Ladies and gentlemen, it’s just about that time…FOOTBALL TIME IN THE BLUUUEEEEGRAAASSSS! And there is reason to be excited; I mean have you seen our roster?  As many long-suffering UK football fans can tell you, there were times where our starting lineup caused more anger than the lineup at Woodstock ’99. But now Mark Stoops has built a team that is deep at nearly every position, and has high-end SEC caliber talent at those positions.

Speaking of Mark Stoops, let us take a moment to reflect on what this year means for our coach. He is about to start his 10th season, which will make him the longest tenured coach we have ever had. In the 122-year history of Kentucky football, no coach has ever lasted more than 9 seasons. At some point within the first 3 games, Stoops will break Paul “Bear” Bryant’s record for most wins. It is also worth pointing out that Mark Stoops has been the head coach for 29% of all the bowl games the UK football program has ever played in.  But Stoops has only been the head coach for 7% of the history of the Kentucky football program. Let that sink in. What Mark Stoops has done here is miraculous and we need to start construction of his statue immediately.

It seems folks around the conference are finally starting to take notice as well, as the Cats finished second in the SEC Media Days predictions for the SEC East (behind only Georgia). UK also received 4 first place votes, which was four more than Florida and three more than Tennessee.

2022 SEC football preseason media poll order of finish

First place votes in parentheses

SEC East

  1. Georgia (172)
  2. Kentucky (4)
  3. Tennessee (1)
  4. Florida
  5. South Carolina (3)
  6. Missouri
  7. Vanderbilt (1)

SEC West

  1. Alabama (177)
  2. Texas A&M (3)
  3. Arkansas (1)
  4. Ole Miss
  5. LSU
  6. Mississippi State
  7. Auburn

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.

Question #1: We always hear that games in the SEC are won and lost in the trenches, how good will Kentucky’s offensive and defensive lines be? Are they good enough to hold up against a rugged SEC schedule?

For the last several years, Kentucky has built bigger walls than Donald Trump on its offensive line. Under the tutelage of John Schlarman, the Cats could always count on plenty of running lanes and protection time for the quarterback. After losing 3 starters on the offensive line, many wonder if this will remain a strength this season; I think it will.  New Offensive Line coach, Zach Yenser (previously with the San Francisco 49ers), is a Kentucky born coach who worked under the late Schlarman for one season at Troy, and appears to be a perfect fit to coach this unit. There are also 2 standouts returning: Eli Cox and Kenneth Horsey.  While Cox makes the transition to center, Horsey returns at left guard, to form a firm foundation of the Big Blue Wall.  In fact, I predict that Kenneth Horsey will plow through defenses in the same way that Arby’s Horsey Sauce plows through your digestive system.

One of these Horsey’s will show no mercy as they crush your bones and make you wish you had never started any beef with them.  The other is Kenneth Horsey, an offensive lineman for the University of Kentucky.

On the other side of the ball, Kentucky has some absolute studs. UK’s 2020 recruiting class was ranked 25th in the country, due in large part to multiple highly touted defensive linemen in that class. Nose tackle Justin Rogers (6’3”, 336 lbs.) is the 4th highest ranked player to ever sign with Kentucky.  That group of players are now upperclassmen, and are ready to make a huge splash this year. Also included in that 2020 class was Defensive Tackle, Octavious Oxendine. The Big Ox showed flashes of brilliance last year, earning SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week after the win over LSU before suffering a season-ending knee injury. He’s now 100% healthy and I predict Octavious Oxendine will clean up opposing backfields better than OxiClean cleans up your kid’s laundry. In only 6 games last year, Oxendine recorded 15 tackles, 3.5 TFL, and 2 sacks.

No offense to Billy Mays, but if there is a more perfect spokesperson for OxiClean than Oxendine, I have yet to see it. Versatile, more power, that’s Octavious! Make this NIL deal happen.

Question #2:  What is going to be the biggest weakness on this year’s team?

Some people will say that wide receiver is the biggest question mark on this year’s team, and I’ll have more on that group later. My biggest concern is UK’s secondary. Not only did this position lose several starters and key players to graduation, but the loss of Vito Tisdale in spring practice was devastating as he was expected to be the starting free safety. Only 1 reliably proven player returns, and that is Tyrell Ajian. This means that a team that gave up 344 passing yards to Will Rogers in a loss to Mississippi State, and 316 passing yards to Hendon Hooker (on only 15 completions) in a loss to Tennessee, appears significantly worse on paper at defending the pass. Carrington Valentine will be atop the depth chart at cornerback, but statistically he had an awful year in 2021. Pro Football Focus (which grades every player at every position in college football), graded Valentine as the 787th best cornerback in the country. After seeing him get torched multiple times last year, it’s not hard to see why. The coaching staff has praised his improvement during the off-season, but I predict that UK’s secondary, led by Carrington Valentine, will cause a lot of heartache this year. We will lose at least 1 game this season due to the fact we were just unable to stop the other team’s passing attack.

Last year Kentucky allowed Tennessee to average 21 yards per completion. Here’s to hoping this season Carrington Valentine’s secondary can un-break my heart from that crushing loss.

