Ladies and gentlemen, it is just about that time….FOOTBALL TIME IN THE BLUUUUUEEEEEEGRAASSSSSS!  There is quite a buzz in Lexington this year, and it’s not just coming from the fraternity and sorority houses on campus.  At SEC Media Days the Cats were predicted to finish 3rd in the SEC East Division (behind Georgia and Florida) and even received some first and second place votes.  After years of getting less respect than Rodney Dangerfield, it seems that at least folks in the SEC are finally beginning to take notice that there is some real football being played in Lexington.  

With opening kickoff just a few days away, we decided to open up the old Lex Buds mailbag to see what you, the fans, want to know most about the upcoming season.  I picked 4 questions, that will in turn, lead to 4 bold predictions for the upcoming season.

Question #1:  “How much of a difference do you think Liam Coen makes on offense and will Mark Stoops let him have control of the reigns?” – Edward, Pikeville

After 5 years of fan frustration at the conservative play-calling from Eddie Gran, preceded by fan frustration at the conservative play-calling from Shannon Dawson, preceded by fan frustration at the (shockingly) conservative play-calling from Neal Brown, a breath of fresh air at the offensive coordinator position was much needed.  

Liam Coen comes to Kentucky from the LA Rams, where he served as the Assistant Quarterbacks coach.  An optimist might see the NFL experience and the pro-style offense to be exactly what Kentucky needs.  A pessimist might see that Rams QB Jared Goff threw for the fewest number of yards, and fewest TD’s in 3 years with Coen as his position coach. Another refrain from the pessimists is that it doesn’t matter who Mark Stoops hires because he isn’t going to allow anyone to come in and take away his ground and pound philosophy.  

There is a part of me that has a “I’ll believe it when I see it” mindset when I hear Coach Stoops say they’re opening up the offense under Coen (I did after all live through 10 straight years of Tubby saying he was going to press more every preseason).  But I think this time is different.  I think Stoops has realized that the current strategy has taken us very far, perhaps as far as we’ve ever been in modern history, but if he wants to take that next step to compete with Georgia and Florida, a more diverse offense is a must.  Therefore, my first bold prediction is that Liam Coen channels his inner Liam Neeson to bring his “very particular set of skills” to wreak all kinds of havoc on opposing defenses in the SEC.  Kentucky was last in the SEC in 2020 in yards per game, a meager 311.  With the talent at the skill positions on this year’s roster, I think Coen’s offense averages over 400 yards per game.

Who is Liam Coen talking to on this headset?  An open records request submitted by Lex, Buds, & Pick ‘n Roll found that he was making a long-distance call to Athens, Georgia.  The transcribed audio from Coen is as follows:  “I know who you are. I know what you want. If you’re looking for an SEC championship trophy, I can tell you I don’t have one, yet. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long career, skills that make me a nightmare for people like you.”

Question #2:  “I think Chris Rodriguez blows up this year. Any chance he is a Heisman contender?”—Benjamin, Beattyville

I love, LOVE, Chris Rodriguez, but Heisman talk might be a little far-fetched.  With that said, I do think he blows up this year for several reasons:  

1.) He is the type of running back that Mark Stoops adores: tough, hard-nosed, never gets tackled the first time, and fights for every single yard.  As we saw with Benny Snell, when Stoops finds a RB he can trust like that, he will go to him time and time again.  If Mark Stoops were a teenage girl, he would have a Tiger Beat poster of Chris Rodriguez hanging in his room.  It’s a match made in heaven. 

2.) There should actually be some running lanes this year.  For the last couple of seasons, the lack of any downfield passing attack has hampered the UK offense.  Teams continued to stack the box against the run game.  The fact that we still had major success running the ball, is a huge tribute to what John Schlarman and the Big Blue Wall were able to do.  Now Kentucky has a QB in Will Levis who can sling the ball all over the field. Dare I say, it’s bananas how strong his arm is?  With Josh Ali and Wandale Robinson on either side, teams will have to account for the passing game this year, which should open up more holes for Rodriguez to plow through. 

3.) It’s looking like there might not be much depth in the running back room.  Kavosiey Smoke is already banged up and has a history of catching the injury bug and Jutahn McClain is now facing legal issues from the off-campus fraternity party incident.  Stoops has already moved Michael “Donut” Drennen, the sophomore Athlete from WR to RB, and it also means that La’Vell Wright, a freshman from North Hardin may end up seeing snaps. 

All of this combines for my second bold prediction:  Chris Rodriguez finishes with a top 10 single season record for rushing yards. He would need 1,092 yards to finish in the top 10. He had 785 yards last year, while splitting carries almost 50/50 with AJ Rose.  Now that he will be THE guy, I don’t think it’s crazy that he could get upwards of 200 carries this year.  If that ends up being the case, if he just gets his yards per carry from last year (6.6), that’s 1,320 yards, which would be good enough for 6th place on the all-time list. 

Chris Rodriguez could break more records than Dixie Chicks protestors in 2003.

