LEXINGTON, Ky. — Half the season is gone and Kentucky’s goal is still within reach: a bowl game.
The Wildcats (3-3, 2-2 SEC) notched crucial wins against South Carolina and Vanderbilt and are a Southern Miss second half away from being in pristine shape to go bowling. But a second-half collapse to the Golden Eagles has put the pressure on with six games left.
Austin Peay is a guaranteed win on Nov. 19 which means Kentucky needs to beat Mississippi State at home a week from Saturday and win one of the following: at Missouri or home against Georgia. Either of those or the most unlikely of upsets at Tennessee or at Louisville.
Here are five key things Kentucky needs to be playing in December.
1. A healthy Stephen Johnson
Drew Barker seems less and less likely to return this season, and while Stephen Johnson’s stats aren’t turning any heads, the junior quarterback has led the Wildcats to wins in three of their last four games and has experience his potential replacements lack.
Johnson’s accuracy in the passing game needs significant improvement to open up what coordinator Eddie Gran can do with the offense, but it’s hard to imagine freshman Gunnar Hoak stepping in and matching or exceeding Johnson’s management of the offense.
Coach Mark Stoops said on his radio show Monday that Johnson is dealing with a banged up wrist, but if healthy, it doesn’t sound like anyone is capable of taking over Johnson’s job outside the possibility of Barker returning to full health.
“It kind of depends on what happens with Drew,” Stoops said Monday. “Drew, we have to see where he goes in the next couple of weeks and see if Stephen can stay healthy. If Stephen can stay healthy, I have a lot of confidence in Stephen. I know there’s some good and some bad, but that’s more than likely going to be the same way with Gunnar, too.”
The bye week is coming at a convenient time for the Wildcats. They need Johnson healthy.
2. A road win
It sounds simple, but it’s been quite a difficult task during the Stoops era.
Winning out at home against Mississippi State, Georgia and Austin Peay negates the necessity of a road win, but a victory at Missouri could give Kentucky loads of momentum as well as take the must-win-to-go-to-a-bowl label off the Georgia game.
Kentucky is 1-15 on the road in Stoops’ tenure — its only win coming last year at South Carolina.
3. A weekly Benny and Boom show
Benny and Boom, Boom and Benny — whatever sounds better.
The two running backs, along with senior Jojo Kemp, have been the catalyst of Kentucky’s offense. Boom with the big play and Benny bulldozing his way through tackles. Williams and Snell have been leaned on lately and their heavy workloads will likely continue. The two will share most of the carries, but Kemp is a more than capable and often used third option in what’s becoming a crowded backfield.
Williams is sixth in the SEC in rushing yards and Snell is 16th even without recording a carry in Kentucky’s first two games.
The offensive line has been a big factor in the rushing attack, and until Johnson finds more comfort at quarterback, the running game will be heavily relied on.
4. A whole lot of pass rush
Kentucky’s defense of the last three games hardly resembles the unit that got shredded in the first three. Stoops and defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot have partnered more in defensive play calling and the result has been a much more aggressive Wildcats front seven.
Kentucky sat back and was torched through the air early in the season, so the Wildcats have responded by getting more pressure on the quarterback and the results have been good. Kentucky has already collected 14 sacks through six games after tallying 17 all of last season.
The sophomore trio of Jordan Jones, Josh Allen and Denzil Ware has been active in rushing the quarterback, and that effect has given the rest of the defense more room to keep to their assignments. The defensive improvement has been the surprise of the season so far for Kentucky. The Wildcats can’t afford to take a step back.
5. A little bit of luck
That’s one thing not often associated with Kentucky football.
The Wildcats have to stay healthy and they have to win a game they probably won’t be favored in. To be safe, they might need both.
Kentucky hasn’t been to a bowl since 2010 and falling a win short this season would mean three straight 5-7 campaigns.