Kentucky has lost two likely starters — offensive tackle Cole Mosier and receiver Dorian Baker — to season-ending injuries and the Cats don’t play their first game until Saturday at Southern Mississippi.
Yet Kentucky fans remain almost giddy about this team and what it can do this year. The Cats even received votes in the Associated Press preseason top 25 poll after finishing last year 7-6 and playing in the TaxSlayer Bowl.
So what do media members who cover Kentucky think is a realistic record for coach Mark Stoops’ team to achieve this season?
Tom Leach, Leach Report/UK Radio Network: “Getting to eight wins in the regular season for the first time since ‘84 seems like it’s realistic. Not an expectation but a realistic goal. The reason is they have the greatest number of proven performers returning as probably any UK team since that ‘84 group or maybe ‘07.”
Freddie Maggard, Kentucky Sports Radio: I don’t do season record predictions. Guess I’m cut out of the old school cloth as the former player in me surfaces. So my focus is solely on Southern Mississippi. The Cats cannot afford to drop another non-conference game to the Golden Eagles. Concern here is kickoff in Hattiesburg. It’s going to be hot. No, it’s likely to be really, really hot. Depth will significantly factor as attrition will be just as important as slant routes and blitzes. This should especially be applicable to the Cat’s offensive line who should have the upper hand. Add a couple of 200-pound plus, physical running backs in Benny Snell and A.J. Rose should give the Cats an upper hand.
“UK must account for running back Ito Smith at all times as he’s the only active FBS player with 3,000 rush and 1,000 career pass yards. I wrote an article on Kentucky Sports Radio at the end of 2016 and voted Smith one of the top two running backs that the Cats faced last season. Southern Miss is also loaded at receiver but must replace four-year starting quarterback Nick Mullens. Nickel Picasso Nelson and end Xavier Thigpen are expected to lead its defense that has to replace tackle Dylan Bradley who at times dominated the line of scrimmage in last year’s matchup.”
Rob Bromley, WKYT-TV sports anchor: “I certainly think 7-5 again is a must and 8-4 can be done. They’ll get a good shot at Tennessee and Florida at home but games that were on the edge last year —South Carolina, Mississippi St. and Vanderbilt — are all on the road. Overall the schedule is not as tough. They play Ole Miss at home rather than Alabama on the road. Louisville is a home game.”
Mary Jo Ford, Mary Jo & Dan Radio Show host on ESPN Radio: “I think a 7-5 record is realistic, and I think that would be fantastic. I'm not ready to project any higher than that until consistency has been shown. We have all watched Kentucky football long enough to know that!”
Ryan Lemond, Kentucky Sports Radio: “I think seven wins minimum. Seven wins would mean they won all the games they were supposed to. Six wins is obviously acceptable, but I think BBN would be a little disappointed with six. The program needs seven to take a step forward. Eight or nine wins would probably mean they would have to beat either Florida, Tennessee, Louisville, or at Georgia, and the odds are against winning one of these games.”
Keith Taylor, Kentucky Today: “I’m thinking 8-4 is very realistic and attainable because the schedule is in the team's favor. Winning close games will be a difference-maker and the Cats proved last year they could pull out the tight ones, but they lost a couple in the same fashion. Learning from past mistakes will hopefully ease the frustration of losing close encounters.”
Shawn Smith, gobigbluecountry.com: “I have them finishing 9-3, which would be the first time a UK team has won eight games or more before a bowl victory since 1984. At worst I believe they are an 8-4 team. If you remove Florida, Tennessee, Georgia, and Louisville, I think Kentucky is better than the other eight teams on the schedule. The road schedule is crucial to success and its rather light if there is such a thing in the SEC. Trips to Southern Miss, South Carolina, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, and Georgia are all winnable games.
“SEC contenders find a way to win road games and that is what the Wildcats must do if they want to take the next step. A 3-2 road record is attainable, but a 4-1 record away from Kroger Field would put them in position to win the SEC Eastern Division. They just cannot afford to drop a game to Southern Miss, or Vanderbilt, like they have in recent years. Take care of the teams you are better than and try to steal one or two against the big four on the schedule.”
Curtis Burch, Big Blue Insider/WLAP: “I think 8-4 is a real possibility, but 7-5 is the most realistic record.”
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Tim Couch played three years at Kentucky after a record-setting career at Leslie County High School. However, if UK had not fired coach Bill Curry after his freshman year, he would never have stayed at UK and became the No. 1 overall pick in the 1999 NFL draft by the Cleveland Browns.
