This post continues our series checking in on next season's opponents. Our goal is to have gathered useful information about each character from Carolina's villain's gallery prior to the beginning of the season. We've previously talked about the East Carolina Pirates, the Georgia Bulldogs, the Navy Midshipmen, the Vanderbilt Commodores, and the Auburn Tigers. Today, we're discussing the Kentucky Wildcats.
In Joker Phillips's first season as head coach, Kentucky made it to a bowl for a school-record fifth-straight year. That was the good news. The bad news was that after losing that bowl game, the 'Cats finished with a 6-7 losing record, their first since 2005. Still, Kentucky remained a solid team that won the games it should have won and that occasionally challenged in an underdog role, with our Gamecocks the latest victim in a Kentucky upset. With Kentucky seemingly solidified in that role, the question is, can it take the next step and pull off multiple upsets en route to an eight- or more-win season? That's the challenge for Phillips's tenure as coach, and it will be an uphill battle considering Kentucky's recruiting disadvantages.
Significant Personnel Losses
Phil Steele ranks Kentucky 26th in the nation with 17 returning starters. That includes a veteran offensive line and most of last year's defense. Unfortunately, the losses on offense may be hard to bear. They include jack-of-all-trades Randall Cobb, veteran QB Mike Hartline, and shifty RB Derrick Locke. Kentucky, in other words, has to replace most of its offensive production from a year ago.
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Whereas over the past couple of years offense has been Kentucky's main strength, this year there are question marks due to the loss of so many skills players. However, Kentucky does have the aforementioned offensive line, which was among the conference's better last year, particularly in protecting the quarterback. It will need to perform well again this year while QB Morgan Newton, a junior who has gotten a spattering of experience here and there as Hartline's backup, takes over the reins. Newton is a promising player, but Kentucky clearly looked unlike itself with him under center in the bowl game, so expect a transition period as he becomes "the guy." Newton could also use having a WR or two step up. Without Cobb to throw to, Kentucky lacks a proven threat at wideout.
Kentucky fielded a serviceable defense last year, finishing among the nation's best in pass defense and 45th in total defense. With plenty of talent returning, including star LB Danny Trevathan and talented S Winston Guy, there's the potential for a big year by the Kentucky defense. However, the big question is whether or not the 'Cats' defensive front can play better. Kentucky struggled mightily against the run last year, and it was among the nation's worst in tackles for loss and sacks. As no defense can be truly great without stopping the run and hitting the QB, Kentucky will have to improve in those areas if it's to take another step this year.
A key SEC East contest, Kentucky will be eying this game eagerly as it seeks to get out of the bottom half of the East. Carolina, on the other hand, needs a win to maintain its hold on the division. (Don't expect to again lose this game en route to a division title.) The game also has a revenge narrative going for it, as Carolina will look to avenge its first loss to Kentucky in a decade.
With a likely strong defense, I like Kentucky to again give us trouble in this game. However, with Marcus Lattimore (hopefully injury-free this time) leading our offense, I think we can break Kentucky down by the second half. Without proven offensive threats to contend with, that should be enough. I'm picking Carolina in a 10-14 point victory.