LEXINGTON, Ky. — Here’s the thing about August in college football: We don’t really know anything right now.
We think we do. We know what our eyes told us in 2016. We’ve studied the stats from last season and the roster changes heading into this one. We’ve listened to coaches and players promise improvement, gleaned a few surface-level impressions from precious few glimpses at open practices.
But we won’t really know anything until the 2017 season kicks off in September and predictions give way to production. So what should we do in the meantime? Keep making predictions, of course.
Here, then, are Kyle Tucker’s five (varying degrees of) bold predictions for Kentucky football this fall. They’re listed in order of his confidence they’ll actually materialize — least-confident to most — on a scale from 1-10. Save this and ridicule him in December.
Drew Barker gets his job back
And not because of an injury. The (very) bold prediction here is that, while Stephen Johnson starts Game 1 for Kentucky — and he should after winning 7 of 10 games as the starter last season — at some point Barker overtakes him.
Maybe it’s after a dismal passing game (Johnson completed less than 52 percent four times last season) or a bout of fumble-itis (Johnson coughed it up more than all but one player in college football last season). Or maybe it’s just because Barker continues to shake off the rust and begins to practice at the same level that had coaches believing he was a budding star last summer.
And look, the most likely scenario is that Johnson has improved in all of those areas and builds on his fairly stunning accomplishments from 2016, forcing Barker to wait another year to get back the job he lost due to a season-ending back injury last fall. But there’s just a little tingle of intuition here that says the surgically repaired (and apparently 100 percent healthy) Barker is a more prototypical SEC quarterback than his lanky competition, a former high school All-American blessed with more talent, and at some point that will shine through and win out.
Benny Snell leads the SEC in rushing
There is some stiff competition for that distinction, as four of the league’s top five rushers from 2016 are back: LSU’s Derrius Guice (1,387 yards), Mississippi State’s Nick Fitzgerald (1,375), Vanderbilt’s Ralph Webb (1,283) and Auburn’s Kamryn Pettway (1,224). Furthermore, Snell (1,091) was just one of three 1,000-yard freshmen last year. Missouri’s Damarea Crockett and Texas A&M’s Trayveon Williams looked like budding stars, too.
But remember that Snell didn’t get a carry in the Wildcats’ first two games last season and had to fight for playing time alongside established star Boom Williams, who is gone now. Snell will be the focal point of Kentucky’s offense in 2017, and he’s running behind what is widely regarded as one of the best lines in the SEC.
It’s not bold at all to predict Snell is going to put up monster numbers, but the battle for the league rushing title should be fierce.
Cats win 8 regular-season games
That hasn’t happened since Jerry Claiborne’s team went 9-3 in 1983 and beat Wisconsin in a bowl game. If Kentucky simply hadn’t blown 25-point lead against Southern Miss in the 2016 opener, it would’ve won eight last season — and the Wildcats should be better this fall.
With 17 starters back and proven stars at multiple positions on both sides of the ball, plus a very manageable schedule, it’s now or never for the big breakthrough. So how does UK get to eight?
Southern Miss (Sept. 2 in Hattiesburg), Eastern Kentucky (Sept. 9 at home) and Eastern Michigan (Sept. 30) should all be non-conference victories. That’s three. SEC home games are Florida, Missouri, Tennessee and Ole Miss. I’d pick the Cats against all but the Gators right now. That’s six.
Kentucky’s league road games are South Carolina, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and Georgia. We’ll call that a win in Nashville, losses in Starkville and Athens and a toss-up in Columbia against the Gamecocks. That one could decide whether the Wildcats can get to eight wins, because Heisman trophy winner Lamar Jackson and rival Louisville will be lurking, looking for revenge in the regular-season finale.
But that game is at Kroger Field and Kentucky has closed the talent gap between the Cats and Cards, so that’s another coin flip. Anything less than six wins would be a disaster this season, but eight won’t be easy. We still like their chances.
Kentucky wins turnover battle
The Wildcats won seven games last season despite committing seven more turnovers than they forced. That’s not typically a recipe for success. Of the 22 teams nationally with a minus-7 turnover margin or worse, only six made a bowl game. Kentucky has now been on the wrong side of turnover margin for two straight seasons, and Mark Stoops knows that’s living dangerously.
Only 3 of 128 FBS teams lost more fumbles in 2016 than the Cats’ 16 — six by quarterback Stephen Johnson — and that has been a major focus since spring practice.
“We’re protecting the ball the best we have since we’ve been here,” QB coach Darin Hinshaw said this week. “Our No. 1 priority is ball security and taking care of the ball as a quarterback. [Johnson] is doing a great job with it. He’s gotten stronger, we work on it every single day, and it’s a priority. The second we walk out on this field, the first thing we talk about is ball security.”
The hunch here is that fumble total goes down and a veteran UK defense produces a few more takeaways in 2017.
Matt Elam makes a meaningful contribution
Greg McElroy called him out, Elam’s teammates and coaches rushed to his defense and the 6-foot-7, 350-pound former 5-star recruit got to work. Now, “meaningful contribution” is pretty subjective, but let’s call it roughly four times his production as a junior last fall: 9 tackles.
Elam addressed McElroy’s comments — the former Alabama QB called him lazy and underachieving on the SEC Network — and handled it with as much class as anyone in that situation could. He also noted that the only satisfactory response to those harsh words would be to put evidence to the contrary on film.
Here’s betting he will. This isn’t a prediction that Elam, who lost his starting job halfway through last season, is going to become a star as a senior. But the hunch here is he ends up a valuable contributor to a defensive line that needs someone to step up this fall.