Kentucky Wildcats season preview

Previewing the 2014 season for the Kentucky Wildcats:

2013 record: 2-10

Final grade for 2013 season: Can you blame Kentucky for the season it had? The Wildcats never found a quarterback, lacked playmakers on offense, and the secondary had to replace three starters from a team that finished 2-10 the previous season. Still, an SEC win would’ve been nice. It’s now been three years since Kentucky last won a conference game. But the 2013 team showed more fight under Mark Stoops, so for that we give them a D-plus, rather than a D.

Key losses: QB Jalen Whitlow, RB Raymond Sanders, OG Kevin Mitchell, DT Donte Rumph, DT Tristian Thompson, LB Avery Williamson

Key returnees: RB Jojo Kemp; WR Javess Blue; OT Darrian Miller; OT Jordan Swindle; DE Alvin 'Bud" Dupree; DE Za’Darius Smith; LB Khalid Henderson; Nickel Blake McClain

Projected 2014 starters: QB Patrick Towles; RB Jojo Kemp; FB D.J. Warren; WR Javess Blue; WR Ryan Timmons; TE Steven Borden; LT Darrian Miller; LG Zach West; C Jon Toth; RG Ramsey Meyers; RT Jordan Swindle; DE Alvin ‘Bud’ Dupree; DT Mike Douglas; DT Melvin Lewis; DE Za’Darius Smith; MLB Josh Forrest; WLB Khalid Henderson; Nickel Blake McClain; CB Fred Tiller; S A.J. Stamps; S Ashely Lowery; CB Cody Quinn

Instant-impact newcomers: QB Drew Barker, RB Braylon Heard, WR Garrett Johnson, DT Cory Johnson, DT Matt Elam, LB Ryan Flannigan, S A.J. Stamps

Breakout player: Forget the Air Raid attack. The strength of this Kentucky team is at running back, and the Wildcats have a handful of good ones. Kemp might start the season opener because of his experience from last year and his performance in the spring game, but don’t be surprised if Heard tallies more carries by the end of the season and has a bigger impact on this team. He transferred from Nebraska in search of carries, and he’ll get them in Lexington. As a Cornhusker, he rushed for 462 yards in two seasons, averaging 6.7 yards per carry.

Most important game: Vanderbilt isn’t going to move the needle like a South Carolina, a Georgia or even a Louisville, but Kentucky’s date with the Commodores on Sept. 27 is huge. It’s the Wildcats’ best chance to win an SEC game. The more the conference losses keep piling up, the more pressure there is to win one. Why not get it out of the way early? Not to mention, Vandy has won three straight in the series.

Biggest question mark: Who’s going to be the quarterback? The coaching staff was hoping for a quick resolution, but we’re a week into fall camp and still no word. Maxwell Smith has the most experience, starting four games each of the past two seasons, but Kentucky might be looking to go in a different direction with either Towles or Barker, a pair of former four-star recruits from the Bluegrass State. Towles has been on campus longer, but Barker is the future. Redshirt freshman Reese Phillips is also in the mix ... for now, but don’t expect Stoops to wait much longer before he makes a decision.

Upset special: The players have already circled the SEC opener at Florida, but there’s a better chance Kentucky takes down South Carolina at home three weeks later. If you recall, the Wildcats went to Columbia last year and played maybe their best game of the season, losing 35-28. The Gamecocks will be playing their fourth conference game in as many weeks, leaving them vulnerable to a potential upset, and if Kentucky knocks off Vanderbilt the week before, the pressure will be off and momentum will be on its side.

Key stat: Kentucky had just three interceptions in 2013. The Wildcats were not only last in the SEC, they were tied with Temple and Utah for last among all 125 FBS teams.

They said it: “A lot of people are sleeping on us. They have reason to -- we won four games the last two years. How can somebody win four games and play in the SEC? We had a lot of chances to put guys on their deathbed, but we really didn’t step on their throat like we should have and then twist the knife. We had a lot of chances, but we didn’t [do it]. Hopefully this year we will capitalize on everything and the chances we have to win games, we will twist the knife and step on their throat.” -- defensive end Alvin ‘Bud’ Dupree

Preseason predictions:

ESPN Stats & Information: 5.5 wins

Bovada over-under: 3.5 wins

Our take: The schedule actually sets up nicely for Kentucky. Assuming wins over UT-Martin, Ohio and Louisiana-Monroe, the Wildcats could have four, maybe even five wins by the middle of October. That would be a major improvement for a team that has a total of four wins the past two seasons. The only problem is the second half of the schedule is much more rigorous, so it’s important Kentucky gets off to a fast start. Best-case scenario is probably six wins and a bowl game, but more realistically this team is looking at five wins in 2014. The program is moving in the right direction under Stoops, but it’s still a year away.