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Three Reasons Why UK Football Will Be A Surprise Team In The SEC East

Gunnar Hoak (Vicky Graff Photo)

By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer

It’s that time of year again. Time for SEC Football Media Days. This year the setting for Media Days is Atlanta, Georgia. There should be plenty of talk about the SEC West and which team can knock Alabama out of their perennial catbird seat. There should also be plenty of discussion about the SEC East and which team can emerge on top at the end of the season. Most prognosticators are picking Georgia to be the top Dawg this year but a few have mentioned Florida and South Carolina as potential winners with Tennessee and their first year coach Jeremy Pruitt along with the Drew Lock-led Missouri Tigers as dark horses. No one is picking either UK or Vanderbilt to even be in the race. Here’s three reasons why I believe UK will be a challenger this year.

Reason No. 1: Experience. UK returns 17 starters from last season. That ranks near the top of all teams in the SEC. The defense this year should be stacked with players that have been in the system for three or four years. Yes, the transfer of linebacker Denzil Ware hurts but Mark Stoops does have a good crop of linebackers to step into the gap. On offense the Wildcats return an experienced line anchored by sophomore center Drake Jackson that also includes CJ Conrad, one of the best tight ends in college football. With a great stable of running backs in Benny Snell, Jr., AJ Rose and Sihiem King UK will have experienced players across the board. Although QB Stephen Johnson has graduated the cupboard is not bare. Eddie Gran will be able to go with either a dual-threat type guy in Terry Wilson or more of a pure passer in Gunnar Hoak. Either player should be able to get the job done.  

Reason No. 2: UK runs an offensive scheme tailored to win in the SEC
Anyone that knows football knows that a team has to be able to consistently run the ball to win in the SEC. The Wildcats are set up to do just that. With Benny Snell, Jr. running as the featured back behind a line that will have talented, experienced players at each position – along with very capable backups –  and a great tight end in CJ Conrad UK should be set up to control the ball on offense and force the defense to stop the run. With either Terry Wilson or Gunnar Hoak – both capable passers – and an experienced and talented Lynn Bowden lining up all over the field the Kentucky offense should prove to be a fairly formidable weapon in the SEC East. 

On offense the Wildcats return one of the best running backs in the nation in Benny Snell, Jr. Along with Snell at running back are senior Sihiem King and sophomore AJ Rose. Based on his accomplishments in the spring game look for AJ Rose to have a breakout year in the SEC. Rose should be able to add some additional breakaway speed to the backfield and based on what we saw in the spring he appears to have worked on becoming more of a north-south runner in the offseason. Throw in a big, strong senior wideout in Dorian Baker – back from a season ending injury in 2017 – and speedy Tavin Richardson and Isaiah Epps along with Bowden in the slot makes a fairly formidable wide receiver core if they live up to expectations. 
Ball control will be the name of the game but don’t be surprised to see Gran dial up some vertical routes to Richardson or Epps if the defense starts to stack the box against the run game. 
Reason No. 3: No expectations. This is the first year in awhile that Kentucky has had a talented, experienced team taking the field for their opening game. Most prognosticators are looking at UK with a “glass half empty” approach. They say, “extremely tough schedule, no experienced quarterback and a defense that could not stop the run last year.”  All those are true but to me the positives of experienced, talented players at most positions, All-American type players in Benny Snell, CJ Conrad and Josh Allen along with guys that could have breakout years like Lynn Bowden, AJ Rose, Josh Pascal and the entire UK secondary makes the “glass half full” scenario much more likely. If you throw in some wildcard players like Jordan Jones, Kash Daniel and Jamar “Boogie” Watson on defense and some newcomers like Benny Snell lookalike running back Chris Rodriguez and a speedy and elusive player like Terry Wilson at quarterback you could have the makings of a team that no one wants to play in October and November. 
The bottom line is that no one knows how this team will perform in the season opener against Central Michigan on September 1st. If they perform well they could pull an upset against new head coach Dan Mullen and the Florida Gators in week two. That would allow all the pieces to start to come together and allow this team to gain some momentum and play their best football from weeks four through twelve. 
If they do – when the leaves start to change in late October – they could be right in the thick of the battle for the SEC East crown. 


  1. It sure looks promising.

    GO CATS!!!

  2. I can give you a lot more reasons they won’t be in the mix for anything; including a bowl game. When you come into a season with 1 “proven” commodity on offense, I don’t see much to get excited about. Yes, several players have potential, but potential can go either way. Stoops has proven he can recruit, and that is about it. I think Grans lack of offense really hurts this team on both sides of the ball. I’ll get excited when they prove they can at least compete with upper level teams.

  3. Hello Big Blue Nation. Debbie Downer here, and you can color me cynical.

    History tells a much different story about expectations for UK football. That is why this UK football team gets no respect from the SEC media, who actually understand SEC and college football better than sports writers anywhere else in the world.

    If this team is playing in December again this year, the 3rd year in a row, then Coach Stoops will deserve SEC Coach of the Year , and if this team wins 7 or more before December, then Coach Stoops will deserve to be on the list of finalists for National Coach of the Year.

    4 or 5 wins will be the story come Thanksgiving, and that assumes the Cats get by Central Michigan on September 1. Vegas has this game as a 17 point UK advantage at Kroger Field. I see it as a likely UK win, but by less than a touchdown. As a factor lending rise to further caution, just look at the history of season openers in the Stoops’ Era. Stoops’ teams’ openers have been marked by lackadaisical play, uninspired play, much closer final margins than expected, and unexpected losses. If the coach cannot have his team inspired, excited, and ready to get it on in the first game of the year, what does that say about the coach and his teams?

    Stumble out of the starting blocks this season, and getting to 3 wins may be difficult.

    Therefore, I want to the traditional Conditions Precedent to a good season around some numbers. What does the condition precedent, if the Cats “perform well” against CMU mean? I take Vegas as the expert in this regard, so if the Cats “perform well” against CMU, they should beat CMU by more than the Vegas expectation, let’s say 20 or more points, and if that happens, the Cats have provided a basis for a hopeful trip into the swamp the following week.

    However, let’s say the Cats beat CMU by less than 10 points? What would that portend?

    Shameful as the mere thought may be, what if the Cats sleep walk through most of the game on September 1, and their frantic flurry of activity at the end falls short and the Cats open with a loss? What would that portend?

    In about 2 weeks, fall camp will begin, and for about a month we will be entertained daily with observations by those allowed access to the team about how much older, experienced, faster, stronger, bigger, talented, skilled, focused, .. (you name the attribute) the 2018 Cats are. However, these proclamations will lack a frame of reference. Do these observers mean this UK team is all those things better than UK teams gone by? Do these observers mean this UK team is all those things as compared to average SEC standards?

    It happens every August, and yes, occasionally, those reports actually precede a season that produces results that exceed expectations, but those high achieving seasons have been rare. I suppose it proves the old adage that even blind UK sports reporters find acorns every now and then. I have sadly concluded it best to tune out this seasonal blabber about the upcoming UK team and season while I wait to see the team’s on the field performance in game 1. Game Ones have told us more about how the UK football team will perform over the seasons than all the August blabber combined.

    Fortunately, this August, we get the once every 4 years August with UK Basketball to silence the UK football frothing at least for 7 to 10 days, so it will be easier to reach September 1 without all the football background noise deafening the senses.

    This is Debbie Downer checking out for now. Go Big Blue!

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