Editor’s note: We’re dealing with a hypothetical: Kentucky will win the SEC East. This isn’t a prediction we hold, but if it were to happen, here are three reasons why.
Kentucky’s ally in winning the SEC East is its schedule. The Cats are 2-1 in the SEC with five conference games left: at Mississippi State, vs. Tennessee, vs. Ole Miss, at Vanderbilt, at Georgia. As SEC scheduling goes, the slate is more than manageable.
By human or computer measures, the Wildcats will likely be favored in three of those five games: Tennessee, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt. ESPN’s Football Power Index gives the Cats a 61 percent chance to beat Tennessee, a 62 percent chance to beat Ole Miss and a 58 percent chance to beat Vanderbilt.
Win those three games, Kentucky would have five conference wins. But it’s no secret Kentucky will likely have to win out to represent the East in Atlanta by season’s end — unless Georgia falls apart.
Kentucky’s chances to win the East could stay alive until mid-November, or they could end Saturday in Starkville, Miss. Coach Mark Stoops’ squad is a 10.5-point underdog to the Bulldogs. The FPI gives Mississippi State a 79 percent chance of winning.
Again, we’re not picking this game yet, but there are a few factors to consider. First, Kentucky beat Mississippi State 40-38 last season in Lexington. Second, Stoops has repeatedly said there’s less stress on his team for road games. Dating back to last season, the Cats have won four of their last five road games with a loss in Knoxville as the only hiccup. Kentucky is 2-0 on the road this season with wins at Southern Miss and South Carolina.
If the Cats pull off the upset Saturday, a Kentucky-Georgia matchup on Nov. 18 in Athens to decide the East starts looking more like a probability than just a possibility.
Georgia has seven consecutive wins against Kentucky and 2009 was the last time the Wildcats won in Athens. The Bulldogs came to Lexington last year as a middle-of-the road squad and beat the Cats on a last-second field goal. This year’s Georgia team is forging a path to the College Football Playoff, but the crazy thing is Kentucky’s playoffs hopes might be alive when the two teams square off.
But the point of this hypothetical examination is not to envision how Kentucky makes it to the Georgia game with the East on the line, but how does Kentucky beat Georgia and win the East? That takes some imagination.
The FPI gives Kentucky a 7 percent chance to beat Georgia. Sounds about right.
2. Stephen Johnson
He keeps on winning. When Stephen Johnson threw for 338 yards and 3 touchdowns in last season’s finale against Louisville, it seemed like an aberration. Sure, he outdueled Heisman winner Lamar Jackson, but Johnson couldn’t shake a game manager label heading into this year. The Kentucky coaching staff wouldn’t even name him the starter over Drew Baker in fall camp.
That seemed like a long time ago, because Johnson has turned himself into an above average SEC quarterback. He ranks fifth in passing yards per game, third in completion percentage and has a 9-2 touchdown to interception ratio. He’s also rushed for 144 yards, the fourth-most among SEC quarterbacks.
End of season ranks last year: 11th in passing yards per game, eighth in completion percentage and a 13-6 touchdown to interception mark.
Johnson’s all-around numbers are better, most notably his completion percentage — up 9 points from 55 percent in 2016 to 64 percent this season.
The most important number? Kentucky is 12-5 in its 17 games with Johnson as the primary quarterback.
The intangibles and leadership were there last season, but the numbers were absent. Sophomore running back Benny Snell might be Kentucky’s best offensive player, but Johnson is its most important. If Kentucky makes a run in the East, Johnson will be leading the charge.
Two things about Kentucky: The Cats haven’t blown anyone out, and they haven’t been blown out. Kentucky’s average margin of victory is 7.6 points per game. An 11-point win against FCS Eastern Kentucky was its most lopsided victory of the season. And the lone loss, of course, was a 28-27 decision against Florida.
Kentucky would be a possession squad by soccer standards. If these Cats were a basketball team they’d walk the ball up the floor and be content setting up their halfcourt offense with Johnson and Snell running the show.
The Wildcats’ offense isn’t explosive, but it’s effective in the way it operates. Kentucky averages 5.4 yards per play and 350 yards per game. Both of those numbers are in the bottom half of the conference, ranking 10th and 11th respectively in the SEC.
But Kentucky’s offense is averaging 32 minutes and 15 seconds of possession per game — fourth-most in the SEC. The Wildcats don’t run a ton of plays, they don’t put up a ton of yards or points, but they control the ball and, as a result, they keep their defense fresh.
Kentucky’s defense is allowing just 21.3 points per game. It’s only a six- vs. 12-game sample size, but the Wildcats allowed 31.3 points per game last season. Kentucky’s pass defense is the worst in the conference in passing yards per game, but the Cats are third in the SEC in allowing 97 rushing yards per game.
Junior weakside linebacker Jordan Jones, who led the SEC in solo tackles a season ago, has missed all but the first two weeks of the season, but he’s expected to play Saturday at Mississippi State.
There have been other individual standouts, most notably junior outside linebacker Josh Allen. The former 2-star prospect is tied for the SEC lead with 6.5 sacks and is the only player in the conference averaging more than 1 sack per game. He’s tied for second in the SEC with 8.5 tackles for loss.
Stoops said Monday night that Kentucky isn’t great in any one phase, but it’s good in all of them. That’s a way to understand how the Wildcats could keep winning games, and their style of play could carry them. It’s going to result in more close games, but Kentucky has finished on the winning side of all but one so far.