Buy or Sell: Your hot takes on UK football
Cats Illustrated's "Buy or Sell" feature is typically reserved for after games during football season, but we're opening it up during a busy part of the summer.
Camps are in the books and practices aren't far away.
Here are some of your hot takes along with buy/sell reaction from CI publisher Justin Rowland.
I think 2016 will be looked at as his most important year no matter what happens the rest of the way. He didn't make a bowl in his first three seasons, Drew Barker got hurt, and the Cats started slow. Had they not turned it around, we wouldn't have gotten to see Stoops bring the program to now.
But I see what you're saying in terms of it being a crossroads. That might seem unfair for a coach who has won 10 games in two of the last four years, but he's replaced an awful lot of assistants recently. Its the third offensive coordinator and the third offensive line coach in three seasons.
In that respect it's a very important season for Stoops. Not because he's on any hot seat. His seat is about as cool as any coach's seat in the country. Just because UK has really benefited from tremendous continuity over the past decade and this is testing that a bit, at the same time Cincinnati, Tennessee, and Michigan State are recruiting better and NIL is a variable that's hard to account for.
I think Stoops has a good situation when you factor everything. Sure, there are some toxic fans, and there probably always will be. There's also room for people to feel differently based on how a given season plays out. But I'm with you in that Kentucky winning seven or eight games is never going to be a bad thing.
There may be some frustrations related to not being fully appreciated given what he has accomplished or NIL but I haven't heard that anybody is close to running him out of town.
Let's go one by one. It shouldn't surprise anybody if Kentucky beats Tennessee and/or Florida. They could very well be better than both teams. I still think 1-1 in those games is probably the most likely scenario.
Beating Georgia would be a surprise even though the game is in Lexington and UK seems to have an offense that is better prepared to really compete in that game, largely due to Levis. But I still think there are enough questions and enough of a talent deficit against UGA that it would be quite an upset.
I'll pick 2-1 or 1-2 in those games.
I would probably take Rodriguez and Smoke just because they're older and C Rod is established as a guy who can rush for 1,300 yards or so in the SEC. The fumbles are tough to quantify because they were so glaring.
That said, McClain and Wright are both very promising based on what we've seen, and I'm of the mind that the offensive line is the much bigger area of interest than the backfield even given the uncertainty there.
One thing I'd caution is that one game never defines a season the way that we think it will. When they lost to USM in week 1 several years ago and rebounded that would be the classic example. But some games are definitely tone setters, like last season's win against the Gators.
UK-UF has become a must-see game annually and quietly one of the better games in the SEC. If Kentucky beats Florida in Week 2 then they would likely be 4-0 going into Oxford against an Ole Miss team that they could beat.
Lose to Florida and though they'd be 0-1 in the SEC, they could still start 3-1.
I'm confident Levis can be a high draft pick. I am less confident on what the numbers are going to look like this year compared to last year. Total yards, touchdowns ... I think those numbers go up. Whether he can avoid interceptions and be as efficient as he was at his very best last year, we will see, and I think that has to do with uncertainty about some of the other positions on the offense.
What I buy 100% is that having a potentially great quarterback is key to winning the biggest games for a program like Kentucky. That's what has to be very exciting for fans. If Levis is the quarterback most of us think he can be, it does change what is possible when you put Kentucky on the field with the best teams it will face.
Kentucky finished 79th in the country in passing defense last season, and they had been a lot better than that some other years recently. I think with Keidron Smith you have realistic hope that the starting corner situation is solid. There's a good amount of experience with some of the guys they're playing, but only a few.
I think they will be improved because I don't think they'll be as bad as they were against UGA, MSU, and UT, but I definitely have some questions about the secondary and how it shakes out on the back half of the defense will determine a lot about this season. Defensive back and offensive line are my two biggest questions.
First team All-SEC is a very high bar. Every year, I wonder about players who can get there, and we just always underestimate the number of really fantastic players across the Southeastern Conference. But I think Weaver can be on one of the All-SEC teams for sure. He showed flashes at the beginning of last year and seems to be building his body up the right way.
