The offseason is about speculation, but the time is now for definitive predictions. With fall camps open across the SEC, teams are starting to take shape.
This installment takes us to the Bluegrass State. The rebuilding is over for Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops, but this could be a setup year with a relatively young roster. Nineteen of the 22 starters are expected to be underclassmen.
Growth and development will be the key. Here is how we project every Kentucky game in 2016.
2015 record: 5-7, 2-6 SEC; Fifth place SEC East
Southern Miss – Sept. 3 in Lexington, Ky.
The Golden Eagles went 9-5 and were the runners-up in Conference USA last season. However, Southern Miss went 0-3 against the Power 5 teams it played. With senior QB Nick Mullens (about 9,000 career passing yards) back, this game could be closer than expected. It will be a good early test.
Prediction: Kentucky win (1-0, 0-0 SEC)
Florida – Sept. 10 in Gainesville, Fla.
The Gators defense should be excellent. Two years after Will Muschamp’s firing, Florida has his recruits manning the defense. The Wildcats lost 14-9 last season, but QB Luke Del Rio is poised to improve the Florida offense. The Gators have advantages in too many areas.
Prediction: Kentucky loss (1-1, 0-1 SEC)
New Mexico State – Sept. 17 in Lexington, Ky.
New Mexico State is one of the worst teams in the FBS. Kentucky will roll.
Prediction: Kentucky win (2-1, 0-1 SEC)
South Carolina – Sept. 24 in Lexington, Ky.
The Gamecocks hit the reset button after coach Steve Spurrier resigned. Will Muschamp has a difficult rebuilding job. South Carolina returns one senior offensive player who started his career as a scholarship player. Attrition has destroyed the roster. The Wildcats should be able to move the ball easily. Muschamp likely lacks the talent to run his dominant defensive system.
Prediction: Kentucky win (3-1, 1-1 SEC)
Alabama – Oct. 1 in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
The Crimson Tide lost several key pieces on both sides of the ball. A difficult schedule could mean Alabama is vulnerable. Unfortunately, none of that is relevant for Kentucky.
Prediction: Kentucky loss (3-2, 1-2 SEC)
Vanderbilt – Oct. 8 in Lexington, Ky.
This game will be important for the Wildcats. Vanderbilt has made great progress the last two years with coach Derek Mason. Both teams will need a victory to keep their momentum going. Vanderbilt has an excellent defense, but the offense is suspect. The crowd will be the difference.
Prediction: Kentucky win (4-2, 2-2 SEC)
Mississippi State – Oct. 22 in Lexington, Ky.
The Bulldogs lost QB Dak Prescott to graduation but return the bulk of their defense. Mississippi State QB Nick Fitzgerald will need to make plays down the stretch. If the Bulldogs secondary can neutralize Kentucky QB Drew Barker, the Wildcats are in trouble.
Prediction: Kentucky loss (4-3, 2-3 SEC)
Missouri – Oct. 29 in Columbia, Mo.
Kentucky’s offense should be good, but the defense is suspect. Missouri’s defense is outstanding, but the offense was one of the worst last season. Missouri will win an ugly game.
Prediction: Kentucky loss (4-4, 2-4 SEC)
Georgia – Nov. 5 in Lexington, Ky.
The Bulldogs lost plenty of talent on their front seven. Georgia defensive coordinator Mel Tucker is installing a new system. Bulldogs RBs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel are two of the best, though. If QB Jacob Eason is playing, Kentucky could get blown out.
Prediction: Kentucky loss (4-5, 2-5 SEC)
Tennessee – Nov. 12 in Knoxville, Tenn.
Tennessee is the most stable team in the SEC East. Butch Jones quickly has built a program from the ashes of Derek Dooley’s tenure. Kentucky has little chance to match up with DE Derek Barnett or the running back combo of Alvin Kamara and Jalen Hurd. Keeping this game close would be a feat.
Prediction: Kentucky loss (4-6, 2-6 SEC)
Austin Peay – Nov. 19 in Lexington, Ky.
The Governors play in the FCS, and they went 0-11 last season. This should be a showcase for Kentucky’s backup quarterbacks.
Prediction: Kentucky win (5-6, 2-6 SEC)
Louisville – Nov. 26 in Louisville, Ky.
A bowl game will be on the line for Kentucky. Cardinals QB Lamar Jackson had more than 500 total yards against Texas A&M in the Music City Bowl. Jackson and Louisville’s stellar defense will be too much.
Prediction: Kentucky loss (5-7, 2-6 SEC)
Projected record: 5-7, 2-6 SEC; Fifth in the SEC East
Analysis: Kentucky had a big rebuilding job after the Joker Phillips era. The Wildcats have improved since Mark Stoops arrived in Lexington. However, there is work to do. Kentucky has gone 5-7 the past two seasons. The Wildcats have the pieces to be better next season, but the SEC East continues to get tougher. If Kentucky can establish QB Drew Barker this season, it could set up the program for success.
Other installments –
Mississippi State (8/12)
Texas A&M (8/14)
Ole Miss (8/15)