This isn’t exactly breaking news but the way the SEC currently schedules football games is in dire need of repair.
Case in point: LSU’s road trip to Kentucky on October 9. This will be the first time since LSU has gone to Lexington since 2007. But hey last time LSU went to Lexington it ended with the Tigers hoisting the national championship trophy, so let’s hope history repeats itself in 2021.
2020: 5-6 (4-6, SEC)
2021 S&P+ Projections: 57th
2021 Recruiting Class: 34th
Head Coach: Mark Stoops (49-50, ninth season)
Offensive Coordinator: Liam Coen
Defensive Coordinator: Brad White
First, let’s salute the job Mark Stoops has done in Lexington. Stoops’s 49 wins are the second most in program history and he’s 11 away from tying Bear Bryant for the most. Now it should be noted Bryant won 71 percent of his games while Stoops currently has a sub-.500 record but Stoops has certainly made a mark on the program.
Kentucky will probably never win the SEC East. Maybe one year they pick off Florida or Georgia but they’ll probably never beat both and as a result won’t find themselves in Atlanta. That said, with South Carolina and Tennessee starting over and Vanderbilt being...well, Vanderbilt, the Wildcats are probably the third best team in the division depending on how you feel about Missouri.
And most of that is owed to Stoops. He’s led Kentucky to three straight bowl victories and ended some significant droughts: last season Kentucky beat Tennessee in Knoxville for the first time since 1984; the 2018 win over Florida was Big Blue’s first over the Gators since 1986; and that same 2018 season was Kentucky’s first 10-win season since 1977 and the program’s first New Year’s Day Bowl since 1951.
A fourth straight bowl game and an eight-win season (at minimum) is certainly possible based off the schedule. Kentucky gets three straight at home to open the season, including a week two conference game against Mizzou, before a road trip to Carolina to close out September. November is pretty kind too. The Cats get the Tennessee schools in succession (Tennessee at home, Vandy on the road) a layup against New Mexico State but do have to travel to Louisville to play the Cards for the Governors Cup. The tricky part of the schedule will be October as Kentucky draws Florida and LSU at home but have to go to both Athens and Starkville. Fortunately for Stoops and company is Big Blue’s bye week is sandwiched between the Georgia and Mississippi State games so at least they won’t travel on consecutive weeks.
As for on the field, the first thing Stoops needs to figure out is who will be his starting quarterback. As Poseur wrote in his annual conference positional breakdown, the Wildcats have a pair of highly touted former high schoolers in Joey Gatewood and Beau Allen but neither have proved it on the field.
Gatewood is in his second season after transferring from Auburn where he was used more as a running back than quarterback. But maybe the Auburn coaching staff was right about how to use him as Gatewood struggled throwing the ball last season, completing 17 of 35 passes over the course of seven games.
Though maybe Kentucky’s starting quarterback in 2021 wasn’t on the roster in 2020. The Wildcats added Penn State transfer Will Levis. Levis threw for 421 yards and ran for 260 coming off the bench but was recruited in high school by Kentucky’s new offensive coordinator Liam Coen, who was part of the Los Angeles Rams coaching staff last season.
Whoever emerges as QB1 they’ll have a mix of old and new faces at the skill position to work with. Leading rusher Chris Rodriguez Jr. is back for his junior season. Rodriguez gained 785 yards and scored 11 touchdowns while ranking fifth in the conference in yards per game. Kentucky also tried to bolster its receiver room via the transfer portal and landed Wan’Dale Robinson, an explosive threat from Nebraska. Robinson was a Freshman All-American in 2019, and a Hornung Award finalist in 2020 after leading the Huskers in total yards with 696. He was also Nebraska’s leading receiver with 51 catches and 496 yards.
Kentucky’s strength on offense last season was its line and unfortunately that unit will look noticeably different in 2021. First-Team All-SEC center Drake Jackson is gone (signed as an undrafted free agent with the Detroit Lions) as is left tackle Landon Young (picked in the sixth round by the Saints). The bright side is right tackle Darian Kinnard is back for his senior season and will take over the left tackle spot. Kinnard was a preseason First-Team All-SEC selection and is viewed as a top-50 prospect in the 2022 NFL Draft. A strong showing at left tackle could raise his stock into the first round. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention former Tiger Dare Rosenthal is now with Wildcats and I’m assuming will man the right tackle spot opposite of Kinnard.
Defensively Kentucky will have to replace seven starters from last season. The biggest loss was middle linebacker Jamin Davis who was taken 21st overall by Washington. Kentucky will try to fill that void by either Michigan State transfer Luke Fulton or with one of the prized jewels of its 2021 recruiting class Trevin Wallace a four-star, top-150 overall prospect out of Georgia.
As for the special teams, Kentucky gets place kicker Matt Ruffolo back for a fifth year. Ruffolo was 12 of 14 on field goals last year; and to fill the hole at punter, Kentucky pulled an LSU and dipped into Australia and signed Wilson Berry.
September 4 vs. ULM
September 11 vs. Missouri
September 18 vs. UT-Chattanooga
September 25 @ South Carolina
October 2 vs. Florida
October 9 vs. LSU
October 16 @ Georgia
October 23 BYE
October 30 @ Mississippi State
November 6 vs. Tennessee
November 13 @ Vanderbilt
November 20 vs. New Mexico State
November 27 @ Louisville