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Jamie Vaught: UK football has tough act to follow, but look for Wildcats to finish 8-4 with another bowl trip


The football Wildcats from Lexington will have a very tough act to follow this fall.

That’s after we saw a historical campaign by the 2018 University of Kentucky squad, which came up with the school’s best season in 41 years as the Cats posted a remarkable 10-3 record — including a New Year’s Day bowl victory over Penn State.

Kentucky also finished with a winning league mark of 5-3 for the first time since 1977, and it was good enough for second place in the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division.

Kentucky is the only football program in the nation that has tied or improved its win total in each of the last six seasons. (Photo by Keith Taylor, Kentucky Today)

Interestingly, as pointed out by UK football media notes, Kentucky is the only program in the nation that has tied or improved its win total in each of the last six seasons during the coach Mark Stoops era. So can the Wildcats win at least 10 games this season? Probably not, in my opinion. I’m trying to be realistic after Kentucky lost several standouts like superstars Josh Allen and Benny Snell Jr. to the NFL Draft.

But UK, unlike the past, has depth and talent to be a threat in the SEC in 2019. The Wildcats have a decent chance to post a very nice season with a more generous schedule, especially with weak Arkansas serving as the rotating opponent from the Western Division, and two beatable foes like Missouri and Tennessee are coming to Kroger Field. One of Kentucky’s three losses last year was at Texas A&M, a rotating opponent from Western Division, where the Cats dropped 20-14 in overtime.

Here’s my annual fearless forecast of UK’s game-by-game schedule.

• TOLEDO (August 31, Lexington) – The Rockets, who have gone bowling in eight of the last nine years, are a dangerous team with 14 returning starters so the Wildcats better not look ahead. Toledo, led by fourth-year head coach Jason Candle, is the favorite to capture the Mid-American Conference West Division crown, according to a preseason media poll. The season opener will be shown on SEC Network with a 12 noon kickoff. UK by 14.

• EASTERN MICHIGAN (Sept. 7, Lexington) – The Eagles, also from the Mid-American Conference, are coming off a 7-6 campaign in 2018. EMU is picked to finish No. 4 in a six-team West Division. UK by 21.

• FLORIDA (Sept. 14, Lexington) – Former Mississippi State boss Dan Mullen guided the Gators to a 10-3 mark in his first year at the Gainesville school last fall. One of their three setbacks was a rare 27-16 loss to Kentucky at Steve Spurrier-Florida Field. Preseason yearbooks have Florida ranked in the Top 10. While Mullen has already lost several freshmen from the 2019 recruiting class, the Gators’ defense will be tough. UF by 7.

• MISSISSIPPI STATE (Sept. 21, Starkville) – Joe Moorehead is beginning his second year as the Bulldogs coach after a decent 8-5 performance in 2018 which saw MSU defeat Kansas State, Auburn and Texas A&M. UK surprised the Dogs, who lost to Iowa in the Outback Bowl, last season with a 28-7 victory. MSU will be competitive but it isn’t expected to set the world on fire. MSU by 3.

Kentucky quarterback Terry Wilson will be a key performer in 2019 as the Wildcats aim for another big season and a fourth consecutive bowl game. (Kentucky Today/Bill Thiry)

• SOUTH CAROLINA (Sept. 28, Columbia) – Another winnable game for Kentucky, but the Gamecocks are formidable under coach Will Muschamp, a former assistant under the legendary Roy Kidd at EKU. South Carolina, which arguably has one of the nation’s toughest schedules with matchups against powerhouses Alabama and Clemson, is coming off a 7-6 Belk Bowl campaign. Before meeting Kentucky, the Gamecocks could be worn out or deflated after battling Alabama and Missouri at home in successive weeks. UK by 6.

• ARKANSAS (Oct. 12, Lexington) – The Razorbacks are coming off a 2-10 season, including 0-8 in SEC. Arkansas, led by second-year coach Chad Morris, has John Chavis, nicknamed as “The Chief,” who is known as a players’ coach, guiding the defense after SEC stints at Tennessee, LSU and Texas A&M as defensive coordinator. The Razorbacks are expected to finish last in the SEC in a vote by the SEC media. UK by 10.

• GEORGIA (Oct. 19, Athens) – It is a road matchup that I’m not looking forward to. It may not be very pretty as head coach Kirby Smart has put together a very powerful team for the past two seasons. And this year is no exception. As you’ll recall, in last fall’s huge Eastern Division showdown, Georgia was too much for UK as it prevailed in a 34-17 decision. UGA by 18.

• MISSOURI (Oct. 26, Lexington) – Remember last year’s miracle at Columbia when a happy Mark Stoops accidentally knocked down a ceiling tile in a jubilant locker room celebration following UK’s come-from-behind 15-14 victory on the last play of the game? The Tigers, who have a former Clemson QB by the name of Kelly Bryant, will still be tough. Mizzou by 3.

• TENNESSEE (Nov. 9, Lexington) – This rivalry showdown is another winnable game for Kentucky, which was dominated by the 2018 Vols by a 24-7 score in K-ville. Jeremy Pruitt’s UT club should be better than last season’s 5-7 mark. UK by 6.

• VANDERBILT (Nov. 16, Nashville) – Coach Derek Mason is still the boss after five years at Music City. He guided the Commodores to a 6-7 mark, including a trip to the Texas Bowl, last fall. He’s just the second coach in Vandy history to guide the team to two bowl games. Also, Mason is the first Vandy boss to beat Tennessee three straight years since the mid-1920s. UK by 7.

• UT MARTIN (Nov. 23, Lexington) – The Skyhawks, who face Florida on Sept. 7 in Gainesville, play in the Ohio Valley Conference. UT Martin’s Jason Simpson is the longest tenured head football coach in the OVC. UK by 30.

• LOUISVILLE (Nov. 30, Lexington) – The Cardinals, who host both Notre Dame on Sept. 2 (ESPN) and Clemson on Oct. 19, have a new coach in Scott Satterfield, who found success at Appalachian State, so they will be rebuilding after a horrible 2-10 campaign. UK by 14.

So, the Wildcats will finish at 8-4 with a fourth straight bowl appearance. What do you think?

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Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle.com magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.


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