VAUGHT: Wildcats football forecast

Published 3:56 pm Tuesday, July 14, 2020

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By Jamie H. Vaught
Contributing columnist

For the last four years, the Kentucky Wildcats have played winning football on the field with a nice overall record of 32-20, including four bowl trips and a 16-16 mark in SEC.

But will the Wildcats win again in 2020?  Well, on paper, they should with several preseason All-American and All-SEC standouts returning despite the departure of All-American Lynn Bowden Jr. from last season’s memorable 8-5 Belk Bowl campaign.

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Here’s my annual fearless forecast for Coach Mark Stoops’ Kentucky squad in 2020.

EASTERN MICHIGAN (Sept. 3, Lexington) – The Eagles from the Mid-American Conference are coming off a 6-7 Quick Lane Bowl campaign, but they are losing many starters. Kentucky dominated them in a 38-17 win last fall despite a season-ending injury to QB Terry Wilson. Athlon Sports and Street & Smith’s yearbooks are projecting EMU to finish at No. 6 and No. 5, respectively, in the six-team West Division. UK by 21 in this Thursday night’s matchup on SEC Network.

FLORIDA (Sept. 12, Gainesville) – Coach Dan Mullen is beginning his third year at the Gator helm and is doing very well. Just like his Mississippi State days. His Gators, who defeated Kentucky 29-21 at Kroger Field last year, are a Top 10 powerhouse again after finishing with an 11-2 mark, including an Orange Bowl victory over Virginia, in 2019.  Florida by 9.

KENT STATE (Sept. 19, Lexington) – The Golden Flashes from the MAC have a crazy non-conference schedule but they need the money. Besides Kentucky, they will travel to Penn State (for the season opener) and Alabama. Last year Kent State captured its first bowl game in school history with a 51-41 victory over Utah State in the Tropical Smoothie Café Frisco Bowl. UK by 18.

SOUTH CAROLINA (Sept. 26, Lexington) – Coach Will Muschamp’s Gamecocks are coming off a very disappointing 4-8 campaign in 2019 after a critical injury to QB Jake Bentley, who later moved to Utah as a graduate transfer. USC hopes its offense will improve after hiring new offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, the ex-head coach at Colorado State. Bobo, as you may remember, is a former QB and assistant coach at Georgia. UK dropped to the Gamecocks 24-7 in Columbia last fall. UK by 7.

AUBURN (Oct. 3, Auburn) – Kentucky has not played against the Tigers since 2015 when it lost 30-27 at home. Now entering his eighth season at Auburn, Coach Gus Malzahn is expected to have a Top 10 team this time. The Tigers, who have sophomore QB Bo Nix back after an outstanding rookie year, defeated Alabama 48-45 in a memorable Iron Bowl showdown last season.  Auburn by 10.

EASTERN ILLINOIS (Oct. 10, Lexington) – Street & Smith’s yearbook is expecting another tough year for the Panthers of the Ohio Valley Conference after an 1-11 season in 2019.  EIU, by the way, will return to the state of Kentucky again on the following Saturday, facing Eastern Kentucky in Richmond. UK by 32, improving its record to 4-2.

VANDERBILT (Oct. 17, Lexington) – Coach Derek Mason, now in his seventh season at Nashville, is on the hot seat to produce his first winning campaign at Vandy. The Wildcats stopped the Commodores 38-14 last fall in Music City.  UK by 7.

MISSOURI (Oct. 24, Columbia) – The Tigers have a new coach. His name is Eliah Drinkwitz, who came to Missouri after only one season at Appalachian State where he guided the Mountaineers to a remarkable 13-1 record. Missouri will be in a rebuilding mode. UK by 6.

TENNESSEE (Nov. 7, Knoxville) – Jeremy Pruitt, now in his third year in Knoxville, has done a nice job with the improving Vols, who edged Kentucky 17-13 last season. Pruitt is the former defensive coordinator at Alabama, Georgia and Florida State. UT, coming off an 8-5 Gator Bowl season, is expected to be better this time. UT by 9, dropping Kentucky’s record to 6-3.

MISSISSIPPI STATE (Nov. 14, Lexington) – This should be an entertaining matchup as offensive genius and new MSU boss Mike Leach returns to SEC for the first time since his early UK days as offensive coordinator during the late 1990s. His probable 6-foot-5 QB is K.J. Costello, a graduate transfer from Stanford who will run the Air Raid offense. UK by 6.

GEORGIA (Nov. 21, Athens) – Kirby Smart’s teams at Georgia have been very dangerous lately and this season will be no exception. The Bulldogs, with graduate transfer Jamie Newman from Wake Forest, could be more exciting to watch as they have a new offensive coordinator by the name of Todd Monken, who preaches Air Raid offense, from the NFL. UGA by 10.

LOUISVILLE (Nov. 28, Louisville) – The Cardinals, after an impressive coaching job by Scott Satterfield in his first season at U of L in 2019, should be better this fall after getting comfortable with his system. U of L’s offense will feature sophomore Javian Hawkins, whose 1,525 rushing yards in 2019 was the most by a running back in school history (and also the third-most by a rookie in ACC history). U of L by 6.

So, as you can see, this fearless forecast calls for Kentucky to post a 7-5 record with its fifth straight bowl trip. Not bad but could be better.

What do you think?

Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime sports columnist in Kentucky, is the author of five books about UK basketball, including newly-released “Chasing the Cats: A Kentucky Basketball Journey.” He is the editor and founder of Magazine, and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via email at