Catch up on previous 2022 opponent previews!
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; as long as Mark Stoops is employed at Lexington, Kentucky is the barometer of the SEC East. If you beat them you’re a good, team and If you lose to them, you’re not a good team.
I have also repeatedly argued that Kentucky is the greatest program to work at (currently) because it doesn’t BS itself: it knows it’s a basketball school in a football-crazed conference and will happily let their football coach take a long time to do what he needs to do and be rewarded for clearing easy bars. Seriously: every time he wins seven games his contract is extended by one year and he gets a $250k pay increase, giving him attainable goals with a reasonable timeline in a conference that tends to not allow any of that. And that’s why Kentucky is the premier. consistent bantam-weight fighter in a conference of volatile heavy weights.
Here’s Kentucky’s SP+ performance looks like since 2005:
If you don’t remember the 2007 Andre’ Woodson-lead Kentucky squad, go to YouTube and watch him. He was fun.
Outside of that, however, Kentucky was mostly a mediocre team stuck in a conference of great and elite teams. Then Mark Stoops showed up and, in essence, became their Gary Pinkel: recruiting smartly (giving the SEC pitch to Ohio kids which hadn’t been done as a strategy until Stoops got there), developing well, and sticking around long enough with decent staff stability to create a program that eventually could punch with the big boys. It’s the same cycle you got used to with Pinkel: build, leap, capitalize, reset, leap, capitalize, reset.
But what happens when a regional power falls, another is rebuilding for the 21st year in a row, and all the other middle-class programs lose to the Wildcats?
Well, then, Kentucky finishes second in the East.
Which is exactly what happened last year and will continue to happen until Florida finds its footing under Napier, Tennessee doesn’t continue its carousel of clown coaches, and South Carolina and Missouri finally finish their builds.
Here’s what Kentucky did last year:
I have a couple of notes about the Wildcats’ 2021 campaign. First, they went 5-1 in one-possession games, four of which came in the first five weeks of the season. Just like Eli Drinkwitz knows, you can look like a smarter coach and a better football team if you consistently win your close games! Second, Kentucky had the second-easiest schedule in the SEC with a Strength Of Schedule Rank of 43rd; the only team who had an easier schedule (according to SP+’s SOS rankings) was Texas A&M, ranking 51st. You can only beat the teams in front of you, and Kentucky has been a hard out against all foes since Stoops arrived, but it does inflate your value slightly when you play one of the easiest SEC schedules and win 83% of your one-score games. Still, Kentucky performed at a 100% win-expectancy level in 4 games and over 90% in 8 games. And yet...
- Kentucky vs. Top 35 SP+ Teams: 2-3
- Kentucky vs Teams Ranked 50th or Worse: 8-0
The Wildcats will never win the division (since those are going away soon-ish) and mostly lose to elite competition, but they take care of business and beat everyone else that isn’t elite thanks to the ability to close out one-possession games with good quarterback play, elite special teams, and solid tactical acumen from the coaching staff. Annoying.
Mark Stoops - 9th Year - 49-50 (24-42)
I like Mark Stoops a lot. He doesn’t talk much, he’s not some savvy marketer or sleazy pitchman, or system-based wunderkind. He’s just a dude with a vision and the ability to make it happen. I’m not sure he would have found success at any other P5 school other than one with the patience like Kentucky, but here he is, and here he will stay until he gets bored or the natives start thinking they’re better than what he can provide.
As much as I like him, I do wish he’d go away, for my favorite team’s sake.
Rich Scangarello - Offensive Coordinator: Former OC Liam Coen went back to the NFL, joining the Rams as their new OC. Scangarello was the 49ers quarterbacks coach last year, utilizing an offense born from the same systematic tree that Coen ran. It’s a smart offense that definitely works, but also looks a lot cooler and more effective when you have a Wan’Dale Robinson to throw to (which, thankfully, Kentucky does not have this year). It’ll be interesting to see what changes, if any, are made with a new voice on the headset and if the SEC has finally figured out the sneaky schemes of last year (which, even at the end of the year, they clearly had not).
Brad White - Defensive Coordinator/Outside Linebackers: White had overseen a defensive regression as lone DC but was Co-DC with Troy’s new head coach, Jon Sumrall, last year and the Wildcats bumped back up 35 in defensive SP+. He’s back as the lone coordinator for this year and will be his chance to show that he’s the guy for the job long term or just the guy who can’t push the defensive into elite territory and merely keep them in “good”.
John Settle - Running Backs
Scott Woodward - Wide Receivers
Vince Morrow - Tight Ends
Zach Yenser - Offensive Line
Anwar Stewart - Defensive Line
Mike Stoops - Inside Linebacker
Chris Collins - Defensive Backs
Frank Buffano - Safeties
After firing Eddie Gran in 2020, Stoops did the things that’s very in-style in football nowadays by bringing in a guy who has some connection to the NFL’s Sean McVay. Liam Coen was the quarterbacks coach for McVay and brought the McVay/Kyle Shanahan-style zone-blocking offense that focuses on scheming receivers open in the middle of the field and relying on YAC for passing yards. It worked as Wan’Dale Robinson broke the Kentucky single-season record for catches and receiving yards in his only season as a Wildcat, but now is a New York Giant and can no longer haunt SEC defenses. Luckily, Kentucky still has this year’s recipient of the Josh Allen “Big-Dude-Who-Can-Throw-And-Is-Unfairly-Pushed-To-Top-Of-Draft-Boards” Memorial Trophy in Will Levis. Last year’s offense was efficiency-based and rarely explosive but it allowed them to hold the ball and keep up with the chains. I can’t imagine that changes much this year but we’ll see how they do without an NFL Draft pick catching balls.
