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Tennessee v Kentucky

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2020 Tennessee Football Opponent Preview: Kentucky Wildcats

Kentucky’s theme in 2019 was resiliency. What will it be in 2020?

Can the Vols make it three in a row against the Wildcats in 2020?
| Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

It took a goal-line stand to beat Kentucky last year, but hey, when you’re in rebuilding mode like Tennessee, you’ll take any win you can get.

Kentucky’s story in 2019 was injuries. The team was ravaged by them, however, Mark Stoops’ crew found a way to win eight games on the season.

Even though they lost some guys, the Wildcats cupboard is far from bare. Not only do they have guys who can make plays, but this is a deep team, too.

How high is this team’s ceiling in 2020? Let’s jump in and find out.


2019 in review

Final Record: 8-5 (3-5), t-8th SEC
Final National Ranking: N/A

As I mentioned in the beginning, this team was hit hard by injuries in 2019, but no position was hit harder than quarterback. Kentucky lost its top two signal callers (Terry Wilson & Sawyer Smith) by Week 5, which paved the way for wide receiver Lynn Bowden to start at quarterback. By the time Bowden took over, the Wildcats were 2-3 on the season and heading into the thick of conference play.

At that point, it was safe to say things definitely did not look good.

But Stoops and co. adapted and ended 2019 with the nation’s fourth-best rushing attack in terms of yards per game (278.8 ypg). What made this feat even more impressive is that opponents knew the Cats were going to run the ball, but with Bowden at the helm, teams simply couldn’t stop them. Kentucky averaged the second-highest yards per clip (6.32) while running the ball the 17th-most (573 attempts) in the NCAA. All of those numbers were tops in the SEC.

Bowden was the driving force behind it all. He would go on to lead the Wildcats in rushing, receiving, and finished second on the team in passing. He averaged the fourth-most all-purpose yards in the country.

Tennessee v Kentucky
Lynn Bowden Jr. had an incredibly successful season in 2019.
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Efficiency-wise, the Wildcats were 58th according to Football Outsiders’ offensive FEI rating. That’s pretty impressive considering they didn’t have a passing attack when Bowden took over. I mean, only five teams threw the ball less than Kentucky and the Cats averaged about nine passes per game with Bowden at quarterback.

The defense was a very solid group, as well. There was a slight panic when defensive back Davonte Robinson went down for the year in July, but Brad White was still able to do a remarkable job in his first year as defensive coordinator, especially with the secondary.

Kentucky’s defensive backfield allowed just nine touchdown passes in 2019, which tied them with Ohio State for the fewest in the country. Opposing quarterbacks averaged a 113.9 rating (13th in the nation) when squaring off against the Wildcat’s secondary.

As a whole, the defense allowed the 14th-fewest points (19.3) in the NCAA and was decent on third down (65th) and in the red zone (29th).

FO thought pretty highly of the defense, as well, placing it at No. 40 in their 2019 defensive FEI ratings.

Max Duffey led the nation in punting and Kentucky had the best net average of any team. The Cats made 69% of their field goals as a team.

Who left and who’s new?

Offense

The Wildcats return plenty at quarterback despite the fact that Bowden is now a member of the Las Vegas Raiders. Terry Wilson —who had big plans in 2019— looks to be on track from his season-ending injury and Sawyer Smith returns as backup. As long as both quarterbacks stay healthy, then they will be the top guys in 2020. Joey Gatewood, a transfer from Auburn, is a major wildcard. He will likely have to sit out the 2020 season, but could push for the starting job if he is eligible to play. Behind him is the trio of Nik Scalzo (redshirt freshman), Beau Allen (freshman), and Patrick Delahunty (sophomore).

Asim Rose, Kavosiey Smoke, and Christopher Rodriguez Jr. combined for 1,975 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns on 321 carries while averaging a gaudy 6.4 yards per clip in 2019. All three players return for 2020 and they are all expected to have a big hand in the offense. The running back/receiver room also gets a boost with four-star recruit, Michael Drennen II, in town. He was the highest-rated recruit of the 2020 class and one analyst says that Drennen “could fill that role that Lynn Bowden had for them before he went to play quarterback”.

Kentucky has a very deep and talented stable of running backs. It won’t be a surprise if the run game is one of the country’s best again in 2020.

