VolQuest - SCOUTING THE OPPONENT: Kentucky
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SCOUTING THE OPPONENT: Kentucky

It’s been a particularly unusual college football offseason, but with the recent news that Tennessee players will return to campus this month and start voluntary workouts on June 8, there’s real optimism that a season will still happen despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

As we do each year, here’s a brief snapshot of Tennessee’s 12 opponents for the fall. We continue the preseason preview series with a look at the Kentucky Wildcats

Kentucky — Nov. 7

2019 Record: 8-5

Head Coach: Mark Stoops

2020 OUTLOOK

A year removed from a 10-win season, Mark Stoops arguably had his best season as a head coach in 2019, leading Kentucky to eight victories despite losing his starting quarterback early in the season and having to replace All-SEC standouts Benny Snell and Josh Allen from the previous season. Behind Transformer Lynn Bowden Jr., the ‘Cats abruptly turned-course after the first month of the season, switching to essentially an option offense.

Over the next eight weeks, Bowden, a first-team All-American, led the ‘Cats in receiving and rushing, becoming a lethal running threat at quarterback (1,498 yards at 7.94 yards per attempt and 13 touchdowns). Kentucky finished the season with wins over Louisville and Va. Tech and enter this fall with a team that looks poised to have a similar season — albeit with more traditional smashmouth results. Stoops has established a real physical, blue-collar approach in Big Blue Nation, and that won’t change this year.

Bowden left school early for the NFL, but quarterback Terry Wilson (2,436 total yards and 15 touchdowns in 2018) is back after tearing his knee last season. The former JUCO product has some competition now, too, as Sawyer Smith is returns, but more notably, former Auburn blue-chip quarterback Joey Gatewood transferred to UK in January and hopes to enter the fray with an eligibility waiver. The Wildcats bring back a strong offensive line (four starters led by the SEC’s top center in Drake Jackson), as well as their top three tailbacks — a group that averaged 6.38 yards per carry and had six touchdowns apiece.

The passing game took a real backseat in 2019, but there should be more plays to be had this fall. The question is who will make them at receiver? UK’s top two wideouts are gone and Josh Ali, now a senior, returns as the team’s most productive option (23 catches for 233 yards last season). In fact, Ali is one of only three returning wideouts with more than 10 catches a year ago.

Very quietly, Kentucky was an impressive defensive team last season. A defense filled with youth made plenty of plays (No. 4 in the SEC in sacks with 33) and finished the year a Top 15 unit nationally in scoring defense. The ‘Cats return nearly 80% of their production, including seven of their top nine tacklers. They secondary has a trio of experienced vets, led by safety Yusef Corker (who topped the team in tackles in 2019). They also get to slot in former LSU 5-star cornerback signee Kelvin Joseph, who is eligible after sitting out the year.

Brad White’s unit loses some pass rushing talent (Calvin Taylor had a team-high 8.5 sacks) and the run defense must improve (No. 12 in SEC in yards allowed per rush at 4.53), but there’s depth up front with plenty of 275-pound bodies led by Josh Paschal and Marquan McCall. They also return mammoth nose tackle Quinton Bohanna (6-4, 365-pounds) and outside linebacker Jamar ‘Boogie’ Watson (11.5 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks).

2020 SCHEDULE
SEPT. 5 EASTERN MICHIGAN

SEPT. 12

@ FLORIDA

SEPT. 19

KENT STATE

SEPT. 26

SOUTH CAROLINA

OCT. 3

@ AUBURN

OCT. 10

EASTERN ILLINOIS

OCT. 17

VANDY

OCT. 24

@ MISSOURI

NOV. 7

@ TENNESSEE

NOV. 14

MISSISSIPPI STATE

NOV. 21

GEORGIA

NOV. 28

@ LOUISVILLE

NOTABLE NEW ADDITIONS

FIVE THINGS TO KNOW

1. Kentucky has had four straight seasons with a 1,000 rusher — Bowden, Snell, Snell and Stanley Boom Wiliams + Snell — and if Stoops’ ground-and-pound approach to wins is going to continue, it needs to continue the steak this fall. Senior Asim Rose is probably the safest bet based on potential touches (149 carries for 826 yards and six scores last season), but sophomores Kavosiey Smoke and Christopher Rodriguez Jr. both have 1,000 yard potential if given enough opportunities.

2. Kentucky plays a style with such a slim margin for error, that two categories it must improve upon in 2020 are red zone efficiency and third downs. The ‘Cats were middling in both categories last fall, ranking No. 9 in the SEC in both. An inability to extend drives + mistakes in the red zone cost UK potential wins over Tennessee and Florida — two one-possession losses.

3. The Wildcats signed a Top 25 class last cycle (No. 21), among its best ever. They landed in-state blue-chippers like quarterback Beau Allen, offensive lineman John Young and defensive tackle Octavious Oxendine. They also beat out some real competition for guys like Justin Rodgers, Tre’vonn Rybka and Michael Drennen. While UK was unable to hold a spring practice, half of the 2020 class (11 signees) enrolled early in January.

4. I don’t usually spotlight specialists, but punters are people, too! Max Duffy is among the best in the country, earning unanimous first-team All-America honors and winning the Ray Guy Award. The 27-year-old Aussie led the nation with 47.1 yards per punt. With his sky-high kicks, Kentucky also led the nation’s in net punting average (45.1).

5. Kentucky’s win total sits at 6.5 at most spots, with the consensus being the ‘Cats will barely reach bowl eligibility. And yet, Stoops has continuously shown an ability to out-perform expectations. The ‘Cats haven’t won fewer than seven games since 2015. With a schedule that’s not overly daunting, it’s hard to see UK missing a bowl for the first time in five years.