LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky was picked to finish fifth in the SEC East by the league’s media, but SEC Network analyst Cole Cubelic sees a more successful football season in store for the Wildcats.
Cubelic, a former Auburn offensive lineman, picked Kentucky to finish third in the division.
SEC Country caught up with Cubelic for a Q&A on all things Kentucky football. We talked about Kentucky’s chances to upset either Florida or Tennessee, the job Mark Stoops has done through four seasons, and a surprising player who could be a standout for the Cats.
And finally, does Kentucky have a chance to wind up in Atlanta at season’s end?
You can follow Cubelic on Twitter for film breakdowns and SEC analysis.
Q: You picked Kentucky to finish third in the East. What were your reasons?
Cubelic: “I think the first one is the schedule. Any team that you’re gonna try and project where they’re gonna finish, what they’re gonna do, what kind of football team they’re gonna be as far as final standings or playing for championships, I think you have to look at that schedule. I think there’s a lot to like about Kentucky’s schedule.
“You get two pretty easy games, lower-tier competition games, with Southern Miss and Eastern Kentucky early before you travel to Williams-Brice. That’s gonna be a primetime game so that’ll be a tough one. They play Florida the next week. Eastern Michigan sort of gives them the chance to regroup and then play Missouri at home. Then a bye week falls right in the middle of the season, which, for me, I love that as a player. I think it’s a perfect time to have it. Perfect time for guys to regroup and have an understanding of what lies ahead. And then to go to Mississippi State after having some time to prepare to face a guy like Nick Fitzgerald and obviously have a better idea of what it’s gonna be like to play on the road in a tough environment is a big advantage.
“I think they hit that home stretch with Tennessee with a chance to play their way to Atlanta, but you still have some heavy lifting: Tennessee, Ole Miss, Vandy and Georgia. Four weeks of SEC competition. It wouldn’t be easy, but it’s possible. Really going from Sept. 23 to Nov. 4 against Ole Miss and playing one road game. That’s a month and a half of one true road game with a bye week in between. The way the schedule plays out, one of your toughest SEC East opponents in Georgia — your last SEC game of the year — that could be one that has a lot of impact for either team.
“You build teams from the inside out, and I’m really excited about the offensive line. Most of these guys played a lot of football last year. I think Bunchy Stallings going down to center is not going to be Jon Toth, but I don’t think he’s going to be a severe dropoff. He’s got meaningful snaps in games. [Logan] Stenberg and [Nick] Haynes played a lot last year, started some, backed up a little bit, but both played a lot. And [Cole] Mosier and [Kyle] Meadows are two solid tackles that have a ton of experience. With C.J. Conrad next to those guys [it] gives you another blocking option, gives you more of a physical presence when you do wanna slow things down and try and grind out football games in the fourth quarter or try and control the possession against teams that might be able to score.
“They bring back a 1,000-yard rusher with Benny Snell being able to do that. Obviously, Stephen Johnson at quarterback is a guy who I think has plenty of room to improve and can be a better quarterback Year 2. Now, he’s still a little bit limited. I think he still might be more of an athlete than a quarterback, but [offensive coordinator] Eddie Gran’s done a nice job sort of managing around that.
“Defensively, I’m not super high on the defensive line. I think [Naquez] Pringle’s got a chance to be pretty good. I think [Adrian] Middleton is very athletic, plays with a high motor. But you’ve got some guys on the edge and at the third level — like [Denzil] Ware, [Josh] Allen and [Courtney] Love, and on the back end like Mike Edwards — that are just really good football players, have a ton of experience and played in big venues against big-time opponents.
“There’s a lot to like about his team. I like the way Eddie Gran manages the offense. I think Coach [Mark] Stoops has put a good staff together. I think he’s someone who understands when he needs to make a move within his staff and he’s done it and I think they’ll be better for it.”
Q: As you mentioned, the offensive line is one of the biggest strengths of the team. Where does it rank among the best offensive lines in the SEC?
Cubelic: “I think I had them fourth going into the season. I think I had Florida, Bama and Auburn ahead of them. And listen, some of that has to do with just talent, to be perfectly honest with you. The reason that Kentucky came out and I had ranked as my No. 1 offensive line at the end of last year wasn’t really much on talent, it was on the way the guys played. Now, the problem is you’ve got teams like Alabama and Auburn and Florida, who at times played very well together, but also have some guys who’re gonna be early-round draft picks, so they sort of edged ahead.
“It could absolutely change. The reason I like that group is they like to play together. They have an understanding of what the task is that each one needs to finish with, and you don’t see a lot of guys playing as individuals. That’s one thing I look at along the offensive line. Do you play as a unit and do you finish? And what does your effort look like? Those guys more than pass the eyeball test at each of those departments.”
Q: Two games a lot of people want to talk about are home games against Florida and Tennessee. Especially with Florida and talk of the 30-year losing streak. Would you give Kentucky a better chance to beat Florida or Tennessee, and right now would you take UK over either?
Cubelic: “I’m not picking either one of those games. I don’t like them against Florida. When you look at playing Florida that early in the season, it’s gonna be right after that Tennessee-Florida game, and it’s gonna be at Kroger Field. So, those are your advantages. Florida’s gotta play one of their biggest rivals in an emotional game, especially after losing that game last year, and then travel.
“If Kentucky’s gonna win, those are two big things that play into that. I just think that early in the season, Florida’s not gonna be as beat up, with depth being one of my bigger concerns with Florida. I think talent and speed are probably gonna play a big difference in that game. I think Kentucky can play with them. I think they can challenge Florida. I think it can be a really good game.
