Rowland: 10 questions going into the second half of the season

Justin Rowland, Publisher
Cats Illustrated

The bye week is the perfect opportunity to pause, reflect on what has happened and think about what's to come.

Here are ten questions for Kentucky football with 5-1 in the rear view mirror and six games remaining.

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Will Lynn Bowden continue to take on an expanded role in the offense?

Bowden seems to be taking the Benny Snell path in his freshman year at Kentucky. He did not make an impact in his first couple of games as a Wildcat but he's coming on strong now, both on returns and as a slot receiver. He was the SEC's Freshman of the Week for his play on Saturday and it seems like he's taking on more and more responsibilities, especially with Charles Walker out recently. Bowden probably won't finish the season with the same total number of touches that a lot of people anticipated, but it's worth remembering he is still very young and arrived late. He's also hitting his stride, so it won't be surprising if his best in 2017 is yet to come.

What's the ceiling for these receivers?

If there's a position group that has overperformed on offense relative to preseason expectations it's probably the wide receivers. There's not one All-SEC player, it seems, but there are several SEC quality contributors in Garrett Johnson, Blake Bone, Kayaune Ross, Tavin Richardson and Bowden. One of the reasons Stephen Johnson's numbers at quarterback have been improved from last season, in spite of the line's step back, has been the improved play of the receivers. What's this group's ceiling? They're looking very good.

Just how good is the run defense...really?

Kentucky ranks 11th nationally in run defense but how stout will the Cats prove to be against the backs and lines they'll face on the back half of the schedule? It's an open question.

The ranking has been bolstered by strong performances in four of the team's six games, but Missouri and Florida both had their way with the Cats on the ground. They especially found success running the ball when they really needed to.

Here are the national rushing yardage rankings for Kentucky's first five FBS opponents thus far:

Southern Miss: 47th

Missouri: 58th

Florida: 74th

South Carolina: 121st

Eastern Michigan: 129th (of 129)

So there's no question the run defense numbers are a little inflated based on competition.

The good news: teams ranked 92nd (Tennessee), 126th (Vanderbilt) and 127th (Ole Miss) are still on the schedule.

Georgia (11th), Mississippi State (17th) and Louisville (42nd) should be much tougher tests, perhaps tougher than anything Kentucky has seen to date for different reasons (MSU and UofL because of the quarterbacks).

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Is Drake Jackson "the guy" at center from now on?

On Mark Stoops' Monday call-in show he said that playing Jackson at center allows Jervontius Stallings to play the right guard position where he's a better player. Thus, Stoops said, Jackson at center makes the line more physical up front and especially inside. When that is coupled with the lack of poor snaps, a credit to Jackson, it's fair to wonder whether this center competition might be settled moving forward.

Of course, Jackson will need to continue to play at a solid level. He's a redshirt freshman so some hiccups should be expected, but Saturday's play was about as sound a center performance as the Cats have had this season. So maybe the Jackson era has begun.

Will UK be as opportunistic as it has been thus far?

Turnover margin and special teams success are the two biggest reasons Kentucky has reached the midway point with five wins. It's reasonable to think the offense should improve, especially if Jackson bolsters the center position, but it's safe to say that Kentucky will need to win the special teams game and the turnover battle to post a strong record in the second half when the overall level of competition is likely to take some step up, at least on the basis of talent.

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Is the secondary ready for the quarterbacks its going to see from this point forward?

Kentucky's secondary ranks near the bottom of several statistical categories (the most significant, perhaps, being pass efficiency defense as a comprehensive measure). Are they prepared to face Georgia's Jake Fromm, Mississippi State's Nick Fitzgerald, Ole Miss' Shea Patterson, Vanderbilt's Kyle Shurmur and Louisville's Lamar Jackson?

With Mike Edwards playing in the box (and making tackles at virtually an identical spot on the field, on average, as those made by middle linebacker Courtney Love), that leaves Darius West and Kendall Randolph as the safeties, and they're physical players but have not been great in coverage this year. Given Lonnie Johnson's struggles in coverage as well, the secondary needs to improve quite a bit with several quality passers on tap in the second half.

Then again...

How many "dumpster fires" will the Cats face down the stretch?

Tennessee already qualifies. That was earned when the Volunteers lost 41-0 to Georgia on their home field.

Ole Miss? Yes, the Rebels qualify as well.

What about Vanderbilt? The Commodores have lost to three talented teams (Alabama, Florida, Georgia), but they were not competitive at all in two of those three games and didn't play the Gators nearly as close as the Cats did.

How about Mississippi State? The Bulldogs have a golden opportunity to get back on track against an unimpressive BYU team this week before Kentucky travels to Starkville, but following an impressive win against LSU, the Bulldogs have been utterly dominated by Georgia and Auburn.

Kentucky still controls its own destiny, but it will be equally interesting to see what state its upcoming opponents are in down the stretch.

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If Josh Allen finishes the season as strong as he started it ... will he have a tough decision to make?

It's senseless to start to speculate too much about what Kentucky's team will look like in 2018. If you did that around this time last year you couldn't have accounted for all the losses Kentucky would have sustained.

Nonetheless, the Allen question is interesting because it's timely and real. He's developed into one of Kentucky's two best defensive players (along with Mike Edwards) and has become a legitimately elite pass rusher. He's obviously got a world of potential and scouts seem to be drooling over him, so much that there was that talk of a potential first round future after this year.

If Allen finishes the season with a six-game stretch that's as strong as his first six games, he's probably gone. But that would mean Kentucky's defense would benefit from another great stretch of play from Allen.

How much of a boost will Jordan Jones provide to the defense?

Mark Stoops said he hoped Jordan Jones would practice this week, and practice Jones did on Tuesday. That's a huge development for a defense that has been missing the All-SEC linebacker.

With a bye week to get acclimated to football action in practice again, Jones should step right back in seamlessly against the Bulldogs. His speed and ability to track plays from behind should be very helpful especially against a quarterback like Nick Fitzgerald, the next time the Cats take the field.

Is this team really better on the road than at home?

By this point there's a bit of real evidence to suggest that Kentucky might be a better road team than a home team. That's not all that common, but it's certainly not without precedent. In Kentucky's case in 2017, we're talking about a team that has defeated Southern Miss and South Carolina on the road, and those were two of the team's better efforts on the season. Games against Eastern Kentucky, Eastern Michigan and Missouri? Not three of Kentucky's best games of the season.

There's no reason to speculate on the reasons for why Kentucky might have played better on the road than at home this season. But if that's true, it wouldn't be a bad thing for the Cats in the second half.

Kentucky draws Georgia, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State on the road. They will likely be underdogs in at least two of those three games (UGA, MSU). Kentucky fans could outnumber Commodore fans in Nashville.

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