The receiving corps took a backseat last year after Wilson and Smith went down, so it’s hard to gauge what the Wildcats have in 2020. One thing for certain, though, is the notion that the receivers will be much more involved this year.

NCAA Football: Belk Bowl-Virginia Tech vs Kentucky
Josh Ali has a chance to breakout in 2020.
Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Josh Ali —who led the team with three touchdowns and caught the game-winning score in the Belk Bowl— returns along with deep threat Bryce Oliver. There are questions behind them, however. Isaiah Epps returns after missing 2019 with a foot injury, so he should help provide depth. Kentucky also recruited three three-star receivers in Earnest Sanders, Kalil Branham, and Izayah Cummings who could see the field in 2020.

Justin Rigg will likely be the primary pass-catcher at tight end. He finished his junior season with 11 catches for 128 yards, but where he makes his hay is run blocking. The dude will light you up if you aren’t careful. Much like the receivers, the tight ends weren’t very involved in 2019, so it’s hard to tell what’s going to happen with this group, but there are guys who can get the job done.

Bowden carried the offense in 2019, but the offensive line was right behind him in terms of importance. Kentucky’s front five was an experienced, solid group that mauled people in the run game.

Guess what? It’s not going to get much better for opposing defenses because four of the five starters return and they’re even more experienced than last year. Three of the four incumbents are seniors while the fourth is a junior. Center Drake Jackson, a First-Team All-SEC selection in 2019, leads the way. Right now, Kenneth Horsey is projected to take over for the departed Logan Stenberg at left guard, but there will be plenty of competition as the summer rolls along.

Defense

Kentucky’s defensive line is deep, even with the loss of Calvin Taylor Jr. The defensive line boasts a darkhorse All-SEC candidate in nose guard Quinton Bohanna and the starter opposite him is sixth-year player Phil Hoskins. Josh Paschal moved back to defensive end after spending a year at outside linebacker. Five-star recruit Justin Rogers and four-star recruits Josaih Hayes/Samuel Anaele add promising depth in case one of the main guys were to go down.

Jamar Watson anchors Kentucky’s pass rush and could potentially have a breakout season in 2020. He will lead a linebacker unit that also consists of DeAndre Square and Jamin Davis. Those two guys have shown flashes over the last couple of years and also seem poised for a nice year. Chris Oats will take over for the departed Kash Daniel. In all, UK’s linebackers are some of the best in the SEC.

NCAA Football: Missouri at Kentucky
Chris Oats is ready to step into a starting role.
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

The secondary is where it gets really interesting for Kentucky on defense. The unit was really, really young in 2019, yet it was one of the more effective secondaries in the country/SEC.

Not only did the youngsters gain valuable experience on the fly, but the unit may have gotten even better with the additions of Davonte Robinson and LSU transfer Kelvin Joseph. Robinson was a part-time starter at nickel back before he suffered a season-ending injury in 2019 and Joseph is a four-star guy who sat out 2019 after transferring from LSU. Both players should be able to immediately contribute and add depth to an already impressive unit.

Yusuf Corker and Brandin Echols will lead the group and could develop into All-SEC players themselves by year’s end. Cedrick Dort started almost every game in 2019, but will be considered as depth in 2020.

Breakout players for 2020

NT Quinton Bohanna - The kid is a monster. He is 6-foot-4, 364-pounds and every single of those pounds will be used to take up space in the middle in order to allow others to flow to the ball. Don’t be surprised if you hear his name often.

WR Josh Ali - Someone has to catch the ball for the Wildcats, right? Last year was certainly an anomaly and Ali showed the most consistency of all the other wideouts.

CB Kelvin Joseph - I’m doing it. Joseph has all the talent in the world and the Cats need a starter opposite Echols. Joseph will be hungry after sitting out for a year and will be looking to prove his top-50 status before he committed to LSU.

Final outlook

There’s a lot to like here if you’re a Kentucky fan. This team is very deep and returns a lot of its starters from a year ago. If everything shakes out at quarterback, then the Wildcats could be on the verge of their second double-digit winning season in three years.

Credit Stoops for the turnaround. Whoever thought the Wildcats would become a nearly-bona fide football program? He —and the Cats— have come a long way since winning just 12 games in his first three years.

The biggest question concerning this team is whether or not it’s ready to compete with the likes of Florida and Georgia (hell, even Tennessee) or if the 8-9 win mark is the ceiling for the program.

I’m sure we will find out the answer to that question in 2020.

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