“And the reason I think Kentucky has a great chance to win that Tennessee game is that they get them at home, they get them after Alabama, and Tennessee will have made two consecutive road trips. So, when you look at Tennessee going to South Carolina, at Bama and then at Kentucky, really you’re playing Georgia before the bye week before South Carolina.
“The schedule plays into Kentucky’s hands to find a way to win that game. If I gave them a better chance in each one, it would definitely be Tennessee, but both are gonna be tough games. Both are obviously, I don’t wanna say rivalry games, but I think the streak that Florida has over Kentucky is sort of one that’s looming. We heard a lot about that Tennessee-Florida streak last year. We’re gonna hear a lot about the Tennessee-Bama streak this year, and I think we’re gonna hear a lot about that Florida-Kentucky streak this year, too, because there’s not a ton of those left. A lot of people are high on Kentucky and feel like that’s one they need to get.”
Q: With Mark Stoops now entering his fifth season, how impressed are you with the job he’s done and getting over the hump last season and beating Louisville and making a bowl game?
Cubelic: “He’s done a great job. You look at the way that they finished the season last year. They probably more than anything were blown out against Tennessee. They scored late to make it look respectable, but you bounce back to beat Austin Peay and then get a huge win against Louisville. It’s a nice way to close your season right there, and that’s what they haven’t been able to do the three prior years, was to get some of those second-half wins. And they reel them off against Mississippi State and Missouri, Austin Peay and Louisville there in the second half of the season.
“For me it’s bigger picture. I think Mark Stoops understands facilities, he understands how to get the attention of recruits, he understands how to bring sports science into the mix. He’s trying all sorts of things away from just what kind of football players he has and what kind of staff he has to try and make his team better. And I appreciate that.
“He’s gone up into Ohio to recruit — something that if you’re gonna win at Kentucky you absolutely have to do. And recruiting has definitely been trending upwards since he’s been there. I like the job that he’s done. Now it’s just gonna come down to believability. Can these kids from Year 1, Year 2, Year 3, Year 4, Year 5 continue the believability that we’re better this year than we were last year, and can you erase that sort of logo hurdle of ‘OK, we’re playing Tennessee this week. OK, we’re playing Florida this week?’ And sort of have your kids buy into that we’re as good or better than them? We can go beat them. And if mentally he can get his team on that page then they’ve got a chance to put together a pretty special season.”
Q: Who’s one Kentucky player you’re most looking forward to watching?
Cubelic: “Probably Logan Stenberg. I’ve seen him do some things that are pretty exciting. You have to understand also that when you ask me that question it’s probably always gonna end up on the offensive line or defensive line. He’s got a ton of power. I went back and watched the Alabama game a couple weeks ago and he’s moving some guys around, pushing some guys around. It’s not something that you expect to see against that group.
“I feel like he’s not a very natural offensive lineman, so it’s taking him a little bit longer to sort of grow into being a collegiate offensive lineman. And that’s OK. I did the same thing. I redshirted and didn’t start until my redshirt sophomore year. Sometimes it takes a little bit more time. And that’s the one position that I think most college coaches will tell you these guys are not on a three-year plan. Most other guys are on a three-year plan. We expect them to get in, play early, play well and probably be gone.
“Offensive line usually doesn’t work that way. Physically, some of the things that I’ve seen him do that he’s capable of doing, if he improves his flexibility and his overall understanding of the position continues to grow and come around, I think he could be one of the better guards in the league.”
Q: What’s Kentucky’s ceiling this season? And on the flip side, what’s the floor?
Cubelic: “I think the ceiling for this team is probably nine wins, realistically. Could some things happen and they get to 10? Maybe. Could they finish second in the East? Yeah, if a couple teams stumble at the top. Could they find their way to Atlanta? I think that’s possible. I think a realistic ceiling is nine or 10 wins and second or third in the division.
“I feel pretty good about Florida. But the other advantage outside of schedule that Kentucky has is every team in the East minus Tennessee, and I don’t think they’re going that far backwards, in my opinion is either staying where they are or taking a step forward. I think Florida’s gonna be, in a lot of places, a better football team. South Carolina’s definitely gonna be a better football team. Vanderbilt’s not taking a big step back. They had some huge losses on defense, but their offense will be better. I think Missouri is gonna take a step and be a much better football team. I think Georgia will be as good or better than they were a year ago — probably a little bit better. And Tennessee, like I said, I don’t think they’re going to be better, but they’re not taking a huge step back.
“So the division could really cannibalize itself. If you’re Kentucky and you find a way to get Florida early, and you get Florida and South Carolina and Vanderbilt before the first half of the season is over, you’re sitting there 3-0 in conference and most of those teams still have to play each other. And really, the heaviest of the heavy lifting is later in the schedule with Georgia and Tennessee. Coming off a bye week, you have a good shot. But they’re gonna need some help if they’re gonna make it to Atlanta.
“I don’t think the floor is anywhere below six wins. The Louisville game is gonna be tough, obviously. That’s a rivalry game and that’s one that is gonna be difficult to win every year. But I like the front end of the schedule with Southern Miss and Eastern Kentucky. Eastern Michigan’s on the schedule. You get those teams, you feel pretty good. What’s Ole Miss gonna look like on Nov. 4? I don’t think we know. What’s Tennessee gonna look like on Oct. 28? Kind of the same thing with Missouri and Mississippi State.
“You start getting some of those teams with depth issues and a star player that they’re really gonna be banking on. Weeks 5, 6, 7 and 8, you don’t really know what those teams are gonna look like.”