“I actually was not very excited about playing for Bill Curry,” Couch, who threw for 132 touchdowns and over 12,000 yards at Leslie County said. “They had won one game the year before I signed. I had other offers. I had actually committed to Tennessee.
“Rather than have a falling out with my dad, I told him if he wanted me to go to Kentucky that bad, I would do it for a year and see what happens.”
It wasn’t good. Not even close to a good fit.
“I had every (national high school) passing record and he wanted me to run the option,” Couch laughed and said. “I get on campus and the first play we put in was the option. It did not go well. It was probably the worst year of my life.
“I was in the wrong system. I was going to transfer and go to Tennessee. I decided I would give it one year but I was going to leave.”
Then Kentucky athletics director C.M. Newton told Couch after the decision to fire Curry was made to wait until the search for a new coach was finished before he left UK. He told Couch he wanted to find a coach to suit his skill set — and he did in Hal Mumme.
“My first meeting with coach Mumme, he said, ‘You are the starter and we are going to throw the ball 50 times.’ I knew right then I was staying at Kentucky,” Couch said.
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Kentucky opened its volleyball season last week and two-time SEC Libero of the Year Ashley Dusek already had a huge fan in Danville in 6-year-old Naomi Wheeler because of her experience at the UK volleyball camp this summer.
“She showed the kids a love and enthusiasm for the game first of all,” Heather Wheeler, Naomi’s mother, said. “Secondly she put the time and effort into interacting with the kids in a fun and positive manner. And even though these were really young kids, she was patient in teaching them real, fundamental volleyball skills.
“In the end, she — and all of the girls — really acted like they wanted to be there and loved interacting with the kids, not like it was something that they were required to do as UK players.”
Naomi Wheeler has the UK volleyball poster featuring Dusek on her wall at home.
“Of course, it doesn't hurt that Naomi's momma was a defensive specialist in college,” Heather Wheeler laughed and said.
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Ohio freshman playmaker Lynn Bowden figures to make his collegiate debut Saturday at Southern Mississippi. Don’t expect to see former Ohio State star Maurice Clarett, who was part of the 2002 national championship team, there but he will be watching after serving as a mentor for Bowden in recent years.
Clarett had a tumultuous career at Ohio State before trying to force his way into the NFL early. He ended up on several lower level pro teams before going to jail in 2006 for robbery.
Many have compared Bowden’s talent to Clarett.
“It is good to be compared to somebody, but I can only be me. I am going to work and work to be me,” Bowden said. “But he (Clarett) is like a big brother to me. He makes sure I am on track and keeping my head right. I learn from some of his mistakes. He’s not perfect, but he’s still a human being. I don’t care what nobody thinks about him. He’s my guy.”
Clarett stayed out of Bowden’s recruitment.
“He believes in making your own choices. Big Blue Nation was for me,” Bowden said.
The freshman understands that not everyone appreciates his relationship with Clarett and many see it is a problem, not an advantage.
“I try to stay off social media. More things I don’t need to be distracted,” Bowden said.
Kentucky recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow thinks Clarett’s relationship with Bowden is a “great thing” for the Kentucky freshman.
“I believe Lynn can benefit a lot from him. Now Maurice is in a different place. He’s a grown, mature young man. He’s looking at mistakes he made and he sees another kid people say is the best to come out of that area in 30 years,” Marrow said. “I think it has been a bonus for Maurice to mentor him and I just thank God that Maurice met him. I am very happy for that because he has been a help to Lynn.”
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Quote of the Week: “Kentucky has beaten South Carolina three years in a row. They should beat South Carolina. They are better than South Carolina. The program is in better shape than South Carolina. That would make UK 3-0 going into the Florida game and Hall of Fame weekend. Think how awesome Kroger Field would be that day,” Kentucky Sports Radio’s Ryan Lemond on the key game of the season for UK.
Quote of the Week 2: “It'll be a huge challenge for us. We have the best program in the league coming in here first. They'll be long and will defend well. It will be a big-time challenge,” LSU basketball coach Will Wade on opening SEC play by hosting UK Jan. 3.
Quote of the Week 3: “He's not out there looking for his own stats. He's on loose balls, grinding out rebounds, making the extra play on defense. He attacks the rim and can shoot it as well,” recruiting analyst Jerry Meyer on 2018 shooting guard/UK target Keldon Johnson.
Sophomore running back Benny Snell will have a big role in just how successful UK is this season. (Vicky Graff Photo)