Mark Stoops has had Kentucky moving steadily upward in his four years as the head football coach in Lexington. Stoops inherited a mess in 2013. After the obligatory 2-10 season to get started, he promptly got the Wildcats to respectability, winning five games each of the next two years. The past two seasons have seen another jump, to seven regular season wins each. The pattern of making a jump every couple years is poised to continue, as Kentucky is off to a 5-0 start and a legitimate threat to make its first major bowl in over sixty years.
It starts on defense with the ‘Cats, as they’ve given up 12.6 points per game, third-best in the nation. That’s in spite of a schedule that has been frontloaded with conference games—three against SEC opponents and all three credible bowl teams (Florida, Mississippi State, South Carolina). Josh Allen, a playmaking outside linebacker is the disruptor on this unit and safety Mike Edwards leads up an experienced secondary.
The player that really needs to be on the national radar though, is junior running back Benny Snell. He’s already racked up 1,000-yard campaigns in both his freshman and sophomore year. This season, with four offensive lineman returning to lead the way, Snell has been even better. He’s already over the 600-yard mark; Think about what this kid might do if he ran behind Alabama’s offensive front.
Snell has gotten it down in his team’s three big wins. He rolled up 175 rushing yards in the Week 2 win over Florida, then piled up 165 more in a decisive win over a Mississippi State team that helped the Wildcats displace the Bulldogs on the list of top SEC darkhorses. In a key divisional game against South Carolina, Snell ground out 99 more.
Kentucky is hamstrung by a shaky passing game. Terry Wilson is a read-option QB who is better at running. Given the quality of the defense, along with Snell, the Wildcats can live with a passing offense that doesn’t generate big plays. What they have to get away from is mistakes and Wilson’s five interceptions are too many for a quarterback in this type of attack.
While the passing game is the most notable weakness, the bigger picture problem is whether the program is still at the point where it can compete at a high level in the SEC for an entire year. There are only two teams Kentucky recruits better than in this league, Vanderbilt and Missouri. That points to depth problems likely to manifest themselves in November. Furthermore, running backs who have to carry an offense on their back the way Snell does, start to wear down from the beating opposing defenses put on them.
Kentucky goes on the road to Texas A&M this Saturday. The Aggies nearly beat Clemson in College Station early in the season and the Wildcats are a six-point underdog. Clearly, oddsmakers haven’t fallen all over themselves in a race to jump on the major bowl bandwagon for Kentucky.
But the schedule still suggests that’s a reasonable goal. Even if you allow a loss to Texas A&M (which is hardly a lost cause), Kentucky can bounce back with wins over Vandy & Missouri. That would set up a big November 3 showdown with Georgia coming into Lexington. Let’s assume Kentucky loses that one. That leaves them 7-2 with games against Tennessee, Middle Tennessee State and Louisville left. If UK sweeps those three, a 10-2 season might be good enough to get them a Peach Bowl spot in the New Year’s Six.
So while Texas A&M and Georgia are the showcase games, the big question for now is whether Kentucky can run the table against Vandy, Missouri, Tennessee, Middle Tennessee State and Louisville. The depth and lack of balance leave me inclined to doubt it. But Kentucky football is worth watching from a national perspective right now and that alone is another big sign of progress for Stoops.
Speaking of the New Year’s Six, here’s this week’s national top 11, along with the mid-major team that will fill out the 12-team dance card for the big bowls. Projected matchups follow…
The 12th: Central Florida
Cotton (College Football Playoff): Alabama-Clemson
Orange (College Football Playoff): Ohio State-Georgia
Rose: Penn State-Washington
Fiesta: Notre Dame-West Virginia
Peach: LSU-Central Florida