It’s that time again. Kentucky football kicks off the 2017 season in one week.
Coach Mark Stoops is entering Year 5 in Lexington, and last year’s campaign brought signs of progress. The Wildcats won seven games for the first time since 2009 and played in a bowl game for the first time since 2010.
Seven wins was an important step for the program, but the Cats could record their best season in decades if they notch eight regular-season wins. It’s a mark Kentucky hasn’t reached since 1984.
Is an eight-win season in store for this Kentucky team? Here are game-by-game predictions from SEC Country Kentucky writers Kyle Tucker and Joe Mussatto. Although they turned out pretty similar, the picks were made separately.
at Southern Miss (Sept. 2)
Joe: Kentucky 38, Southern Miss 28
Kentucky fell apart in a home opening loss to Southern Miss last season, but this one will end differently. Running back Benny Snell didn’t play against the Golden Eagles last season, but he’ll be the go-to option this time around.
Kyle: Kentucky 38, Southern Miss 24
This one is a bit tricky, having to go down to Hattiesburg, Miss. and all, but the Cats were up 25 on the Golden Eagles last season for a reason. UK is more talented — and now seeking revenge for that collapse in Lexington.
vs. Eastern Kentucky (Sept. 9)
Joe: Kentucky 55, Eastern Kentucky 17
This is the game Kentucky needs before a tough trip to South Carolina. The Cats should waste no time putting the game out of reach and giving their starters a breather late in the game.
Kyle: Kentucky 45, Eastern Kentucky 10
Stoops’ team has come a long way from having to sweat out a 34-27 overtime win at home over the Colonels in 2015. EKU, an FCS team, is coming off a 3-8 season.
at South Carolina (Sept. 16)
Joe: South Carolina 27, Kentucky 19
Kentucky beat South Carolina 17-10 last year, but the Wildcats were at home and the Gamecocks hadn’t yet handed their offense to breakout freshman quarterback Jake Bentley. Kentucky has won three straight in this series, but the Cats have won just once in Columbia, S.C., this century. A blackout crowd at night won’t be a welcoming environment.
Kyle: South Carolina 28, Kentucky 24
The Gamecocks are rising under Will Muschamp, and this one is on the road. The Wildcats, who do own an impressive three-game winning streak in the series, narrowly escaped with a 17-10 win at home last fall — before dazzling freshman quarterback Jake Bentley took over.
vs. Florida (Sept. 23)
Joe: Florida 27, Kentucky 14
The Gators will likely have the best defense in the SEC East, and that’ll be enough to push Florida’s dominant streak over Kentucky to 31 games. As for the positive, this one will be more competitive than the 45-7 bashing last year in The Swamp.
Kyle: Florida 24, Kentucky 21
If the Cats can get to this game 3-0, Kroger Field will be rocking when the Gators come to town. Many believe this is the year UK finally snaps its 30-game losing streak against Florida. But a 45-7 score last season and those three decades of futility mean I’ll have to see it to believe it.
vs. Eastern Michigan (Sept. 30)
Joe: Kentucky 51, Eastern Michigan 34
This could be a sneaky good game. Eastern Michigan had a winning season last year for the first time since 1995, and quarterback Brogan Roback passed for 2,600 yards and 18 touchdowns in 10 games played. All in all, it’ll be a needed break from the SEC grind and Kentucky coasts late.
Kyle: Kentucky 35, Eastern Michigan 14
The Eagles went 7-6 and made a bowl game last season, but they’re picked fourth in the MAC West this year and there’s no reason the Wildcats should struggle to win this one at home.
vs. Missouri (Oct. 7)
Joe: Kentucky 35, Missouri 24
Missouri is expected to be better than last year, and junior quarterback Drew Lock is among the best passers in the SEC. But it’s too hard to get past Kentucky’s convincing 35-21 win on the road last season, a game they led 28-7 at one point. The Cats get their first SEC win of the season here.
Kyle: Kentucky 27, Missouri 17
The Wildcats have won two in a row (including last fall in Columbia) against the Tigers, who’ve lost their teeth since back-to-back SEC East titles in 2013 and 2014. There were signs of progress late last season, but Mizzou went 4-8 and there’s no reason to believe it has done enough to catch a surging Kentucky.
at Mississippi State (Oct. 21)
Joe: Mississippi State 38, Kentucky 34
Remember last year’s instant classic? Austin MacGinnis nailed a 51-yard field goal as the clock expired to give Kentucky a 40-38 win. The Cats contained Bulldogs quarterback Nick Fitzgerald in the air, but he rushed for more than 100 yards and 2 scores. Fitzgerald is back and winning on the road isn’t easy. Look for a lot of scoring.
