Kyle Tucker/SEC Country
Kentucky kicks off the season at 4 p.m. ET Saturday at Southern Miss. What are the biggest questions heading into Week 1?

Kentucky mailbag: What are the Wildcats’ chances of winning the East?

The football season kicks off Saturday, and there’s never a time to stop talking Kentucky basketball.

This is our chance to hear from you and answer the best questions of the week. This is the first of what will become a weekly mailbag from SEC Country Kentucky writers Kyle Tucker and Joe Mussatto.

We’ll be taking your questions each week on Twitter at: @KyleTucker_SEC, @joe_mussatto and @SECCountryUK. Then every Wednesday you can find the answers here.

Let’s get to it.

Kyle: I’m not surprised. The coaches have been careful all summer not to say, “Stephen Johnson is our guy — the end, period,” and just as careful to note that Drew Barker will have a shot to get back on the field. Barker overtaking Johnson (for reasons other than injury) at some point this season was one of my bold predictions for UK in 2017.
It’s hard to argue with Johnson’s results (7-3 as a starter last fall), but a healthy Barker is intriguing. He has more talent and a more prototypical QB body, and for one half of one game last season before aggravating a serious back injury, he looked like a rising star.
If Johnson struggles for a few series against Southern Miss, I could see Barker getting a shot. But to be fair, I’m not on the daily football grind anymore like Joe and several others on the beat — and most of those folks think Johnson is the guy, period.

Joe: No controversy. It might even be a stretch to call it a competition. Kyle’s right, the coaching staff has had a number of chances to say “Stephen’s our guy,” but they haven’t. Stoops said Monday he would love to get Barker in the game on Saturday and that he deserves a chance. I don’t know what to read into this. Maybe Barker has a legitimate shot to play, but I think it’s more likely the staff is trying to keep his head up. Barker has proven that he can start and it’s unfortunate he lost his job the way he did. But at this point, I don’t see any way the coaches could rationalize taking Johnson out of the starting role — not after last season’s results. I think his leash is longer than most suspect.

Joe: The season hasn’t started, but it already seems like Stoops and the staff love this class. Stoops said Monday that up to nine freshmen could play Saturday against Southern Miss. The two I’m most eager to watch are Lynn Bowden and Josh Paschal. I would expect Paschal to play a larger role early on, but Bowden’s versatility gives him the chance to wind up in a number of spots. There are four freshman receivers the coaching staff raves about: Bowden, Clevan Thomas, Josh Ali and Isaiah Epps. I’m interested to see which of them see the most snaps. I don’t think there’s a spot for all of them.

Joe: I hadn’t really thought about it, but Stoops seemed to reference that in his press conference on Monday.

Here’s what he said: “I talk about it a year ago, we went in there at halftime and there was not a lot of energy left. We have to learn from that. We have to be able to make sure we have more depth, we have to play a lot of guys early in this game and rotate some guys in to have some in our tank to play in the second half.”

Southern Miss outscored Kentucky 27-0 in the second half last season. It’s hard to pinpoint one reason behind Southern Miss’ comeback, but perhaps conditioning played a bigger role than we thought.

Kyle: Actually getting there? Pretty low. I’ll say 10 percent. But staying in the East race through the final month of the season? Really good shot. As I wrote in my examination of the best case/worst case for Kentucky football in 2017, there are five SEC games I give the Cats a great chance to win: South Carolina, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, Missouri and Ole Miss. And I think they can take out Tennessee this season. Florida and Georgia feel like a cut above, but the Gators have to come to Lexington. It wouldn’t shock me to see Kentucky 4-1 in the league entering November and still not eliminated from contention as the Cats head to Athens for their SEC finale.
Joe: I’ll say 8 percent. Kentucky went 4-4 in the SEC last season and that’s what I predicted them to go this year. A .500 mark was good enough to tie for second place in the division last season, but it was two games behind first place Florida. But remember that Kentucky was heading into Week 10 last year still with a chance to win the division. The Cats ended up losing to Georgia and Tennessee, but things got interesting late. I don’t see a scenario where either Georgia or Florida isn’t representing the East at season’s end. An eight-win regular season for Kentucky is a reasonable expectation. Making it to Atlanta isn’t.

Joe: Garrett Johnson will be the leading reciever, and I don’t think it’ll be close. Johnson, now entering his senior season, has been Kentucky’s most reliable target in the passing game over the past two seasons. He led the team with 694 receiving yards as a sophomore and had 585 yards last season — second only to Jeff Badet. And now with Badet at Oklahoma and fellow top receiver Dorian Baker sidelined for significant time, Johnson will be quarterback Stephen Johnson’s primary target. Even in a run-first offense, Johnson could have a career-high across the board in receptions, yards and touchdowns.

As for the second part, Snell will surpass 1,000 yards (barring an injury). He had 1,091 rushing yards last season, and there are two major reasons that number goes up. First, he’s no longer sharing touches with Boom Williams. I don’t think Sihiem King and A.J. Rose will carry as much as Williams and Kemp did last season. That will lead to a ton of touches for Snell. And second, Snell didn’t record a carry in Kentucky’s first two games last season. If he had, he probably would’ve rushed for more than 1,100 yards as a freshman.

Basketball questions

Kyle: I’ll throw in the big neutral-site games, too.

Wins — UCLA (New Orleans), at LSU, at Tennessee, at South Carolina, at Missouri, at Arkansas, at Florida

Losses — Kansas (Chicago), at West Virginia, at Vanderbilt, at Texas A&M, at Auburn

This team is too young to take out the Jayhawks in November. This also feels like a team that will collapse against a few NCAA Tournament-quality teams on the road early on. Coach John Calipari’s focus will be getting three sophomores and eight freshmen to figure it out by March, and I think they will.

Kyle: Kevin Knox probably has the highest ceiling. As a 6-foot-9 “power forward” who can handle it, pass it and shoot it from 3-point range (he might end up being the best shooter on this roster), Calipari has called him a guard — and that’s not so outlandish. Before he pulled a hamstring at Team USA under-19 tryouts in Colorado this summer, Knox was the best player on the floor (and UK teammates Hamidou Diallo and P.J. Washington were there).
But don’t sleep on sophomore forward Wenyen Gabriel, who had an up-and-down first season at Kentucky but by all accounts had a terrific summer and returns as a man on a mission. I once saw Gabriel, by sheer force of will, dominate NBA lottery pick Thon Maker in the second half of a high school game that Gabriel’s team trailed. He outworked and outfought Maker (with a blood-filled mouth at the end to prove it) to lead his team back to victory, and I have a feeling that’s the guy we’ll see for the Wildcats this season.