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5 thoughts about Kentucky, Missouri’s eighth 2016 opponent

This one’s a must-win for both teams.

Missouri v Kentucky Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Expectations and reality have not yet intertwined for Kentucky under Mark Stoops. The Wildcats started well each of the last two seasons but stalled out at 5-7. Last year, they looked really, really bad down the stretch.

If Stoops is going to turn things around, it begins this year. The numbers aren’t impressed. Here are a few particularly Mizzou-relevant tidbits from my SB Nation Kentucky preview.

1. 2015 really was disappointing in Lexington

Struggling is common in the early stages of a rebuild. But 2015 was particularly disappointing.

It wasn't that UK didn't improve enough. The Wildcats regressed drastically. The record remained the same, but they fell from 58th to 95th in S&P+, worse than when they were at 2-10 in 2013. Under a new coordinator, the offense fell from 74th to 104th in Off. S&P+. The passing game was woefully inefficient, and while the run game had its explosive moments, there weren't enough to consistently move the chains.

Following the loss of a couple of difference-makers up front, the Wildcats were toothless on defense, ranking 122nd in Adj. Sack Rate and 121st in stuff rate. There was no havoc whatsoever. It felt like this was unintentionally a bend-don't-break defense, only it gave up too many big plays.

It just didn't feel like Kentucky had the talent necessary to do damage in the SEC.

Kentucky failed in a particularly alarming way last year. Aside from Boom Williams, the Wildcats just didn’t have many guys making a difference over the last half of the year. Quarterback Patrick Towles looked incredible and made some fantastic, difficult passes against Missouri ... and then really didn’t look that way again. He was replaced by young four-star Drew Barker and transferred. And the defense was a wreck.

Setbacks happen during rebuilds. (See: Gary Pinkel, 2004.) But Stoops really needs a rebound last year.

2. Another year, another new offensive coordinator

After a one-year experiment with a spread-like offense that didn't really take, Stoops looked a little bit north for help in installing his third offense in three years. Now offensive coordinator Eddie Gran and quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw (also listed as co-coordinator), imports from the University of Cincinnati, will attempt to deliver Stoops his first decent offense.

Cincinnati's offense had quite a bit of upside. The Bearcats were dynamic at throwing, ranking 23rd in Passing S&P+ while balancing efficiency with explosiveness. The run game didn't produce enough big plays to be reliable, but with former blue-chipper Gunner Kiel, UC's offense was one of the better in the mid-major universe. [...]

It's Barker's job now, and he's still only a sophomore. Maybe Hinshaw's the guy to tap into the potential.

Barker’s got nice size (6’3, 225) and an experienced receiving corps. We’ll see if new leadership leads to a breakthrough.

NCAA Football: Kentucky at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

3. Boom Williams is a keeper

The goal for Gran is simple: Deliver just enough efficiency with your passing game that you can take advantage of Williams' immense upside. He is one of the best in the country when he gets to the second level of a defense, and success elsewhere will open up that many more second-level chances. (Williams' backup, senior JoJo Kemp also has wheels. And sophomore Sihiem King, too.)

Mizzou did a good job of containing him last year, but all Williams needs is a step, and he’s gone.

NCAA Football: Charlotte at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

4. Still so many questions to answer in the front seven

Sophomore rush end Denzil Ware managed 5.5 tackles for loss as a freshman. Sophomore linebacker Josh Allen was only on the field long enough to make 2.5 tackles but made 1.5 behind the line and broke up a pass. Sophomore tackle Adrian Middleton saw decent rotation time in the middle of the season.

You have to squint, but you can find at least a little bit of potential in certain young members of the front seven. Plus, this has been a recruiting priority, so there might be plenty of newcomers with upside. But it's been a double-dip recession of sorts up front, with the only known difference-makers departing for the second straight year. Though some of these pieces could become useful, depth is an obvious issue, bordering on either problematic or terrifying.

After facing LSU and Florida to start the month, Mizzou will be looking to re-establish confidence in the run game against MTSU and UK. The Wildcats could be in need of confidence building of their own here. Potentially resistible object, meet potentially movable force.

The UK secondary is in better shape and could be an even matchup at worst with Mizzou’s receiving corps. But if the Tigers can run, that matchup won’t matter as much.

Kentucky v South Carolina Photo by Mary Ann Chastain/Getty Images

5. This game means a ton to two teams’ bowl hopes

The first half of the season does feature three tossups among a likely win and two likely losses, so it's possible that UK will again post a decent early record. But after Vanderbilt leaves town on October 8, the Wildcats will face five games as a double-digit underdog in their last six contests. Yikes.

Winning tossups won't be enough, in other words. Kentucky's simply going to have to be a much better program than the numbers suggest. If Stoops' new offensive hires hit their mark, and if the passing game clicks like it seems it could on paper, then maybe things will be fine. But UK lost the statistical benefit of the doubt last year.

It’s really hard to figure out a path to six wins for Kentucky if the Wildcats lose this one. (And if they’ve already lost some tossups, this game might not matter.) Meanwhile, though Mizzou might have more margin for error ... it ain’t much. This might not be the most thrilling game on the schedule, but it’s the second straight must-win for Barry Odom and his Tigers.

S&P+ projection: Mizzou by 11.0 (win probability: 74%).