Mark Stoops seems to believe his Kentucky squad is ready to push its way upward in the SEC East standings after making steady progress on the recruiting trail and in spurts on the field.
With a quality player such as preseason All-SEC pick A.J. Stamps at safety and some impressive skill talent running new offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson’s “Air Raid” offense, Stoops is correct in saying that Kentucky’s roster has improved. But the Wildcats must pull multiple upsets in order to qualify for their first postseason appearance since the 2010 season.
Can Kentucky get over the hump this season? It’s not going to be easy.
2014 record and bowl result: 5-7, did not play in a bowl game
Most important player: Stanley Williams. “Boom” was easily Kentucky’s most productive offensive player as a freshman. He led the team with 486 rushing yards (and 6.6 yards per carry), caught 17 passes for 162 yards and was the Wildcats’ leading kickoff returner with 26.9 yards per return. His 115.9 all-purpose yards per game ranked eighth in the SEC. It’s only reasonable for a team seeking an offensive spark to lean heavily on the speedy, versatile back again this fall.
Breakout player: Patrick Towles. Let’s assume Towles holds off Drew Barker for the starting quarterback job, as he has considerably more game experience. Towles is a big (6-foot-5, 240 pounds), athletic junior who had a decent first season as a starter. He was fifth in the SEC with 2,718 passing yards, is the league’s second-best returning passer (trailing only Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott) and can make good things happen with his legs. He could post big numbers in another season as a starter.
Most important game: Sept. 5 vs. Louisiana-Lafayette. Realistically, the answer is probably Kentucky’s conference games against South Carolina, Tennessee and Vanderbilt. Those might determine whether the Wildcats reach bowl eligibility in Stoops’ third season as head coach. But when your team crumbled down the stretch the way Kentucky did last year, the first game carries major importance. Ending the six-game losing streak from last season is job No. 1, and Louisiana-Lafayette is Kentucky’s first 2015 opponent.
Biggest question mark: What do we make of the D-line? Any defensive success Kentucky enjoyed last season centered around bookends Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith, who respectively became first-round and fourth-round NFL draft picks. What should we expect from Kentucky’s defensive line now? Nose tackle Melvin Lewis and defensive end Farrington Huguenin seem ready to play bigger roles. What about massive sophomore Matt Elam or some of the Wildcats’ well-regarded 2015 signees? A strong front would be of great assistance to a still-developing secondary.
Class of 2015 signee to watch: Former ESPN 300 safety Marcus Walker certainly has a chance to make an impact early. At 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds, Walker already has the size and athletic ability to contribute on special teams. Walker was Kentucky’s highest-rated signee for the 2015 class and Stoops will likely waste little time getting the talented prospect on the field. Linebacker Eli Brown is another prospect who could also play early in his career. -- Derek Tyson
Class of 2016 storyline: The Wildcats have jumped out to a hot start in this recruiting cycle, allowing Stoops to be selective on the remaining slots. Kentucky has 22 commitments already and two of those commitments, Landon Young and Drake Jackson, are ESPN 300 offensive linemen. Kentucky also has two other offensive line pledges from three-star guard Luke Fortner and junior college prospect Tate Leavitt. The Wildcats also have a commitment from four-star pocket passer Gunnar Hoak. -- Derek Tyson
Best-case scenario: It’s difficult to see Kentucky making a huge leap in the number of wins, even if the Wildcats are a better team. We’ll likely know by October -- after home games with Louisiana-Lafayette, Florida and Missouri and a Sept. 12 date at South Carolina -- whether Kentucky has a legitimate chance to reach the postseason. If it somehow makes it through that stretch at .500 or better, a season with at least six wins becomes much more possible.
Worst-case scenario: The Wildcats were tantalizingly close to reaching bowl eligibility last season. If not for heart-wrenching losses to Florida and Louisville, it would have happened. It seemed likely when Kentucky jumped out to a 5-1 record, with the only blemish being the triple-overtime loss to the Gators. Nonetheless, a blowout loss to LSU sent the Wildcats spiraling into a six-game losing streak to end the season. After witnessing that implosion, a four-win or five-win season seems within the realm of possibilities.
2015 prediction: 5-7