That seems to be the hope for Wright. Based on the very little we've seen he's a promising player, I'm just slower to draw conclusions when we're talking about mop up time and a small sample size. But, I absolutely love his combination of traits as a guy who can run between the tackles and move the pile but also has some juice to run away from guys in the open field. I like his footwork, his ability to catch, and he showed some tremendous heart for North Hardin.
That's just a bit more aggressive than I can go right now. I'm probably in the 8-9 win range for a prediction total. About where they were last year, which accounts for Levis' development and breakout potential on the one hand, and some of the losses that could be tougher to sustain.
That's a bit more pessimistic than I would say. At least I couldn't predict it will be significantly worse. There is a scenario in which I could see some struggles breaking in a new C, two new OTs, and without Wan'Dale. C Rod's status is another big factor. All of that together is not small. But I think when you factor they should still be physical up front on the interior, they have an extremely gifted QB, there are a few capable receivers and an intriguing assortment of tight ends, they should be able to move the ball well enough against most teams. I still see potential for the offense to be improved but I don't know which way it's going to go.
I touched on this earlier, but I won't be predicting it. Georgia is probably going to be my pick until Kentucky is able to knock them off. But I do think Kentucky is in a position where if Georgia loses a couple of conference games and is at 6-2 it's not wild to think Kentucky could be right there in the mix for Atlanta.
Accuracy isn't really a concern for me but folks can see things differently. I thought against Georgia when he was 32/42 he showed great ball placement and decision making against an elite opponent, and he's also the guy who can run well and hit you deep. I don't see really any concerns for Levis. Again, it's about those around him in my view.
There has been plenty of buzz about college jobs for Stoops but the NFL route is an interesting concept. He's probably not the most energetic recruiter among college head coaches and might be the kind of guy who would thrive just having to worry about the guys he's got. Whether that makes him attractive, time will tell. I haven't heard anything about him putting his name out there for something like that, though. Admittedly, my feeling has always been that it would take a Florida State, Michigan, Ohio State, or Iowa to really give Kentucky a run based on the contract he's got. I've always said Florida State is foolish for not giving him a great offer. It's a slower build but it comes with a foundation.
I think JuTahn McClain is probably the guy who would be RB1 if C Rod is out. But Wright would be right there in the mix for carries with McClain, Smoke, and Drennen.
This is one hot take that is probably unlikely if you're just playing the odds, but I love it so am on board with it. If they plan on airing it out more with a senior quarterback and all of those Wan'Dale targets are going to be spread around, considering it's still not a proven deep room, buy in on a guy who you think is talented and ready. Key does not look like a freshman to me. He showed up knowing what work is required and looks ready to go.
I could see no 1,000 yard rusher. In fact, if there's no C Rod (TBD, I don't know) then I would definitely predict this. It would be more by committee, and there would be more passing. In terms of the top three backs, I'd probably go less than 750, 750, 500, but not far off. Maybe 750, 500, 300.
We know that Mark Stoops and John Calipari have both expressed their desire for a more proactive embrace of NIL. Kentucky is cooperating with its process and guys are getting paid but there seems to be a frustration about the collective side. It's definitely helping some programs more than Kentucky and it's possible we get to the end of this class and wonder if it could have been much better, coming off 10 wins, if UK was one of the many programs associated with big payouts.
There's four and it's possible. It's not my prediction. I think Levis is going to be a high draft pick but in terms of numbers and accolades this year, I'm less sure of that. Kentucky would probably need to win 10 regular season games for this to happen and that is certainly possible.
It's in the top five for me. Whether it's better on paper than the 2018 (10-3) or 2021 (10-3) teams, that remains to be seen.
It's the best quarterback situation Kentucky has had since 2007 and overall, on offense and defense, the depth and talent is better than it has usually been.
Are there enough guys on the defense who can go out and make a great play? The offensive line, replacing Wan'Dale, and C Rod's status as well as the need for DB improvement make me say this team can be as good as we've seen but it's far from a given.