Question #3:  “Was Will Levis the right choice to win the QB battle?”—Billy, Catlettsburg

It’s funny how quickly things can change.  From the moment last season ended and Terry Wilson announced he would be transferring, we all knew that Joey Gatewood would be the next starting QB. Even when we got the news that some guy named Will Levis was transferring here from Penn State, we all thought he might make for a nice backup, or even be a good 3rd string QB behind Beau Allen.  

But Levis and the coaching staff obviously knew more than we did as he seemingly was the best QB in spring practice and it wasn’t even close.  If you listened to the coaches talk about the QB competition, it was obvious that Levis was the most impressive.  While most fans have never seen him play, and the fact he has only thrown 102 passes in his entire career, Levis remains a bit of a mystery.  And even though the only time I’ve seen him play in person was at this years Fan Day, I have seen and heard enough to make a bold prediction:  Will Levis will be the best Kentucky quarterback we’ve had in 14 years. 

 Going back through the pantheon of UK signal callers, Levis has the ability and intangibles to be the best we’ve seen since Andre’ Woodson. Better than Terry Wilson, Stephen Johnson, Patrick Towles, Max Smith, Jalen Whitlow, Morgan Newton, and Mike Hartline.  

My logic for this is simple:  Will Levis loves bananas. Bananas contain lots of antioxidants. Antioxidants are substances that can prevent damage to cells in your body caused by free radicals (unstable molecules) that cause harm if their levels become too high.  No team in SEC football history has succumbed to more harm than our beloved Cats.  We all know the heartbreak, the losing records, the streaks, and finding ways to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory that make being a Kentucky football fan challenging.  Lots of damage has been done to our souls.  We need an antioxidant to cleanse us.  Levis is on the verge of being an absolute superstar.  He has already gone viral with his TikTok videos and Today Show segment, but if he can just be better than the string of mediocre QBs we have had over the last decade, he will be a star in this state unlike we have seen since the Couch/Lorenzen/Woodson days. 

Will “The Antioxidant” Levis (nickname copyright in progress)

Question #4:  “Is this the year we finally break through and win the SEC East?”—Derick, Lexington

This question is the perfect example of how much Mark Stoops has raised the bar for Kentucky football, but let’s be honest, winning the SEC East is a VERY high bar.  One I think we last accomplished before dirt was invented.  There are a lot of factors that play into this question, one of which is luck.  Unless you think Kentucky goes 8-0 in SEC play, winning the division is going to require other scenarios to also play out in our favor.  So let’s look at the schedule and see if an SEC East title is possible.

OUR SEC SCHEDULE:

  • Home:  Missouri, Florida, LSU, Tennessee
  • Away:  South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt

To win the SEC, these 5 games are MUST wins:  Missouri (H), South Carolina (A), Mississippi State (A), Tennessee (H), Vanderbilt (A).  On paper Kentucky should be better than all these teams, and we can’t afford to drop any games in which we will be favored. 

That leaves the murderer’s row of games from October 2nd-Ocotber 16th:  13th ranked Florida and 16th ranked LSU at home, followed by a trip to Athens to take on the #3 Georgia Bulldogs.  As talented a roster we have, it’s just not realistic to think we can beat 3 top-16 teams in back-to-back-to-back weeks. This may be unpopular with many of the diehard football fans, but I think the best-case scenario is that we win 1 between Florida/LSU, lose to Georgia, and finish with an SEC record of 6-2.  Fantastic year! But is it good enough for a division title?  

Since Georgia would own a tiebreaker, that means we need to find 3 losses on the Bulldogs schedule, and those just aren’t out there.  They do go to Auburn, so let’s say they drop that one.  The next toughest game is the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.  We need Florida to find a way to win that one.  (BTW, is there a cooler name for any game in sports than World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party?  Mitch Barnhardt would never allow Kentucky to participate in an event with such a name).  Even in these best-case scenarios, there just isn’t another loss for Georgia on the table barring a string of major injuries or Covid outbreaks. So while I think a 2nd place finish for Kentucky is very realistic, winning the division just is not.  Which leads me to my final bold prediction:  Kentucky will not make an SEC Championship Game in my lifetime. It would already take something magical for UK to make it to Atlanta, but with the addition of Texas and Oklahoma coming soon, it just seems impossible.  That doesn’t mean the Cats won’t have great seasons, and I’m sure there will be lots of years where we are in contention, but there will be too many powerhouses for the Cats to emerge on top. 

Wow, I just really depressed myself there, sorry about that.  I don’t know what came over me.  You know what, screw it, here’s a bonus 5th bold prediction:  Kentucky makes the SEC championship game THIS year.  Because with the Sooners and Longhorns coming, it may be now or never. Kentucky has the offensive weapons:  C-Rod, Josh Ali, Wan’Dale Robinson, the offensive line, emerging stars like Josh Paschal and DeAndre Square leading the defense who will have a deep secondary behind them.  So why not, Kentucky?  Let’s play some football!

Kentucky vs. Alabama.  Georgia Dome. December 4, 2021.  Get your tickets now.