Kentucky put an end to its six-year bowl drought last season and returns 16 starters from that team. That puts head coach Mark Stoops and company in good position to make it back-to-back postseason appearances for the first time since the 2008-09 seasons and possibly emerge as a dark horse in the SEC East race.
To do that, the Wildcats will need to improve upon their 4-4 record in conference games and avoid any slip ups against their non-SEC opponents. One of the things UK has going in its favor schedule-wise is the fact that Ole Miss, which just saw head coach Hugh Freeze resign unexpectedly and is still dealing with a lot of uncertainty regarding purported NCAA violations, takes Alabama’s place as the Wildcats’ other SEC West matchup. Additionally, Florida, Tennessee and Louisville are all set to come to Commonwealth Stadium.
Here are Kentucky’s 12 regular season games ranked from easiest to most difficult.
12. Sept. 9 vs. Eastern Kentucky
The last time Kentucky faced the Colonels from the FCS ranks the Wildcats needed overtime to come away with a 34-27 win in 2015. EKU went 3-8 last season but some improvement should be expected with 13 starters returning for second-year head coach Mark Elder. However, the Colonels should serve as nothing more than a tune-up at home leading into Kentucky’s SEC opener at South Carolina.
11. Sept. 30 vs. Eastern Michigan
Like Kentucky, Eastern Michigan ended its bowl drought last season and finished 7-6. However, the Eagles from the MAC hadn’t been to the postseason in nearly 30 years and even with 16 starters returning appear to be overmatched, especially at the line of scrimmage, for their first-ever meeting with the Wildcats.
10. Sept. 2 at Southern Miss
Revenge will be on Kentucky’s mind for its first-ever visit to Hattiesburg. The Golden Eagles shocked UK at home in last season’s opener, 44-35, outscoring the Wildcats 27-0 in the second half. If Kentucky wants to return the favor on Southern Miss’ turf, the defense must focus on slowing down running back Ito Smith, who piled up 173 yards on the ground in last year’s upset victory.
9. Oct. 7 vs. Missouri
Kentucky has won two in a row against its newest SEC East rival and appears to have the edge, at least on paper, entering this meeting as well. Both offenses return plenty of pieces, but the Tigers are starting over in many respects on defense (3 returning starters) and this coming after ranking at or near the bottom of the SEC in every major category in 2016.
8. Nov. 4 vs. Ole Miss
Prior to last week this game may have been higher on this list, but the Rebels are a team in turmoil following former head coach Hugh Freeze’s sudden resignation. Already serving a self-imposed postseason ban in the midst of an ongoing NCAA investigation, what kind of effort Ole Miss will put forth given all that has transpired is anyone’s guess. This presents Kentucky with an excellent opportunity to start November with an important conference win.
7. Nov. 11 at Vanderbilt
Kentucky eked past Vanderbilt last season at home, winning 20-13. The Commodores are coming off of a bowl appearance and have plenty of experience returning. This could be a critical game for both teams’ postseason hopes. The head-to-head matchup at running back between Snell and Vanderbilt’s Ralph Webb should be fun to watch.
6. Oct. 21 at Mississippi State
Kentucky snapped a seven-game losing streak to the Bulldogs last season and is looking for its first win in Starkville since 2008. Mississippi State has one of the SEC’s best quarterbacks in junior Nick Fitzgerald but plenty of questions elsewhere on offense and is breaking in its fourth defensive coordinator (Todd Grantham) in as many seasons. A second straight win over the Bulldogs would be huge for the Wildcats’ bowl and SEC East title hopes.
5. Sept. 16 at South Carolina
Last season’s 17-10 win at home was Kentucky’s third straight over the Gamecocks. South Carolina could be a surprise team this fall with 16 starters returning as well as linebacker Skai Moore from a neck injury. The key to South Carolina’s success will be the improvement the offense makes behind sophomore quarterback Jake Bentley, one of 10 starters returning on that side of the ball.
4. Oct. 28 vs. Tennessee
The Volunteers have beaten the Wildcats five straight times, including last season’s 49-36 high-scoring affair. Kentucky has a clear advantage in terms of returning experience, but that may not be as much of a factor once this game comes around in late October. What will be, however, is the Wildcats’ success running the ball against a Tennessee defense that gave up nearly 220 rushing yards per game last season and returns just one starter up front.
3. Nov. 25 vs. Louisville
Kentucky stunned the Cardinals at home 41-38 last season, starting Louisville on its season-ending, three-game losing streak. The Wildcats forced eventual Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson into four turnovers, as his fumble set up the game-winning field goal. Jackson is back but most of his top weapons from last season are gone, although Louisville’s defense is in decent shape with seven returning starters. This rivalry game could become even more important should both teams be jockeying for bowl position, or especially bowl eligibility, entering their regular season finale.
2. Sept. 23 vs. Florida
The only number that matters here is 30. The Gators have beaten Kentucky 30 straight games, a streak that goes back to 1987. With Florida having to replace eight starters on a defense that was among the best in FBS in total yards, points and rushing yards allowed per game last season, the timing could be right for the Wildcats’ offense to take advantage. Kentucky has come close a few times to beating the Gators in recent seasons; so if the Wildcats are serious about being a threat to win the SEC East, this would be the year to put an end to this streak.
1. Nov. 18 at Georgia
Kentucky’s prolonged lack of success against Florida notwithstanding, the Bulldogs are the favorite to win the SEC East this season. Georgia has won seven in a row against the Wildcats and holds a 28-4-2 edge at home in the all-time series. Kirby Smart enters his second year as head coach with all 11 starters back from his No. 16-ranked defense. The Bulldogs also should be able to run the ball effectively with their one-two backfield combo of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel and quarterback Jacob Eason is expected to take a step forward as a sophomore. Sandwiched by a road game at Vanderbilt and the season finale with Louisville, this figures to be another tough trip to Athens for UK.