Kentucky Breakdown

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Going into the crucial sixth season of his tenure, Mark Stoops appears to have his best overall team at Kentucky. The Wildcats, who are off a 7-6 straight-up record and a 4-9 against-the-spread ledger in 2017, return seven starters on offense and eight on defense.

UK won its first three games last season and was 5-1 going into a road assignment in Starkville. Truth be told, Stoops’s bunch should’ve been 6-0 at that point if not for gift-wrapping Florida a pair of TD passes when UK didn’t even line up a defender on a wide receiver split out wide.

The first such play came on a fourth-and-short situation from midfield late in the first half. The second came on a third-and-goal play coming out of a timeout in the final minute of a 28-27 loss, UK’s 31st in a row against the Gators. This is the longest active losing streak in an FBS rivalry.

After getting dusted 45-7 at Mississippi State, UK responded to win a 29-26 decision over Tennessee to clinch a postseason berth. However, the ‘Cats gave up a TD pass in the final five seconds of a 37-34 home loss to Ole Miss. They’d bounce back to throttle Vanderbilt by a 44-21 count as 2.5-point road underdogs to improve to 7-3.

But Kentucky lost its last two regular-season games in blowout fashion at Georgia (42-13) and vs. Louisville (44-17). Then at the Music City Bowl, UK lost 24-23 to Northwestern after failing on a two-point conversion in the final minute. In other words, three gut-wrenching defeats by five combined points prevented the ‘Cats from winning 10 games.

Kentucky’s roster has a slew of future NFL players, including junior RB Benny Snell, TE C.J. Conrad, OT Landon Young, OG Logan Stenberg, LB Josh Allen, LB Jordan Jones and safety Mike Edwards. Senior CBs Derrick Baity and Chris Westry are a solid duo that could play on Sundays in the future as well.

The problem for this UK team – and for gamblers looking to form a preseason opinion or wager on its win total – is that there’s zero experience at the QB position. The battle to take the first snap in the opener vs. Central Michigan is two-man race between Terry Wilson and Gunnar Hoak. Neither player has taken a collegiate snap.

Wilson signed with Oregon in the 2016 class before transferring after one year. He had a 26/11 touchdown-to-interception ratio at Garden City Community College in Kansas last season. 247Sports ranked Wilson as the No. 2 dual-threat QB and the No. 34 overall player in the 2018 juco class. He chose UK over offers from Baylor, Ole Miss and Indiana.

Hoak, a third-year sophomore who enrolled early before the ’16 campaign, arrived at the same time as offensive coordinator Eddie Gran and QBs coach Darin Hinshaw. Therefore, the 3-star recruit out of Dublin (OH) High School has the advantage of being in the same system for three years now.

Whoever is under center, he’ll be able to lean on one of the nation’s premier RBs in Snell, who ran for 1,333 yards and 19 touchdowns while averaging 5.1 yards per carry in ’17. Those numbers would’ve been better if not for his ejection from the Music City Bowl in the first quarter. This was one of the most utterly despicable rulings by a referee that I’ve seen in college football history. Snell garnered second-team All-SEC honors last year and is a first-team All-SEC pick in Phil Steele’s preseason magazine.

Snell will work behind an offensive line that has 60 career starts between them. This group also adds E.J. Price, a former four-star recruit to USC in ’16 who transferred to Lexington and sat out last year.

Stoops and his staff are optimistic that senior WR Dorian Baker can stay healthy. He went down with a season-ending injury in August of last year. Baker had 55 receptions for 608 yards and three TDs as a sophomore in 2015. He has 88 career catches for 1,015 yards and six TDs.

Conrad, a preseason second-team All-SEC TE in Steele’s preseason mag, has 50 career grabs for 697 yards and nine TDs. Junior Tavin Richardson and sophomore Lynn Bowden are the likely starters at WR alongside Baker. Richardson had 27 receptions for 371 yards and one TD in ’17, while Bowden had 17 catches for 210 yards.

Kentucky’s defense gave up 381, 346 and 333 rushing yards in its three defeats to close last year. This stop unit allowed an average of 28.2 points per game even though it produced the most sacks (30) since Stoops arrived.

Edwards was a first-team All-SEC choice in ’17, recording a team-best 97 tackles to go with four interceptions, three tackles for loss, one sack, one QB hurry and seven passes broken up. Steele has him as a preseason second-team All-American, while Allen is a fourth-team All-American.

