Cause for hope, cause for concern in every UK football game in 2017

Justin Rowland, Publisher
Cats Illustrated

We're saving our staff predictions for later when the season is a little closer, but today we're still taking a closer look at each game on Kentucky's schedule.

Here are reasons for hope and reasons for concern in every single Kentucky football game coming up in the 2017 season.

There's something for optimists and pessimists alike.



SOUTHERN MISS (Sept 2, Hattiesburg, Miss.)

Cause for hope: Kentucky is more talented and experienced than it was a year ago, while Southern Miss has to replace quite a bit. Kentucky also became a completely different team in the weeks after that USM loss a year ago, so one could easily make the case that last year's loss in Lexington doesn't have much to do with this year's game. UK is a much more talented team across the board than Southern Miss, and we can say that with more confidence than we did a year ago (when it probably seemed silly in hindsight). Kentucky has some offensive staff continuity going into this year's game. Last year it was a new OC/QB coach going into that season opener against the Golden Eagles.

RELATED: How should UK use its remaining footballs scholarships?

Cause for concern: The game is in Hattiesburg, Miss., and while it won't be the most daunting atmosphere Kentucky will play in during the 2017 season, it's still a road game. It's also the first game of the year and ordinarily you'd like to have a home field advantage to help iron out some wrinkles in that situation. Finally, there's Ito Smith. While Southern Miss will be retooling its offensive line and replacing its quarterback, Nick Mullens, Smith is a prolific running back who ran all over UK's defense last year.

EASTERN KENTUCKY (Sept. 9, Lexington, Ky.)

Cause for hope: Where to begin? SEC vs. FCS. It's not a fair fight. One good thing about this game is Kentucky will be able to devote a ton of time to USM prep, because this game in Week Two should be easy to navigate on the fly.

RELATED: Football recruiting mailbag answers all the big questions

Cause for concern: Being real here, there's not much reason to worry unless you fret over the possibility of injury, suspension, etc. The Colonels don't have the talent or depth to pull a monumental upset here.


SOUTH CAROLINA (Sept. 16, Columbia, S.C.)

Cause for hope: Kentucky has three straight wins in this series against South Carolina and last year Mark Stoops picked up his first win over Will Muschamp. In short, the Gamecocks haven't been nearly the riddle they were for the decade prior, and we could even say Kentucky has had their number lately, dating back to the end of the Steve Spurrier era. Kentucky won its last game in Columbia, S.C., as well. The Cats' offense took on a more clear-cut, efficient and punishing identity after the South Carolina game last year, so we didn't even see the best of Kentucky last year against USC.

RELATED: South Carolina could be one of UK's most improved foes

Cause for concern: Jake Bentley appears to be one of the SEC's top returning quarterbacks and Kentucky didn't have to face him last year. As much as Kentucky improved last year, South Carolina improved, too. And they return quite a bit. In fact, the offense returns mostly intact. The Gamecocks also return a lot on defense. This will be a hostile atmosphere and South Carolina's players, fans and coaches will be eager to break their losing streak to Kentucky.

FLORIDA (Sept. 24, Lexington, Ky.)

Cause for hope: If you take out last season's throttling in the Swamp, Mark Stoops' Kentucky teams have usually played well against the Gators. Last time here Kentucky nearly won the game. Bring this one back to Lexington and there's reason to believe UK could fare well. Kentucky played its worst game of the season at UF last season so don't read too much into last year's outcome. The Gators lose a lot from last season's defense, too.

RELATED: Gators reloading on defense but Florida's offense is strong at skill spots

Cause for concern: Lexington or Gainesville, this game has never been kind to Kentucky. At least for the last three decades. Florida is still as fast as almost any team in the country and that's been the biggest issue for Kentucky in this game over the years, particularly when it comes to blocking the Gators up front and catching their skill guys with the ball. This could be the best Florida team at the offensive skill positions in a few years. Notre Dame's Malik Zaire is transferring to Florida and can play right away, but is this a cause for concern? Too early to say. More like an X-Factor that's difficult to quantify right now.


EASTERN MICHIGAN (Sept. 30, Lexington, Ky.)