Kyle: Mississippi State 35, Kentucky 31
This game and the finale against Louisville are the make-or-breaks for the Cats to hit eight regular-season wins for the first time in 33 years. They have to win one of them. Problem is, both have electric dual-threat QBs — kryptonite for UK’s defense. Nick Fitzgerald ran for 107 yards in Lexington last season, and this one is in Starkville, Miss.
vs. Tennessee (Oct. 28)
Joe: Kentucky 33, Tennessee 27
Kentucky has beaten Tennessee once since 1985. Make that twice after this one. The Vols have more talent on the roster, but there’s quarterback uncertainty in the post-Josh Dobbs era. Tennessee’s offense has wrecked Kentucky in the last three years, averaging 50 points per game against the Cats. Kentucky gets enough stops to eek out a close one.
Kyle: Kentucky 28, Tennessee 24
The Cats might not get Florida this year, but this feels like the year to catch another nemesis. Kentucky lost 26 in a row in this series, and somehow ended that streak with a receiver at QB in 2011. It promptly resumed losing five straight to the Vols. That’s 31 losses in 32 years. But UK is up, UT is down and Kroger Field will electric.
vs. Ole Miss (Nov. 4)
Joe: Kentucky 38, Ole Miss 20
Ole Miss’ program is in shambles, but quarterback Shea Patterson could be a stabilizer. Who knows what Ole Miss will look like come November, but its defense is expected to be among the worst in the SEC. Kentucky can’t afford to lose this one at home. A win here gets the Cats back to .500 in the conference and locks up a bowl bid for the second year in a row.
Kyle: Kentucky 35, Ole Miss 28
The Rebels are a mess, coming off a losing season, caught up in an NCAA investigation and having lost coach Hugh Freeze suddenly because of repeated pocket dials to escort services. Dang the luck. If Stoops could’ve hand-picked which team from the SEC West he’d like to play at home, this is the one.
at Vanderbilt (Nov. 11)
Joe: Kentucky 24, Vanderbilt 20
Kentucky can’t overlook Vanderbilt. The Wildcats hung on for a 20-13 win last season, and Vandy will be a tough out on the road. After dropping SEC road games at South Carolina and Mississippi State, Kentucky moves to 4-3 in the SEC at Vanderbilt.
Kyle: Kentucky 24, Vanderbilt 17
Stoops and Co. have taken 2 of 3 from the Commodores, but Vandy finished last season with a flourish — 4-2 in the second half of the regular season, including wins at Georgia and home against Ole Miss and Tennessee. Despite that, and the fact this year’s game is in Nashville, UK has assembled a more talented roster.
at Georgia (Nov. 18)
Joe: Georgia 31, Kentucky 13
It’s arguably the toughest game on Kentucky’s schedule and Georgia could be playing for a spot in the SEC Championship game by this time. A Georgia offense of Jacob Eason, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel and a Kirby Smart defense doesn’t give Kentucky a large window of hope in this one. The Cats, like last season, finish 4-4 in the SEC.
Kyle: Georgia 31, Kentucky 20
The Bulldogs have won seven straight in this series, which they’ve dominated with a 56-12-2 all-time record. They needed a last-second field goal to beat the Cats in Lexington last fall, but it’s asking a lot to beat the preseason SEC East favorite in Athens.
vs. Louisville (Nov. 25)
Joe: Louisville 38, Kentucky 35
Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson is back and Louisville will have a bad taste in its mouth from Kentucky’s upset win last season. Louisville has big concerns on the offensive line, but it’ll be tough to topple a Heisman winner twice. The Cardinals open the season ranked 16th, and could be playing for something special by season’s end. A kick decided last year’s contest, and the same could happen in 2017.
Kyle: Louisville 31, Kentucky 28
Think Lamar Jackson wants a little redemption for his late fumble that cost the Cardinals against their in-state rival last season? Stephen Johnson outdueling the Heisman winner and four-touchdown favorite U of L was one of college football’s biggest stunners in 2016. The hunch here: Jackson strikes back in Lexington.
Final Kentucky record
Joe: 7-5 (4-4 SEC)
Kyle: 7-5 (4-4 SEC)
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