August 02, 2013
Kentucky football is set to officially report for fall camp this weekend, and there's less than a month -- a month! -- until Mark Stoops' inaugural season kicks off.
It will be one of the most interesting years in recent memories, as the Wildcats look to begin producing success on the field after producing so many off-the-field results in the recruiting realm.
So, to get things kicked off right, 20 quick-hit things I'm looking forward to watching in one form or another this season.
1. Recruiting. Let's be real, this season won't be anything special. The future is where the program's stock resides, and that means Stoops and company must both retain and build their 2014 class, which looks like history in the making. Yes, the prospects have all been given a realistic outlook on what this season will likely bring. But it's one thing to hear it and another to actually watch it months later. This coaching staff must ensure struggles this year don't impact this class.
2. The coaching staff difference. This group inherits a team that went 2-10 and winless in league play. With mostly the same roster -- albeit minus a significant injury like what happened to Max Smith and with some added impact freshmen -- how much of a difference can something as simple as new coaches make?
3. The quarterback race. Of course. There's nothing more fall camp-y than debating quarterbacks, and this three-headed race isn't likely to die down any time soon. Smith, Towles and Whitlow will be available to the media on Monday and then off limits until a starter is selected (likely two weeks into camp), but even then, the starter may be a source of debate as the year continues. It's not only this season that's at stake; it could be the future, and this fan base will want to know the offense is in the right hands.
4. Wide receivers. Who in the world will whoever wins the quarterback race being throwing the ball to?
5. That first crushing loss. Stoops hasn't been on a team that lost by more than two touchdowns since Sept. 11, 2010. Since that date, UK has lost by 14 or more points 13 times.
6. The brutal four-game stretch. We all know it. Louisville. Alabama. At South Carolina. Florida. Even with four straight losses, UK must keep itself intact if it wants any chance to make something positive out of a season-ending stretch that will provide opportunities to do just that.
7. Run/pass ratio. The first year of Return of the Air Raid might be far away from Neal Brown's ultimate vision, given the personnel. At Texas Tech the last three years, his offense passed 1.48 times for every carry. How similar will UK's ratio be this season?
8. Nov. 2 in Commonwealth. Nah, just kidding. Alabama State doesn't have quite the same ring to it as, say, normal Alabama.
9. Pace. Brown's offense led the nation over the last three years, averaging 80 plays per game. Will he aim to keep it that rapid, and how will that ...
10. ... Affect the defense? Stoops isn't used to playing with a quick-paced offense. Florida State's offense averaged 15 less plays per game than Texas Tech's did over that same time frame, leading to the Red Raiders defense facing about eight plays more per game. How much does that matter?
11. Touted freshmen. Can the highest-rated players in the class, Jason Hatcher and Marcus McWilson, make a serious impact in their first year of SEC play?
12. Surprise freshmen. Newcomers will get plenty of chances to play. Not much in the way of proven production stands in front of them on the depth chart. Who will be an unexpected playmaker?
13. Suit and tie. Will the pre-game dress code end up being for real? And who will look the swaggiest in business dress?
14. Avery Williamson. The senior linebacker challenged for the SEC lead in tackles last year. Can he do it again in a different defensive scheme?
15. Grey uniforms. Stoops said it "probably" wouldn't be worn this year, but could they be brought out for a sudden spark of excitement?
16. Final record. A four-win season would be considered a success. Five wins would be fantastic, given the circumstances and what it would mean for momentum to keep building.
17. Za'Darius Smith. The monster defensive end is, physically, the most ready-to-compete newcomer in the SEC. Could he stack up among the league's best pass rushers, especially working alongside a defensive line that figures to be the team's strength?
18. First-year blues. Since 1933, when UK began SEC play, only three coaches have improved the team's record in their first year at the helm: Bear Bryant, Fran Curci and Hal Mumme. Overall, first-year head coaches have gone 54-92-3.
19. Attendance. It was putrid last year, to the point where UK might as well have been counting ghosts for their numbers. But the spring game showed this fan base is ready to rally behind Stoops. Just how full will they make Commonwealth in what will probably be a struggle of a season but with a promising future ahead? After falling below 50,000 per game for the first time since the stadium expanded last season, an average above 60,000 would be a success.
20. Aug. 31. The season-opener, and it's a big one: WKU, Bobby Petrino, in a game that is no longer a gimme yet one that UK desperately needs to both get things started right and not waste one of their easiest opportunities for a win.
Can it get here already?