Cause for hope: Kentucky's got a really good track record against Mid-American Conference foes all-time and more recently so the Eagles don't have great odds in this one. In spite of EMU's defensive improvements a year ago they still allowed 29.8 points per game. And this is still a team that Missouri (a team Kentucky handled easily on the road) defeated 61-21.

Cause for concern: Last year EMU finished 7-6 for their first winning season since 1989. You read that correctly. The Eagles have made big improvements in their strength and conditioning program (something head coach Chris Creighton has pointed to as a reason for improvement). Their run defense improved markedly in last season's seven-win season. Eastern Michigan returns more than half of their starters from last year's team. Brogan Roback returns at quarterback after an efficient 2016 season.

MISSOURI (Oct. 7, Lexington, Ky.)

Cause for hope: This game just doesn't seem nearly as daunting in the post-Gary Pinkel era, perhaps because Kentucky has won two games in a row against the Tigers. That's not just an overly-simplistic, broad stroke commentary, either. Anyone who watched Kentucky race out to a 21-0 lead, and then a 35-7 halftime advantage, knew they were the much better team a year ago. Missouri struggled to slow opponents down on the ground a year ago, and Kentucky seems to return the perfect recipe to beat the Tigers again. Benny Snell had a career game (38 carries, almost 200 yards) in this game last year. UK's offensive line has, on paper, a decided advantage again when compared to Missouri's defensive line. That was the big difference last year.

RELATED: Early look at Barry Odom's second Missouri team

Cause for concern: There are those who believe Missouri will have one of the better offenses in the SEC this year. Kentucky was better than the Tigers last year, but Missouri wasn't as bad as they played in this game. Drew Lock (283 YPG in 2016) is one of the SEC's better returning quarterbacks and it's fair to say he's likely to have a better game against Kentucky this year than last. He'll have an experienced line and receiving corps to work with, plus a pair of returning backs who combined for nearly 2,000 yards in '16.


MISSISSIPPI STATE (Oct. 21, Starkville, Miss.)

Cause for hope: If Dan Mullen were a monkey, he would no longer be on Mark Stoops' back. That's because the Mullen hex was slain and laid to waste with the clutch leg of Austin MacGinnis a year ago. That may just be a mental aid, but it will surely help Kentucky's players to know they can win this game and beat this opponent. Kentucky defended Nick Fitzgerald the passer well last year. Stephen Johnson shredded the Mississippi State defense last year (292 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT). Mississippi State also had no answer for Kentucky's powerful ground game (262 yards). So it seems reasonable to say the Cats should feel confident about their ability to move the ball. Kentucky has a bye before this game and that's always a good thing.

Cause for concern: Mississippi State showed signs of life after losing in Lexington last year, winning three of their final five games. One of those wins was against highly-ranked Texas A&M, while their season finale was an impressive 55-20 dismembering of archrival Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl. The bigger concern is Nick Fitzgerald who, similar to South Carolina's Bentley or Missouri's Lock, returns as a promising young passer and one of the SEC's better quarterbacks. Not only that, but he rushed for 1,375 yards and 16 touchdowns last year. Kentucky has to defend Fitzgerald better this year. He had 107 rushing yards and two scores in Commonwealth last year. While up and down as a passer, he had a 21-10 ratio. The Bulldogs return most of their top playmakers on defense. That this game is in the Cowbell capital of the world is a bit concerning.


TENNESSEE (Oct. 28, Lexington, Ky.)

Cause for hope: Josh Dobbs is gone ("Thankfully," Mark Stoops probably thinks). The game's in Lexington. We know Kentucky can run the ball on the Vols (440 yards last year). Stephen Johnson played very well against Tennessee last year. Sihiem King returns and he played well against UT, too. There are a lot of people calling for Kentucky to win this game (that's in part because Kentucky rarely beats Tennessee, so frankly it's news when someone predicts it). That's because Tennessee doesn't return nearly as much production at almost any position as Kentucky. In short, it's a home game against a less experienced team that Kentucky ran all over last year. It's easy to see why some see this as a win. Vegas has, at least one place, started this one out as a pick 'em. It's one of UK's best chances to win this game in years.