Quarterback - Will Levis - Redshirt Senior
Kentucky had one of the most efficient passing games in the country, coming in with a 47% success rate (14th) but with a mere 8.6 air yards per pass (75th). Levis couldn’t see the field at Penn State but thrived at Kentucky thanks to one of the best YAC receivers in the country. He’ll have to make due with a few transfers and a bunch of new dudes, so it’ll be a true test of his ability if he can maintain 2021’s success in ‘22.
Running Back - Kavosiey Smoke - Senior
Ok, so this is a developing issue. All-SEC running back Chris Rodriguez, returning for his bonus COVID year, was arrested for DUI and careless driving back in early May. Most think there’s no way he comes back, some feel like he will but, even if he does come back, he’ll certainly be subject to a suspension at some point. So until that detail - admittedly, a giant one - is figured out, Kavosiey Smoke is your leading returning rusher with 81 rushes, 416 yards, and 4 touchdowns. Kentucky also loses two NFL draft picks on their offensive line but line play has rarely been an issue for the Wildcat offense. There’s only one freshman running back on the roster while five of the eight backs are seniors so there’s plenty of older options this year, but could be dangerously thin going forward.
Wide Receiver - Izayah Cummings - Junior
For being a YAC-based passing scheme that requires speed and experience to turn easy catches into extra yards, Kentucky loses five of their top six receivers, with Cummings being the lead returning receiver with a whopping 30 targets, 14 catches, and 195 yards. Kentucky was truly a two-man receiving corps, with Robinson and Josh Ali demanding 203 targets, 145 receptions, and 1,935 yards; no other receiver had more than 30 targets or 200 yards. Transfers Tayvion Robinson (Virginia Tech) and Javon Baker (Alabama) will have a chance for an immediate impact, as could tight end Keaton Upshaw who missed the entire 2021 season due to injury.
Kentucky was staring down the barrel of a full-blown defensive rebuild for most of the season...and then everyone took their bonus COVID year. Safety Tyrell Ajian and linebackers DeAndre Square, Jacquez Jones, and Jordan Wright all decided to come back, giving the Wildcats incredible linebacker depth and an impact player in the secondary. The ‘21 defense was an odd beast, being a sieve in pass coverage and standard downs, but strong against the run and passing down situations. They weren’t very havoc-y but were driven by accurate tackles (87.6% tackle success rate) and not letting any big plays hit. It’s the same formula that Stoops has used in previous stops and every year at Kentucky and...well, it just works.
Defensive Line - Josaih Hayes - Junior
Josh Paschal, Abdule Abadi-Fitzgerald, and Marquan McCall are all gone, leaving Josaih Hayes as the guy with the most snaps from last year along with 17 tackles. Kentucky’s defensive line mostly exists to absorb blocks and let the linebackers feast but the Wildcats will be devoid of playing experience at line. However, the oft-praised 2020 recruiting class features massive defensive line reinforcements, including 5-star nose tackle Justin Rogers, Octavious Oxendine, and Tre’vonn Rybka. If the talent clicks quickly the ‘Cats will be fine.
Linebacker - DeAndre Square - Graduate Student
Square lead the team in tackles (80), was second on the team in run stuffs (16), and third on the team in snaps (667). JJ Weaver also returns to his edge rusher linebacking slot with his 35 tackles, 15 QB pressures, and 6.5 sacks (1st on the team). The Wildcat linebacking corps is easily one of the best in the SEC and will be the engine of destruction for the ‘22 campaign.
Defensive Back - Tyrell Ajian - Graduate Student
Kentucky will be reliant on their safeties, specifically Ajian and Jalen Geiger, to provide experience and support for a cornerback rotation that is starting from scratch. While those two didn’t provide much in the stat sheet they are the most experienced on the team - Ole Miss transfer Keidron Smith aside - Kentucky could be looking at a lot of youth from the ‘21 and ‘22 classes to fill out their cornerback depth. They weren’t great at defending the pass last year and starting over isn’t a great scenario, so they’ll be hoping that the linebackers can do enough to cover until everyone acclimates.
So what does it all mean?
Stoops has thrived on excellent talent evaluation and will need it to replace his receivers and corners, two things that are super important in their respective units thriving. If Chris Rodriguez returns then the Wildcat offense will be exactly what they want to be: run first, second, and third with a conservative passing game reliant on athletic receivers. If Rodriguez is truly gone, the run game should still be okay but the passing game will be a question. Similarly, if the talent clicks in the secondary and defensive line then the ‘Cats can do exactly what they want. If not, then a linebacking corps will be stretched thin covering for too many new faces.
Unlike last year when Missouri and Kentucky met in Week 2, this matchup will happen in November when both teams should be exactly what they are so there’s no taking advantage of the new-ness of this team (unless they just stink). Missouri will be returning from a trip to South Carolina while Kentucky will be on their second-consecutive road game, visiting Knoxville the week before. Missouri finally beat Kentucky the last time the Wildcats were in town and it would be a great opportunity to knock them off again and protect the sanctity of Faurot from one of the most consistent football programs in the country.