Kentucky's coaches say they are pleased with a more mature Drew Barker, but will his off-the-field improvements translate to more consistent play at the quarterback position?
That could mean the difference between Kentucky making its first bowl game since the 2010 season and staying home for a sixth straight winter.
Let's take a look at the quarterback situation in Lexington:
2015 in review: Returning starter Patrick Towles (183-for-326, 2,148 yards, nine touchdowns, 14 interceptions) held onto the job for the first 10 games before getting benched late in the season in favor of redshirt freshman Barker (35-70, 364 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs). The Wildcats went 4-6 with Towles as the starter and 1-1 with Barker at the helm, defeating Charlotte and blowing a big early lead in a season-ending loss to Louisville. After the season, Towles and Reese Phillips both transferred, clearing a path for Barker to take over as full-time starter.
What's the buzz?: “We certainly had some quarterback battles since I've been there and there wasn't a lot of clarity a lot of times. I felt good about where we're at. He's unproven in games, but I'm very confident in him and what he's going to do and his ability, so I'm really anxious to see what he can do.” – Coach Mark Stoops on Barker
Key weapons: There is a lot to like about the talent that new offensive coordinators Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw have at their disposal, as every runner and receiver of note from 2015 is back. Stanley “Boom” Williams (855 rushing yards, 7.1 yards per carry) is one of the SEC's most versatile backs, and Jojo Kemp and Mikel Horton are valuable complements to the Wildcats' backfield leader. In the passing game, Dorian Baker (55 catches, 608 yards, 3 TDs), Garrett Johnson (46-694, 2 TDs), Jeff Badet (29-430, 2 TDs), Blake Bone (20-210, 1 TD) and tight end C.J. Conrad (15-149, 1 TD) all return.
What to watch: Kentucky fans waited nearly two full seasons to see Barker finally make his first start. While it came in a win, 58-10 over Charlotte, Barker (16-for-29, 129 yards) was only OK in that game and stunk up the joint the following week against Louisville (6-for-22, 128 yards). Barker's performance against a dynamic Florida secondary in Week 2 will be a strong indicator of whether he is ready to build upon last season's introduction to being a starting quarterback.
Next in line: Stoops says junior college transfer Stephen Johnson might contribute in situational packages that utilize his run-pass skills. Behind Barker and Johnson are Davis Mattingly, who walked on with the Wildcats last year, and true freshman Gunnar Hoak, a four-star pocket passer who early enrolled at Kentucky in January.
Grade: C-minus. There is some decent talent behind Barker, but Kentucky's success at quarterback this season will come down to his performance. It's one thing for those around the Kentucky program to be optimistic about his capabilities, but Barker actually delivering in a game would be another thing entirely. We haven't seen that yet.