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2020 (hopefully?) Missouri Football Opponent Previews: Kentucky Wildcats

F***ing Kentucky.

Belk Bowl - Virginia Tech v Kentucky Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Catch up on previous 2020 opponent previews!

Central Arkansas

Vanderbilt

South Carolina

Eastern Michigan

Tennessee

BYU

Georgia

Kentucky is a better football program than Missouri. In 2020. Yes, I said it. And much like Wes Mantooth, I hate our Ron Burgundy program from Lexington, KY, but I do respect them.

I’m envious of what they’ve been able to do. Kentucky has had some bright spots but has never been a national power and, frankly, probably never will. But they don’t care. They have the same delusional fan base as any other SEC school but the administration has realistic expectations for their football program: get to at least seven wins, win a bowl game. Do you know how I know that? Because every time Mark Stoops does that his contract is extended by one year.

I love this.

It doesn’t make the more rabid corners of the fans shut up — far from it — but it lays out reasonable expectations for a middle-of-the-pack program in an elite football conference and lets the coaching staff do what it has to do to hit those reasonable goals.

And boy do they. Stoops got creative in his recruitment and hits Ohio super hard; as a populous state there’s plenty of football talent that’s close to Lexington and he can pitch those kids on playing in the SEC. He puts his best athletes on the defensive side of the ball while fielding a ball-controlling offense that’s reliant on an elite rushing attack. None of this is novel, mind you, but 1.) Kentucky does it effectively and 2.) with the SEC moving more and more to open passing attacks, having a fun, wing-T-ish running attack is a good zag for the conference’s zig.

Stoops’ first year netted only two wins but they’ve increased the win total every year, topping out at 10-wins in 2018 before regressing to 8 last year. Their SP+ ranks have improved the past four years as well before dropping from 25th in ‘18 to 35 in ‘19. And Stoops keeps chugging along, the second longest tenured coach in the SEC who has won 7 games or more in the past four years and knows he now has a contract going to 2026.

As fans of a team that had the enduring tenure of Gary Pinkel, I aspire for Missouri to have Kentucky’s stability and consistency. Weird to see that in print, huh?

Here’s what Kentucky did in 2019:

2019 Kentucky Wildcats Schedule Results

Starting quarterback Terry Wilson was lost for the season right at the end of the EMU game. Sawyer Smith tried to will the Wildcat passing attack to success but the offense didn’t take off until Lynn Bowden switched from receiver to quarterback and the Wildcats started pummeling teams with, essentially, a triple option rushing attack. From the month of October on the Wildcats went 6-2 and won their bowl against Virginia Tech. The defense wasn’t what it was in 2018 and the offense was incredibly one-dimensional but....it worked.

Coaching Staff

Kentucky v Mississippi State
Kentucky Head Coach Mark Stoops
Photo by Michael Chang/Getty Images

Head Coach: Mark Stoops - 8th year - 44-44 (20-36)

Stoops has been a part of two of the best teams programs in college football: the Miami Hurricanes and Florida State Seminoles. He only won one National Championship between those two but has been around some great football. He was also part of some subpar Wyoming and Arizona squads but he’s done a bang up job at Kentucky. As long as the natives don’t get restless he could conceivably coach at Kentucky until he decides to retire, a rare luxury in our modern game of college football.

Coach Stoops’ Resume

Assistant Staff

Eddie Gran - Offensive Coordinator: Gran has been a coordinator at Cincinnati and now Kentucky. With the Bearcats he had one Top 30 offense but mostly fielded Top 50 units based off of a strong ground game. At Kentucky he’s fielded...four offenses that rank between 52nd and 64th based on a strong run game. So he is what he is at this point and we should all have a solid idea of what he’s going to do.

Brad White - Defensive Coordinator: 2019 was White’s first year as the Wildcats DC and did a decent job of maintaining the status quo with a younger group of guys. This year he gets an older defense with some new faces on the line but we shouldn’t get a good idea of what he can do until half the defense graduates at the conclusion of this season.

Darin Hinshaw - Quarterbacks/Co-Offensive Coordinator

Jovon Bouknight - Wide Receivers

Vince Marrow - Tight Ends

John Schlarman - Offensive Line

Anwar Stewart - Defensive Line

Jon Sumrall - Inside Linebackers

Frank Buffano - Safeties

Offense

In my team previews I always praise a team’s ability to establish an identity on both sides of the ball; in the absence of talent, identity can close the gap incredibly well. And just like the service academies run a pure triple option to hang with more talented rosters, Kentucky runs an option-style offense with spread concepts and recruits to that system to devastating effect. Case in point: the Wildcats ranked 52nd overall thanks to a 12th ranked rushing attack and 114th passing game. They weren’t all that great in standard downs, slightly better in passing situations, oddly terrible in third-downs...but still were able to run the same handful of plays over and over and over. It’s not impressive, it doesn’t look complicated, and doesn’t always work — 1-5 against elite defenses (the 1 was Missouri, of course) — but it does enough to keep Kentucky in games and sometimes that’s all you need. Thanks to the early departure of Bowden and the graduation of their third best receiver, the offense returns 68% of 2019’s production, good for 56th in the country. But as long as they have a deep stable of running backs and a quarterback good on his feet the Wildcats will have all that they need.

