The Wildcats have three of their toughest matchups coming in the final five contests
For a Kentucky Wildcats team that entered its bye week 5-1 and a contender in the SEC East, a 7-6 finish was certainly a disappointment. The Wildcats lost their final two regular-season games by an average of 28 points before falling by the slimmest of margins in the Music City Bowl, a 24-23 loss to Northwestern.
The quarterback position will be one to watch come Week 1 and as the season unfolds. Stephen Johnson’s graduation leaves junior college transfer Terry Wilson and sophomore Gunnar Hoak to compete for the starting spot.
As Mark Stoops enters his sixth season at Kentucky winless in two bowl games, the pressure will be on the head coach to finish a season as well as he starts it. Four of Kentucky’s final five opponents -- including road games against Missouri and the season finale against Louisville -- finished with winning records last season, so Stoops certainly will have his work cut out for him in 2018.
Here's a look at how that schedule unfolds, from the easiest games to the toughest:
12. Sept. 15 vs. Murray State
The Racers from the FCS ranks finished 3-8 in 2017 and are not exactly one of the Ohio Valley Conference's premier programs. Dates with Mississippi State, South Carolina and Texas A&M loom over the next three weeks, so expect the Wildcats to take care of business early.
11. Sept. 1 vs. Central Michigan
The Wildcats open the season at home against Central Michigan. And they’ll start things off with a win. The Chippewas are winless in six tries against Kentucky, a streak that will move to seven after Sept. 1.
10. Nov. 17 vs. Middle Tennessee
The Blue Raiders always seem to surprise and play well down the stretch, and they return a lot of experience with 15 starters coming back. But in Kentucky’s final home game of the year, the Wildcats should be able to grab a win, a victory they might need to become bowl eligible.
9. Oct. 20 vs. Vanderbilt
Kentucky hosts the Commodores in its first game after the bye week. This should be an improved Vanderbilt team from a season ago, but the home team should prevail easily here.
8. Nov. 10 at Tennessee
Jeremy Pruitt inherits a Tennessee squad that was winless in SEC play last year en route to a 4-8 campaign. The only reason this game is not listed among Kentucky’s three easiest is because the Wildcats travel to Neyland Stadium. But the Volunteers need to show they can win before they can be seen as a favorite against SEC opposition.
7. Sept. 8 at Florida
Dan Mullen makes his return to the Florida sidelines this season to lead a team that should logically improve on last year’s abysmal 4-7 season. Kentucky’s first game on the road in 2018 could definitely go either way.
6. Sept. 22 vs. Mississippi State
First-year head coach Joe Moorhead leads the Bulldogs into Lexington for an early-season test. With Kentucky coming off three winnable games to start the season, the Wildcats could be riding a wave of momentum against MSU. But the Bulldogs should be able to pull out a win in what should be a very close game, far from the 38-point blowout in Starkville last season.
5. Oct. 6 at Texas A&M
The Aggies enter 2018 with high expectations with 14 returning starters and a new head coach in Jimbo Fisher. But Kentucky will arrive in College Station fresh off three straight home games -- Murray State, Mississippi State and South Carolina. If the Wildcats can win two or even all three, their confidence will be sky high coming into this one and put them in a great position to steal a win.
4. Sept. 29 vs. South Carolina
The Gamecocks invade Lexington under third-year head coach Will Muschamp looking for revenge after falling 23-13 at home to Kentucky last season. Despite that loss, South Carolina still leads the all-time series 17-11-1. Three of the Gamecocks’ four losses last year came in SEC play, so a Kentucky win, while far from certain, is not impossible.
3. Oct. 27 at Missouri
Drew Lock’s experience leading the Missouri offense will pose problems for Kentucky in this game. Add in the hostile road environment and Kentucky will have its hands full in this feline family battle.
2. Nov. 24 at Louisville
Louisville’s defense is weak and the loss of Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Lamar Jackson certainly hurts. But in the final game of the year, this in-state rivalry is always a battle. The winner of the 2018 edition will take over the series lead, as things stand at 15 victories apiece.
1. Nov. 3 vs. Georgia
There's no denying this one will be tough. Georgia is loaded with talent and experience at the quarterback position, while Kentucky enters the season not yet knowing who the Week 1 starter will be. The Wildcats get this game at home, but that does little to help their case in what should be a straightforward Georgia win.
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-- Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and currently a senior at the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and works for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.