Allen earned third-team All-SEC honors last year when he recorded 65 tackles, seven sacks, 3.5 TFL’s, four QB hurries, three PBU, two forced fumbles and one interception. Jones was a second-team All-SEC selection in 2016, but he missed four games and wasn’t 100 percent healthy for a few others in ’17.

During that ’16 campaign, I realized that I loved Jones as a player. His team was taking its 30th consecutive defeat to UF at The Swamp. If you’ve never been to Gainesville in mid-September, I can assure you that a sunny day makes it feel like the temperature is at least 100 degrees and even hotter sometimes. Kentucky was down 45-0 early in the fourth quarter, but the same LB kept darting into the backfield to make tackles. That UK team clearly quit on that day, but Jones didn’t take a play off. Look for this hard-nosed gamer to bounce back from an injury-riddled year in ’18.

Steele’s SEC Unit Rankings have the ‘Cats at No. 14 at the QB position, No. 6 at RB, No. 13 at WR, No. 11 on the o-line, No. 13 on the d-line, No. 8 at LB, No. 8 in the secondary, No. 12 on special teams and No. 6 in chemistry.

[...] has UK’s win total at 5.5 (‘under’ -120, ‘over’ -110). The Wildcats, who have never made the SEC Championship Game, have 300/1 odds to win in Atlanta this year. Those same longshot odds are shared with Arkansas, and only Vanderbilt (500/1) has longer odds. [...] has UK with 45/1 odds to win the SEC East.

Kentucky’s non-conference schedule has three home games vs. Central Michigan, Murray St. and Middle Tennessee. The lone road assignment is the regular-season finale at U of L, where UK won 41-38 as a 27-point underdog in ’16.

UK’s draw from the SEC West is a home game vs. Mississippi State and a trip to College Station to face Texas A&M on Oct. 6. The Wildcats get their open date on Oct. 13 ahead of a home game vs. Vandy. They get four of their first five games at home.

Stoops joins LSU’s Ed Orgeron and Vandy’s Derek Mason as the SEC coaches most likely to be on the hot seat if things don’t go their way in ’18. He is 26-36 overall, 12-28 in league play and 0-2 in bowl games over five seasons at UK. A third straight postseason invite is a must and depending on how it goes down (blowout losses and/or unimpressive wins?), a 6-6 regular-season record might have Big Blue Nation calling for change.

I think Stoops needs to go 7-5 to feel comfortable about being retained. To get to seven wins, UK must sweep its three non-conference home games, beat Vanderbilt at Commonwealth Stadium and win in Knoxville. Where are the two other victories going to come from? Well, the ‘Cats will be home underdogs at least three times – vs. Mississippi State, vs. South Carolina and vs. Georgia.

As you’ll see below, Stoops hasn’t exactly thrived in home ‘dog spots. The four other road games are at Florida, at Texas A&M, at Missouri and at U of L.

Unless Wilson wins the job and has a breakout year, I have a hard time seeing UK winning more than six games. The win total of 5.5 is a good number and it’s a PASS for me.

**B.E.’s Bonus Nuggets**

-- Stoops is an atrocious 3-11-2 ATS in 16 games as a home underdog at UK.

-- [...] has Snell with 300/1 odds to win the Heisman Trophy. The same global shop has him with 27/1 odds to get invited to the Heisman Trophy presentation.

-- Steele’s position rankings of players eligible for the 2019 NFL Draft has Snell listed as the No. 3 RB. Conrad is the No. 7 TE, Young is the No. 20 OT, Stenberg is the No. 16 OG, Allen is the No. 3 OLB, Jones is the No. 23 OLB and Edwards is the No. 11 strong safety.

-- Kentucky is ranked No. 75 in Steele’s Preseason Power Rankings.

-- UK hasn’t won at Neyland Stadium since 1984. The ‘Cats will have a great chance to do so on Nov. 10.

-- According to Steele’s rankings, Kentucky has the SEC’s sixth-toughest schedule and the country’s 39th-toughest slate.

-- UK took a hit when DE Denzil Ware decided to transfer to Jacksonville St. late this past spring. Ware had 47 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 2.5 TFL’s, two QB hurries, one interception and one PBU in '17.

-- In its Games of the Year section, Sportsbook has Kentucky as a 9.5-point road underdog at Louisville.

Follow Brian Edwards' sports gambling opinions on Twitter at @vegasbedwards.