Coach Jon Sumrall has a talented group of linebackers that will be tested in SEC play. (Twitter Photo)
It’s almost time for football in the Bluegrass. The college football season is only about six weeks away and for die-hard Kentucky fans, it can’t come soon enough. There have been a lot of pigskin prognostications recently by media outlets like ESPN, CBS Sports, and College Football News along with individuals that publish college football guides like Phil Steele about how SEC teams will perform next season. Most seem to think the Cats will finish the regular season at 7-5 and 3-5 in the SEC.
I understand that thinking. UK plays several difficult games this season that include LSU and Florida at home plus Georgia on the road. They also have several games that “experts” are calling tossups. Those games include Missouri and Tennessee in Lexington and Mississippi State on the road in Starkville.
So, the question seems to be can the Wildcats climb up over the hump of being a middle-of-the-pack team in the SEC East this season or will they continue to drop winnable games this season like they have in previous years? (Like the 20-10 loss to Missouri last year). In fact, the success of this team rests on that question.
Knowing that UK probably has three very likely losses to Georgia, Florida, and LSU due to the imbalance of talent between Kentucky and those three schools makes the tossup games and the ones where the Cats will be slightly favored that much more important
So, breaking the schedule down into three buckets shows that any slip-ups against beatable teams on Kentucky’s schedule could easily swing the Wildcats from being big winners to big losers. Here’s what I mean.
In the 12-game 2021 schedule, Kentucky has three likely losses in Georgia, Florida, and LSU. After all, UK hasn’t beaten Georgia in the last 11 games, has beaten Florida once in the last 10 games, and has beaten LSU only three times in the last 10 meetings dating back to 1997. It seems pretty likely that the Cats will drop those games. (My opinion is that if UK were to pull off an upset in one of those games LSU would be the most likely victim. I believe there is, and will continue to be, a lot of turmoil surrounding that program as long as Ed Orgeron remains in control).
That means to have a better than average season Kentucky must win all the non-conference games including the away game against rival Louisville, beat the SEC teams they will be decently favored against (road games against Vanderbilt and South Carolina), and only lose one game against Missouri, Tennessee and Mississippi State.
In my opinion, all of that seems doable. The Tennessee and Missouri games are at home which should give UK a slight edge. The Wildcats match up well talent-wise with those two teams so there is no reason for the Cats to drop either of those games.
The Mississippi State game is a little trickier because that game is played in Starkville. Only once has the road team won in this series since Mark Stoops arrived in Lexington and that was a 45-31 win by the Bulldogs in 2014. I would chalk the MSU game up as the most likely loss of all the tossup games.
If all the games fall out as I’ve predicted here it looks to me like the Cats will finish 8-4 overall and 4-4 in the SEC. That should be good enough for a third or fourth-place finish in the SEC East and a most likely bowl bid to either the Music City Bowl in Nashville or the Liberty Bowl in Memphis.
If they could pick up another win — especially against an upper-tier team like Florida or LSU — they could move up a notch in the type of bowl bid they would receive — but since they are breaking in a new offensive coordinator, new offensive scheme, and some key new offensive players it doesn’t seem likely that they can climb over the hump this year.
Knowing that the schedule has some very favorable home games, that the toughest road game other than Georgia will be Mississippi State, and that UK is returning what should be a very talented defense along with a stout offensive line and what will be two of the best offensive playmakers in the SEC this year in Wan’Dale Robinson and Chris Rodriguez, if the Cats win less than seven games this season it should be considered a step back and eight wins or more should be considered a step forward.
As most UK fans know, winning in the SEC in football is a tough row to hoe and although Mark Stoops has made tremendous strides in the right direction I believe Kentucky still has a way to go depth-wise and schematically to be able to play on the same level as a Georgia, Alabama or even Florida or LSU.
With that being said I believe the new offensive scheme should help the Cats take a step forward this season as they finish 8-4 overall and 4-4 in the SEC East with a most likely third-place finish.
So as football season begins to gear up, for those Leonard’s Losers fans out there, here’s hoping the old smart pill machine does its job again this season and those feisty felines from Kentucky get the job done this year. Get me out of here, Percy.
— Keith Peel, Contributing Writer