Cause for concern: History, of course. Tennessee usually fares well in this game. And last year, in spite of UK's 440 yards, the Volunteers still managed to win comfortably (a rare feat). While Tennessee will be inexperienced in some spots (and very inexperienced in others) the Vols still have the talent edge if you rely on recruiting rankings. Tennessee had all kinds of roster/depth chart inconsistency last year (youth, injuries, etc) and will shake up the defense (more 4-3, it's been said). It's a hard team to project, but a talented team even if they have questions.


OLE MISS (Nov. 4, Lexington, Ky.)

Cause for hope: The first thing that jumps out on the schedule this week isn't, "Kentucky vs Ole Miss," so much as, "Kentucky vs Not Alabama This Year." An unwinnable game (let's be honest) becomes a winnable game, and a home game at that. That's a major difference and a big positive. If there's a college football program in turmoil it's Ole Miss. The black cloud of an NCAA investigation looms large over Oxford and it remains to be seen how Ole Miss will handle that this year. On top of that, Ole Miss finished 5-7 last year, with a 21-point loss to Vanderbilt and a 35-point loss to Mississippi State as their season's end.

The Ole Miss offensive line has some serious question marks and that's a very good thing for Kentucky, a team with defensive line questions.

Cause for concern: It wouldn't be wise to read too much into how last season ended because this is a different season and a different team. And this game is certainly dangerous for Kentucky. Neither team will be an overwhelming favorite and that's because of Chad Kelly, the Rebels' quarterback. He didn't play in their last three games last season. This is a guy who racked up nearly 500 yards of offense against Alabama last year. This team also won't be playing with much pressure, because they won't be going to a bowl game (self-imposed ban).

VANDERBILT (Nov. 11, Nashville, Tenn.)

Cause for hope: Kentucky should have beat Vanderbilt two years ago and the Cats did take care of them last year. While the Commodores are known for playing feisty defense, or at least scrapping hard, Kentucky rushed for more than 250 yards against the 'Dores last season.

Cause for concern: Stephen Johnson played very poorly against Vanderbilt last year, mustering just 49 passing yards in a game that wouldn't have been close if the offense had a little balance. Vanderbilt's program has some real momentum with an improved 2016 team and a good recruiting class that Derek Mason is piecing together. While Kentucky returns more star power and all-conference candidates, Vanderbilt on the road will not be an easy game and no one would be surprised if it goes either way.


GEORGIA (Nov. 18, Athens, Ga.)

Cause for hope: Kentucky certainly played Georgia tough last year and had a chance to win that game in Lexington. UGA averaged just 24.5 points per game a year ago. Georgia's secondary has some question marks even if the defense has some impressive parts.

Cause for concern: Some expect Georgia to win the SEC East and with this game on the road that means it's going to be a tough fit. Jacob Eason is a year older and, Kirby Smart hopes, a year wiser and more consistent. But for Kentucky the bigger concern is how to deal with the two-headed running back monster that is Sony Michel and Nick Chubb. Those two will run over a lot of defenses and they combined to rush for more than 220 on the ground against UK last year. While Benny Snell rushed for 114 yards against UGA last year, Kentucky didn't gash the Bulldogs on the ground quite the same way UK plowed through other defenses at the end of last year. UK must be more balanced to win this game.

LOUISVILLE (Nov. 25, Lexington, Ky.)

Cause for hope: Mark Stoops got his win over Bobby Petrino. Kentucky got its win over Lamar Jackson. This is a rivalry game so it's not like Kentucky ever played scared in this game in the past, but knowing they can beat the Cards will help. So will having this game played at Kroger Field. The team that rushes for the most yards in this game usually fares well and Kentucky should be able to run the ball on the Cards (229 yards last year). Louisville loses some star power on defense. On paper, the Cats should be able to score on the Cards. Lamar Jackson loses his favorite receivers and his offensive line allowed almost 50 sacks last year.

Cause for concern: Lamar Jackson returns and while Kentucky fans are still enjoying memories of second half turnovers that fueled their Cats' win, he's still going to be the best player on the field and perhaps the best player in the country. He'll also, you'd imagine, be extra motivated to take care of business in a game that didn't go his way, and a game that he's surely heard a lot about since.


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