It’s a big year for Kentucky football, no matter how you look at it. Mark Stoops heads into his fourth season as the Wildcats’ head coach and desperately needs to get to a bowl game after his teams slumped down the stretch each of the past two seasons. This year's team certainly has an offense capable of getting to the postseason, but there are still a ton of questions on the defensive side of the ball.
Kentucky has a pretty difficult November, with games against the two favorites to win the SEC East, Georgia and Tennessee, as well as the annual rivalry game against Louisville. The ‘Cats also have to travel to Tuscaloosa midseason. Luckily for Kentucky, the schedule doesn’t appear to get too ugly too early. The Wildcats should have some winnable games in September and October.
Here is a look at Kentucky’s 12 regular season games, ranked from easiest to toughest:
12. Nov. 19 vs. Austin Peay
Last season, the Governors posted a 0-11 record, which, quite frankly, wasn’t a surprise given that Austin Peay has won only one game since 2012. The Governors are no stranger to SEC competition, but they were pummeled 47-7 by Vanderbilt last year. There really isn’t a good reason to think Austin Peay will be able to compete with the Wildcats late in the season.
11. Sept. 17 vs. New Mexico State
Head coach Doug Martin has a 7-29 record at New Mexico State headed into his fourth season. The Aggies did improve last season, but still won only four games. Running back Larry Rose III, who is on the Doak Walker Award watch list, should lead the offense in continued improvement this year, but the Aggies still have a long way to go. New Mexico State played Florida and Ole Miss last season, losing those games, 61-13 and 52-3 respectively.
10. Sept. 3 vs. Southern Miss
Kentucky opens the season with Southern Miss, a team that improved drastically in 2015 under former head coach Todd Monken. But with coaching turnover being a factor once again in Hattiesburg, we don’t really know what to expect from the Golden Eagles. One thing we do know is that quarterback Nick Mullens is returning and may go down as the best quarterback to ever step on the field for Southern Miss. That could be a problem for Kentucky’s susceptible pass defense.
9. Sept. 24 vs. South Carolina
It’s not that South Carolina is the worst team in the SEC, it’s just that, well, the cupboard is pretty bare right now. This is a good matchup for Kentucky, evidenced by the fact that the Wildcats have beaten South Carolina two years in a row. In a game that may likely be decided by which team has the best offense, it would appear Kentucky has an advantage in this one.
8. Oct. 29 at Missouri
A road trip to Columbia could be a bit trickier for a team desperate to get a few quality SEC East wins. Mizzou is loaded on the defensive front with Charles Harris and company. The key matchup in this game will definitely be Mizzou’s defense against Kentucky’s offense, and the Tigers probably have a leg up, especially playing at home. But can Mizzou score enough points to win?
7. Oct. 22 vs. Mississippi State
The schedule does Kentucky a favor midseason, as the Wildcats get Mississippi State off a bye week. The Bulldogs should be solid on offense once they figure out the quarterback situation, but Kentucky should be able to put up some points as well. The scary thing about this game for Kentucky is Dan Mullen’s track record against the ‘Cats. Mullen’s teams are a perfect 7-0 against their annual cross-division rival.
6. Oct. 8 vs. Vanderbilt
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Vanderbilt returns one of the SEC’s best defenses in 2016. Statistically, that is accurate. Like the Missouri game, this one could be tough for Kentucky if the offense can’t get going. Also, the Vanderbilt game comes just seven days after a road trip to Alabama, so the Wildcats could be a little sore. This will be a key win for one of these teams trying to get to a bowl game.
5. Sept. 10 at Florida
It’s the longest winning streak in the SEC – Florida over Kentucky. The Wildcats haven’t beaten the Gators since 1986, a time when Ronald Reagan was president and “Top Gun” was a hit movie. Florida has absolutely dominated this series, 49-17. But Kentucky has been awfully close to breaking the streak the past two seasons. This will be Florida’s first SEC test of the season, and who knows what the Gators will look like in week two?
4. Nov. 26 at Louisville
Bobby Petrino is in year three at Louisville, which is when he made his breakthrough as Arkansas’ head coach, getting the Razorbacks to the Sugar Bowl. This season, the Cardinals have one of the ACC’s most experienced rosters, with 16 starters returning. Louisville has multiple playmakers on offense and that usually bodes well for a Petrino-coached team. This team should be clicking on all cylinders by November.
3. Nov. 5 vs. Georgia
Kentucky hasn’t had a lot of success lately against Georgia. The past three outcomes in this series, all Georgia wins, were 59-17, 63-31 and 27-3. Stoops’ teams just haven’t been able to figure it out against the Bulldogs. Of course, now Georgia has a new head coach, so there are a few more question marks than usual. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel should both be at full strength by Nov. 5.
2. Nov. 12 at Tennessee
This would be the SEC’s current longest winning streak of one team over another, if not for the Derek Dooley years at Tennessee. The Volunteers have gotten back to their winning ways over Kentucky, winning the last two matchups handily, 50-16 and 52-21. The ‘Cats don’t match up very well against Tennessee, especially this year. The Vols are loaded on offense, defense and even special teams.
1. Oct. 1 at Alabama
Alabama is the standard. There really isn’t any other way to put it. It would be difficult enough getting the Crimson Tide at home, but having to travel to Tuscaloosa makes this one the toughest game on Kentucky’s schedule. Throw in the fact that the Wildcats have only beaten the Tide once since 1922, and the outlook doesn’t appear to be very bright for Kentucky. Hopefully, everybody can stay healthy.