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SEC Preview: Kentucky

By Matt Smith
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Matt Smith previews the 2020 Kentucky Wildcats.

Head Coach: Mark Stoops – eighth season at Kentucky and overall (44-44 overall, 20-36 SEC)
Offensive Coordinator: Eddie Gran (fifth season)
Defensive Coordinator: Brad White (second season)
2019 Recap: 8-5 (3-5 SEC); defeated Virginia Tech in Belk Bowl
Despite losing starting quarterback Terry Wilson to a knee injury in Week 2, the Wildcats reinvented their offense by ultimately shifting wide receiver Lynn Bowden to quarterback. The passing game was very limited, but the Wildcats scraped together wins over Arkansas, Louisville, Missouri and Vanderbilt to reach the seven-win mark in the regular season for the fourth straight year. Bowden amassed 1,871 yards in total offense, despite completing just 35 passes. The defense was a typical, feisty Mark Stoops defense, holding opponents to under 20 points per game. The season was capped by a comeback win over Virginia Tech in the Belk Bowl.

2020 Schedule
Sept. 26 – at Auburn (Noon ET, SEC Network)
Oct. 3 – OLE MISS (4 p.m. ET, SEC Network)
Oct. 17 – at Tennessee
Oct. 24 – GEORGIA
Oct. 31 – at Missouri (Noon ET, SEC Network)
Nov. 7 – Idle
Nov. 21 – at Alabama
Nov. 28 – at Florida

Under Center
Wilson returns after a serious knee injury in Week 2 last season. As a junior, Wilson helped lead the Wildcats to their first 10-win season in 40 years. He’s not an overly gifted thrower, but did manage to complete 67 percent of his passes in 2018. Wilson is a threat as a runner as well. Kentucky has been excellent at maximizing the talent it has, and Wilson is no exception. If healthy, this should be his job for all 10 games.

The wild card is Auburn transfer Joey Gatewood, an Auburn transfer with more prototypical size. Gatewood, still waiting on a final eligibility ruling from the NCAA, was beaten out as a redshirt freshman by Bo Nix. Gatewood is a dual-threat quarterback as well, but his powerful running style differs more from the agile style of Wilson. Kentucky may have one quarterback or it may have two, but the best news is that the ‘Cats don’t need eye-popping numbers from their signal-callers in order to clear a gradually increasing bar that Stoops has set for his program.

In The Trenches
Kentucky’s offensive line may be the least-talked about unit in the SEC that has a chance to be great. Four starters are back, and all four could be NFL Draft picks. This group was the unsung hero of last season’s 8-5 campaign. Receiver-turned-quarterback Bowden garnered most of the accolades, but the reimagined offense could never have been as effective as it was without a rock-solid offensive line. 80 percent of it is back, and this group should carry the ‘Cats yet again.

Despite playing with a very inexperienced secondary, Kentucky’s front seven propelled the group to hold all 12 regular-season opponents to under 30 points. Stoops has maintained quality depth in the front seven, and the 2020 version is no different. Senior Jamar Watson should be the top edge rusher after recording 6.5 sacks as a junior, while fellow senior Quinton Bohanna is an effective nose guard.

On The Edge
The ‘Cats have lost two great talents over the last two seasons with the departures of Bowden and Benny Snell Jr. The backfield still looks solid though with senior A.J. Rose and sophomore Kavosiey Smoke, who each found the end zone six times last season. The receiving corps had such a dramatic change in job duties last year after Bowden moved to quarterback that’s it not clear what the Wildcats have in terms of passing game playmakers.

The secondary, which was completely gutted after the 2018 season, now has some experience. Even with all the youth last season, Kentucky still only allowed just nine passing touchdowns in 13 games and finished tied for fourth in the SEC with just 6.2 yards allowed per passing attempt. Keep an eye on LSU transfer Kelvin Joseph, who sat out last season as an undergraduate transfer.

Ranking The Units
1.   Offensive Line
2.   Running Backs
3.   Defensive Line
4.   Linebackers
5.   Defensive Backs
6.   Quarterbacks
7.   Receivers

Schedule Analysis
Kentucky added Alabama and Ole Miss as the rotating games, which did little to change the expectation that this team should get to .500 in SEC play. There are two instances of tough back-to-back games, but most of the winnable games are in Lexington. Getting a December home game against South Carolina is a plus, as is catching Georgia at home in between the ‘Dawgs’ games with Alabama and Florida.

Season Prediction
Everything points to a .500 season for the Wildcats, and I see no reason to deviate from that. In that sense, it could be a bit of a boring season in which Kentucky beats the teams it’s supposed to beat and loses to the division title contenders. The best chances for an upset probably come in the opener at Auburn or on Thanksgiving weekend at Florida, especially if the Gators are out of the SEC title race by then.

Record: 5-5
CFP Ranking: 25

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.