2016 SEC East Preview: Kentucky Wildcats

After faltering late and narrowly missing out on bowl games in two straight seasons, Mark Stoops and the Kentucky Wildcats look to finally break through in 2016.

Kentucky's Adjutant General, Maj. Gen. Edward W. Tonini greets University of Kentucky football head coach, Mark Stoops at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington, Ky. Nov. 9, 2013. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Scott Raymond) Photo courtesy of Flickr, obtained via creativecommons.org. No changes made.

The Kentucky Wildcats started strong in the 2015 season, going 4-2 in the first six games with wins against South Carolina and Missouri. Things looked to be going in the Wildcats’ favor, but the final six games were not as promising. After losing five of those final six games, Kentucky ended 2015 with a second-straight 5-7 record, finishing 2-6 in the SEC.

Mark Stoops enters his fourth season at the helm of the Wildcats with an overall record of 12-24. This season is going make or break Stoops at UK. The Wildcats have not had a winning season since 2009 and have not made a bowl appearance since 2010.

Kentucky has to start finishing games and seasons, something the Wildcats have struggled with the past two seasons. With major leadership changes being made on the team, especially on offense, some are expecting an improvement to come Kentucky’s way this season — maybe even a winning record.

Strengths:

Coming off another less-than-stellar season, the Wildcats will be looking to make a positive change on offense. Shannon Dawson was fired after one season as the offensive coordinator, leading to the hiring of co-offensive coordinators Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw from the University of Cincinnati. This hire will bring a more pro-style play to the offense, especially for the running game.

A rush-heavy offense will give junior running back Stanley Boom Williams a major leadership role. Williams missed two games in 2015, but was still able to rush for 855 yards while reaching the end zone six times. Williams will also have a solid backup in senior Jojo Kemp, who ran for 555 yards and six touchdowns.

With 15 total starters coming back for the Wildcats this season, including nine different receivers and running backs, the UK offense could pace the Wildcats to a winning season.

Weaknesses:

The glaring issue for the Wildcats heading into this season is the defense. Last season, Kentucky’s defensive rushing and scoring stats were near the bottom of the conference. Defensive leadership is lacking in the Wildcats’ front seven. All but one of the starting linemen positions will have to be filled this season.

For Kentucky to hold its own on the defensive side of the ball, a definitive pass rusher will have to be found. If the Wildcats don’t find a way to stop the rush, they could be looking at another lackluster season.

Players to watch:

RB Stanley Boom Williams, Jr. Despite missing two games in 2015, Williams had a fairly strong showing with 855 rushing yards on the year. After suffering an elbow injury against Tennessee toward the end of the season, he was not able to perform to his best ability. Look for him find some redemption this season.

QB Drew Barker, Soph. Barker will be taking over the offense this season after Patrick Towels transferred to Boston College. Barker only saw playing time in five games last season, but threw for 364 yards. While the offense will lean more on the rush under new coaching, look for Barker to make major changes under center.

DE/LB Denzil Ware, Soph. — Kentucky’s defense desperately needs a pass-rushing threat, and Ware could be just the player it’s looking for. He had 39 tackles last season and was impressive in Kentucky’s 2016 spring game — making ten tackles, including four sacks. Look for Ware to be a potential breakout defensive player for the Wildcats.

Games to watch:

Sept. 3 vs Southern Mississippi – Most people will overlook this game, but this could be the most intriguing game on the Wildcats’ 2016 schedule because of one man — Shannon Dawson. After being fired from the UK coaching staff, Dawson was hired by the Golden Eagles to head the Southern Miss offense. With him on the opposing sideline as the offensive coordinator, this could be an interesting matchup for the Wildcats.

Oct. 8 vs Vanderbilt – Kentucky lost on the road, 21-17, to Vanderbilt toward the end of last season. That game was supposed to be a fairly easy win for the Wildcats. The same can be argued when looking ahead at this matchup. The Wildcats will obviously have the edge with home field advantage. Will they capitalize on it?

Nov. 26 @ Louisville – This Bluegrass State rivalry is always an intense game. Louisville took the win in Commonwealth Stadium last season, 38-24. This year’s regular season finale could once again be the deciding factor for Kentucky’s bowl chances.

Season Prediction:

5-7

Losses: @ Florida, @ Alabama, vs Mississippi State, @ Missouri, @ Georgia, @ Tennessee, @ Louisville

Edited by Nathan Odom

Featured image by the Kentucky National Guard Public Affairs Office