As they will typically do in the SEC, Kentucky will face some very good quarterbacks this year:

  • Stetson Bennett (who led Georgia to a national title last year)
  • Hendon Hooker (who threw for 31 TD’s and only 3 INT’s for the Vols last year)
  • Spencer Rattler (led Oklahoma to a Cotton Bowl title with over 3,000 yards and 28 TD’s)
  • Anthony Richardson (Florida’s QB is the media darling of the off-season)
  • Will Rogers (4,739 passing yards last year in Mike Leach’s Air Raid)

Any of these players have the potential to be very difficult for Kentucky handle, and there may be games where Will Levis and the offense need to get the ball last to win a shootout.

Question #3: Is Will Levis going to win the Heisman?

If you follow Lex, Buds, & Pick ‘n Roll regularly, you know that we were extremely high on Will Levis before he even played a game.  In our 2021 football preview, we said that Levis would be the best quarterback since Andre Woodson. He accomplished that feat, and is now taking aim at finishing his career in the upper tier of UK Quarterbacks like Tim Couch, Jared Lorenzen, and Babe Parilli.

In his first year in Lexington, Will threw for 2,826 yards, completed 66% of his passes, and had 24 touchdowns. He also showed his mobility, rushing for 376 yards and 9 TD’s on the ground. While many experts around the country are predicting Levis to be a first-round pick, critics will point to his high number of interceptions last year as evidence that he still has a long way to go.  His 13 interceptions actually tied for most in the SEC last year.  It will be very exciting to see how much improvement he has in this area after having an entire offseason as the definitive starting QB. This is the first time in several years we haven’t gone into camp with a quarterback battle, so I expect Levis to vastly lower his number of turnovers this year.

There is one thing that concerns me about how much success Will Levis will have this season, and that is the wide receiver room. Kentucky lost 2,295 receiving yards from last season and outside of Virginia Tech transfer Tayvion Robinson, not a single receiver on the roster has more than 250 receiving yards in their career. There are some around UK who think we will be better overall at wide receiver, due to the increased depth and a certain freshman named Dane Key who has the potential to be a superstar. But let’s not forget that Wan’Dale Robinson had the greatest individual season by a Kentucky WR. It’s not that easy to replace what he was able to do.

One could look back at North Carolina QB Sam Howell as evidence that Levis could struggle this season. In 2020 Sam Howell threw for 3,586 yards and 30 touchdowns and entered last year with the same buzz as Levis this year. But Howell lost his two top receivers and two 1,000 yard rushers. Without those weapons, Howell regressed and saw his completion percentage drop by 6%, his passing yards drop by 500 yards, and his overall QB rating dropped by 25 points. He went from a projected first rounder to going in the 5th round of the NFL Draft. My fear is that Levis could suffer a similar fate if the wide receivers don’t live up to their enormous potential.

But Levis does have a safety net and an Ace up his sleeve, which is Chris Rodriguez. C-Rod is returning for a 5th year after finishing 2nd in the SEC in rushing yards last year, and needs only 1,134 yards to pass Benny Snell as the school’s all-time leading rusher. If Rodriguez doesn’t sustain any injuries (or isn’t suspended for too many games for his DUI charge this summer), it will take a lot of pressure off Levis and give him a lot more single coverage as teams try to stop the run. I’m also very excited to see what new Offensive Coordinator Rich Scangarello is able to add to the offense. Word on the street is that Scangarello will be lining up some of his tight ends at the fullback position. Tight End may be our best and most deep position on the roster, which should allow for a lot of safety valves for Levis to go to if the receivers aren’t getting open.

It is because of C-Rod and the tight ends, that I honestly think Levis has a good season, but it is up to the wide receivers to show up in order for him to have a great season. And who knows, if Kentucky wins its first 7 games and goes into Tennessee 7-0, there is going to be some Heisman buzz! Plus, those bananas have lots of antioxidants to cleanse out any negativity in the UK offense.

Prediction:  Will “The Antioxidant” * Levis will be as good as his receiving corps allows him to be. (*Trademark on this nickname pending)

Question #4: There isn’t a game on the schedule Kentucky can’t win, can we go 12-0 or 11-1? What’s your prediction on our regular season record?

For the first time that I can really ever remember, I don’t see a game on the schedule that I will say is an automatic loss, and that is pretty exciting. We can always chalk up a loss or two on the day the schedule is released every year. I don’t think Kentucky goes 12-0 or 11-1, the SEC is just too brutal. But here are my game-by-game predictions for the season:

I think the Cats start the year 6-0 and the Commonwealth goes crazy dreaming of a potential birth in the SEC championship game. Mark Stoops will become the all-time leader in victories at UK by winning at Florida, then can come home to celebrate Week 3 against his hometown Youngstown State. You can’t script it any better than that! But as I mentioned earlier, I have heavy concerns about our secondary and what Will Rogers and Hendon Hooker will do to them in games 7 and 8. We are much more competitive with Georgia, but until we show we can beat the Bulldogs once, I don’t see how you can predict a win in this one. That puts us finishing with a 9-3 regular season, and an opportunity for another 10-win season in a high-profile bowl game.

But if you want to dream a little bit, Kentucky can win every game on this schedule. And no matter what happens I think we have a chance to go into that Georgia game with the SEC East title on the line. If that ends up being the case, Lexington will explode for that game and who knows what happens. I truly hope Kentucky can do it this year, because for my final prediction: If UK doesn’t make the SEC championship game this year, I don’t think they ever do.  We will break in a new quarterback next year, and then the following year Texas and Oklahoma will be joining the mix.  As long as Mark Stoops is here, we will continue to get better, but the path to Atlanta gets exponentially harder in 2 years. So here’s to hoping the Cats prove me wrong and are playing against Alabama on December 3rd.