Ten Bold Predictions for UK Football
This is the last weekend before Kentucky's 2021 football campaign starts so there's no sense waiting any longer.
Cats Illustrated publisher Justin Rowland offers up 10 predictions about UK football before a much anticipated season.
Kentucky will have the most improved passing game in college football
Kentucky ranked No. 122 in the nation last year in passing offense, producing only 121.5 yards per game through the air with just seven touchdowns.
Given that context, calling for this to be the most improved passing game in college football does not seem to be an extreme opinion at all.
Kentucky will come close to doubling its passing yardage per game. It won't be an Air Raid. You won't mistake it for Alabama's. But it will be respectable for the first time in a long time.
Will Levis will be a top half of the SEC quarterback
Given that there's no Mac Jones or Kyle Trask that doesn't sound all too daunting. But it will be that kind of leap for the passing game.
In terms of arm strength Levis is right at the top of the SEC's rankings here. He seems driven to take command of the room and become the face of the franchise, so to speak. He won't be an All-SEC performer, but Levis will have the kind of season that sets him up for those kind of preseason accolades in 2022.
Fans will love how Kentucky's tight ends are featured
Finally, Kentucky will use its tight ends in a creative, dynamic manner. That's even without Keaten Upshaw, who would have had had a big role this year as well. Between Justin Rigg, Brenden Bates, and Izayah Cummings, the 'Cats will have one of the more involved set of tight ends in terms of SEC passing games.
There won't be any one player who claims most of the catches, yards, or touchdowns. Everyone's talking about Cummings and rightfully so but he's young and will have his share of ups and downs as you'd have to expect.
This next offseason everyone is going to be dreaming about the potential to get Upshaw and Cummings on the field together in '22 with Bates sliding into that every down role that Rigg has occupied.
The 'Cats will have 6-8 players drafted in 2022
For the third time in four years it will be a very strong draft for the Kentucky football program. RB Chris Rodriguez (junior), OT Darian Kinnard, OT Dare Rosenthal (junior), NT Marquan McCall, DL Josh Paschal, LB Jordan Wright, LB DeAndre Square, and S Yusuf Corker will be the players selected in the upcoming draft. Others will have the opportunity to earn their way onto a roster via the undrafted route, and still others might opt to return for another year in the second "super senior" experiment.
These will come to be regarded as the "glory years" not only in terms of wins and losses but also in producing professional talent. That's a big part of sustaining program success.
Final regular season prediction for UK: 9-3
Most over/under win totals have Kentucky set at 6.5 or 7 going into the 2021 season. My final prediction for Kentucky's regular season is 9-3. But it won't play out as neatly as so many expect it to. There will be a win and a loss or two that surprise us. Originally, months ago, I started out picking 7-5. I feel like the buzz about Levis and the transfers make a substantial difference.
Here are my game-by-game picks:
UK 45, ULM 14
UK 27, Mizzou 24
UK 48, Chattanooga 7
UK 24, South Carolina 14
Florida 30, Kentucky 20
Kentucky 21, LSU 20
Georgia 35, Kentucky 10
Mississippi State 31, Kentucky 24
Kentucky 28, Tennessee 21
Kentucky 31, Vanderbilt 20
Kentucky 40, New Mexico State 17
Kentucky 38, Louisville 24
Kentucky will defeat LSU
To piggyback off the previous prediction, that will be Kentucky's signature moment and win during the 2021 season.
There was some hope in Lexington last year that Kentucky might have drawn LSU rather than Alabama with the additional SEC game in a COVID year. The Cats get the Tigers this year and Ed Orgeron's program is still vulnerable.
Even losing Rosenthal to Kentucky, LSU is going to be solid on the offensive line and excellent on the defensive line. This won't be easy. But UK gets LSU at home and the Tigers lost to Missouri and Mississippi State last season.
Fourteen years after UK took down No. 1 LSU in Commonwealth Stadium, they'll do it again to a much more modestly ranked Tiger team in Lexington.
DeAndre Square will lead Kentucky in tackles
Square has been a great success story at Kentucky as a player who has changed his body, learned under and alongside some memorable fellow Wildcats, and will have been a three-year starter. He's right in the middle of the defense as that unit's captain and Kentucky is expecting him to play at a high level.
He finished third on the team in tackles last year and was second the year before that. This is the year Square leads UK in that category and he will stabilize an inside linebackers room that will perform at a higher level than it seemed they would be capable of just a few months ago.
Trevin Wallace will be a freshman All-American
Jacquez Jones has missed most of fall camp and even for a seasoned senior that will require some rust to be shaken off. He's going to be in a new defensive scheme. Jones will play a lot, maybe even a starter's level of snaps, but he's going to have Trevin Wallace pushing him.
In fact, I'll call for Wallace to be a starter at some point this season. Will it be Game 1? Will it be Game 12? No clue, but I'll lean toward earlier in the year. He's got too much talent to stay off the field and Kentucky's going to need that speed and playmaking ability to get the defense to another level.
Based on what everyone's saying Kentucky hasn't had a true freshman defensive talent like Wallace in quite some time. There's no reason he can't be a freshman All-American this year.
The Missouri game will not define UK's season
One game rarely does. We tend to have an idea of how games are going to play out and where the ebbs and flows are going to come on the schedule. But in real time and during the season it rarely seems to play out that way. The sport is more unpredictable than we tend to imagine before the games kick off.
Kentucky lost to USM and was blown out by Florida early in the 2016 season but rebounded to win seven games and save Mark Stoops' job. Go through any season results since that time and find the preseason game that was labeled "must win". Rarely does it turn out to be a true must win. And usually, there's more than a game or two that plays out in a way that nobody expected.
The UK-Missouri game is important. It may be the biggest toss-up. It may shape the season for a week or two in terms of momentum. And these teams may be jockeying for a place in the SEC East pecking order against one another. But it probably won't define the season, even if it looks like it might now.
The transfer portal will help Kentucky again next offseason
Kentucky, Georgia, and Oklahoma did the transfer portal better than any team in the country this offseason.
The Wildcats brought in QB Will Levis, WR Wan'Dale Robinson, OT Dare Rosenthal, WR Tre'Von Morgan, LB Jacquez Jones, and LB Luke Fulton. They didn't lose any major contributors to the portal. That's a huge net plus.
What's the likelihood that it works out just as favorable for UK next year? It's impossible to predict what players will be available next offseason, but even in a small sample we know that Kentucky's coaches are familiar with how this process works.
Kentucky will be able to tell next year's batch of portal players that they had a lot of success with this year's group, and served as a springboard for the NFL in at least one and maybe two cases. They'll be able to point to Kelvin Joseph's journey last year as well.
This will become one way for Kentucky to "narrow the gap" on the talent front with the league's top programs. Sell the SEC to older college players who are looking for a showcase opportunity, and you'll have more playing time to offer than some other places.