Eastern Michigan v Kentucky
Terry Wilson, Jr.
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Quarterback - Terry Wilson, Jr. - Redshirt Senior

Terry Wilson, Jr. Stats

Kentucky’s starting QB made it 7 quarters before tearing his patellar tendon against Eastern Michigan. That lead to one of the more fun stories of the 2019 season when Lynn Bowden, Jr. took over and Kentucky went triple option. Wilson isn’t too much different from Bowden, mind you; he’s a much better runner than a passer, takes a lot of sacks, and his passes don’t go very far. However, he does attempt more passes and is fairly accurate while doing so (over 63% the past two years). Kentucky’s offense has been incredibly run heavy but it works as long as there is a mobile quarterback that can help carry the load and occasionally pass; if Wilson gets the starting job again then the Wildcat offense will be exactly what it has been for the past three years.

Missouri v Kentucky
Asim Rose
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Running Back - Asim Rose - Redshirt Senior

It’s absolutely incredible how good the Wildcat running game is. The offensive line was 10th in the country in opportunity rate (percentage of running plays that go at least 5 yards) and 29th in stuff rate (runs stopped behind the line). On top of that, Kentucky running backs were 4th (!) in explosiveness and every running back had at least 5.7 highlight yards per carry (yards after the first 5 yards gained), with three backs averaging better than 6.8 highlight yards per carry! Rose was the second leading rusher behind wonder-man Lynn Bowden and returns for his senior season; he had the worst success rate and opportunity rate but was the biggest of the runners so he got a lot more opportunities than the smaller speedsters, Kavosiey Smoke (editor’s note: still an all-time name) and Chris Rodriguez. The Wildcat running game is almost plug and play at this point but having good experience in the rotation should make them even deadlier.

Belk Bowl - Virginia Tech v Kentucky
Josh Ali
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Wide Receiver - Josh Ali - Senior

Fun fact: Lynn Bowden was Kentucky’s leading rusher, receiver, and second leading passer. But he’s gone! Hooray!

So what’s left? The leading returning receiver is Josh Ali with his 49 targets, 23 catches, and a measly 233 yards. In fact, of the seven returning receivers four had less than 100 yards receiving. The Wildcat receivers are bad on purpose, basically: almost all of them are over 6 feet tall and over 200 pounds so they can effectively block for the running backs to do their thing and occasionally catch the stray pass. They do have a handful of 3-star receivers joining the ranks but I wouldn’t expect a sudden passing explosion to take over Eddie Gran’s offense.

Defense

This is where the Wildcats truly win their games. Stoops’ 3-4 scheme relies on a stifling secondary to erase opposing offense’s advantages and field a couple of good pass rushers to disrupt the quarterback. Their plan is to make sure that teams have to use 10+ plays to score, something that college offenses tend to not be good at. The run defense was a bit of a liability last year but were just as stout against the pass, devastating in standard downs, and top ten in the country in sacking the quarterback. They also return 78% of their returning production - 27th in the country - and the only guys they are losing are from the front seven. This will be an elite defense if the new guys on the line come through.

Toledo v Kentucky
Josh Paschal
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Defensive Line - Josh Paschal - Redshirt Junior

It’s rare to see a 5-tech defensive end be super disruptive since they mostly are responsible for squeezing the offensive line in limiting plays to the outside; with Paschal being able to create 12.5 havoc plays, tied for third-most on the team, you can tell that he’s a rare specimen! 9.5 of those havoc plays were tackles for loss, of which 3 were sacks so he was definitely slippery enough to squeeze past his offensive tackles. The other two starters on the line graduated; Marquan McCall was the other part of the 2019 4-man rotation so there will be new faces that Paschal will have to cover for.

Kentucky v South Carolina
DeAndre Square
Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Linebacker - DeAndre Square - Junior

Of the 7-man group that manned the linebacker spots six return so this will be an experienced group filled with upperclassmen. Square is the leading tackler of the returning linebackers and was second overall in last year’s defense. Jamar Watson tied with Josh Paschal in havoc plays from his outside linebacker/rush end position, accounting for 11.5 tackles for loss (most on the team), 6.5 of which were sacks. The linebackers weren’t the most active in pass defense but all were super active against the run, logging 41 run stuffs of the defense’s collective 94. You can easily see this once again being a strength that is leaned on throughout the year.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 01 Citrus Bowl - Kentucky v Penn State
Yusuf Corker
Photo by Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Defensive Back - Yusuf Corker - Redshirt Junior

Kentucky deployed a 7-man rotation in the secondary and returns all 7 in 2020, including the team’s leading tackler Yusuf Corker. This was a Top 20 pass defense and most of the guys were sophomores and juniors. Now that they are almost all upperclassmen it’ll be damn near impossible to pass on them, exactly what the Stoops defense prefers to do.

So what does it all mean?

2020 Kentucky Schedule

...I dunno, is there anything you’ve seen in the past five years that makes you think that Missouri can consistently beat Kentucky in football?

They have a recruiting strategy that works. They have an identity that they can recruit to. They have coordinators who are savvy enough to deploy their pieces simply yet effectively. There is a built in “safety” that Coach Stoops has where he has goals that he can reasonably meet every year and not worry (for now) about the natives getting restless. It is a program that isn’t phenomenal but certainly better than at least half of the SEC.

And Missouri hasn’t beaten them since 2014. In the Vanderbilt preview I said that Drinkwitz and his staff should do everything in their power to absolutely detonate the Commodores to show an excited fan base that, yes, this time it’s different. The second test of this staff is to beat Kentucky. No, it doesn’t matter how...the Wildcats have beaten the Tigers by a lot and by a little, by being straight up better and being straight up lucky...so Drink just has to win. Maybe it’s sad that the benchmarks for the baby Tigers and this staff are lower than what we thought when we came into the SEC but this is the realistic place that this program is in and a realistic goal for the Tigers to achieve. Beat Kentucky. In the name of all that is holy, beat Kentucky and let the fan base feel good about this game once again.