kentucky allowed 40 or more points in five of its last six games, and the sacks, turnovers and third-down stops, they all dropped off significantly. It was embarrassing for Stoops, who prides himself on defense. Grade: D

Special teams: Thanks to freshman kicker Austin MacGinnis, Kentucky led the SEC in field goals made. MacGinnis finished 21 of 27 on the year, including three field goals of 50 or more yards. He was named first-team All-SEC by the Associated Press. The rest of the special-teams unit? Not so great. The Wildcats finished toward the bottom of the conference in both kick and punt coverage and allowed an SEC-worst four return touchdowns. Punter Landon Foster was middle-of-the-pack, averaging 42.58 yards per punt. Grade: C

Coaching: It wasn’t the season Kentucky was hoping for, but Stoops and his staff deserve some credit. There was significant improvement from their first year, and for the first time in a while, Wildcats fans were talking about football rather than basketball in early October. The second-half collapse doesn’t look good, but the team didn’t ever give up. They played tough against Mississippi State (ranked No. 1 at the time), and in the season finale at Louisville, which came down to the final possession. A win there and this team goes bowling. Grade: B-minus

Overall: It’s amazing how much a bowl game and a bowl victory can change what was otherwise a mediocre season. Just ask Tennessee. But Kentucky wasn’t afforded that luxury. The six-game slide sealed this team’s fate. But let’s not forget that the Wildcats did win their first SEC game since 2011, ending a 17-game conference losing streak. And they were just one play away from beating Florida for the first time in 28 years. Those are signs of a program making progress, and while this season turned sour in a hurry, the future remains bright. Grade: C