Our ranking: No. 36 KENTUCKY
Coach: Mark Stoops (19-30, entering fifth season; 19-30 overall)
2016 record: 7-6 overall, 4-4 Southeastern Conference; tied for second in East Division
Look back: In the wake of a 45-7 loss at UF in Week 2, the future of fourth-year coach Mark Stoops looked bleak. By season’s end, the school’s long-standing belief in the former FSU defensive coordinator appeared to be well founded. Kentucky won seven of 10 games before losing to Georgia Tech in the TaxSlayer Bowl, giving the Wildcats their first winning seasons since 2009. The run included a 41-38 victory against in-state rival Louisville.
Losses to the Gators, Georgia and Tennessee were a reminder much improvement remains for Kentucky to earn the school’s first SEC East title. But Stoops, who turned 50 July 9, earned a two-year contract extension and the right to give it a shot.
Offensive starters returning: 8
Offensive starters lost: 3
Defensive starters returning: 8
Defensive starters lost: 3
Key losses: C Jon Toth, RB Boom Williams, WR Jeff Badet, RB Jojo Kemp, DB Blake McClain
Top returnees: QB Stephen Johnson, RB Benny Snell, S Mike Edwards, LB Jordan Jones, PK Austin MacGinnis, WR Garrett Johnson, TE C.J. Conrad, LB Josh Allen
Strengths: The Wildcats return eight starters on each side of the football. None is more important than senior QB Stephen Johnson, who saved Kentucky’s 2016 season. Johnson replaced injured Drew Barker during Week 3 and led the Wildcats’ resurgence. He recorded 421 total yards and three touchdowns against Louisville.
Leading rusher Stanley “Boom” Williams is gone, but Benny Snell joined forces with him last season to give the Wildcats a pair of 1,000-yard rushers. Snell finished with 1,091 yards and 13 scores to earn Freshman All-American honors. Led by senior OG Nick Haynes, four returning starters on the offensive line will look to pave the way for Snell.
Stoops’ defense features two of the SEC’s best at their positions. S Mike Edwards’ 100 tackles were the most of any defensive back in the league. LB Jordan Jones ranked third in the conference with 109 stops, including 15.5 for loss. CB Eric Westry (6-4,195) and CB Derrick Baity (6-3, 186) are tall and athletic.
K Austin MacGinnis hit two game winners last seasons and holds six schools records.
Weaknesses: To avoid being one-dimensional on offense, Kentucky needs its playmakers at receiver to show up every week. Garrett Johnson (39 catches, 585 yards, five scores) is dependable, while 6-foot-3 Dorian Baker led the team in catches in 2015. TE C.J. Conrad had his moments (19 catches, four scores).
The Wildcats need to find a replacement for C Jon Toth, who started 48 consecutive games. OG Bunchy Stallings is the favorite to step in.
Kentucky’s defense needs to improve up front. The line produced just 13 tackles for loss and two sacks in 2016. The Wildcats also needs to prove teams cannot manhandle them. Kentucky allowed an average of 228.2 rushing yards, ranking 110th of 128 teams nationally.
Outlook: Stoops arrived in 2013 and set a new course for a beleaguered program. Major facility improvements and three consecutive top-40 recruiting classes finally paid off with a winning season in 2016. A top-30 class and a favorable schedule, including visits from Florida and Tennessee, have the Big Blue Nation as optimistic as ever entering the 2017 season.