With the regular season over, now Kentucky fans wait for championship weekend to conclude to see where the Wildcats will play their bowl game. The location and opponent hinge on the results of the SEC Championship and decisions of the College Football Playoff Committee. While we wait, maybe it is time for reflection on how the season went from beginning to the end.
During the preseason the hype was extremely high on this team. Kentucky had just finished the 2021 season at 10-3 with an electric comeback against the Iowa Hawkeyes in the bowl game. There were fresh faces across the staff, most importantly the addition of offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello. The transfer portal had been kind to Kentucky with the likes of Ramon Jefferson, Keidron Smith, and Tayvion Robinson. Freshmen Barion Brown and Dane Key had impressed in the preseason, earning starter reps with the first team. Veteran quarterback Will Levis was a Heisman contender, setup to have a historic season.
In the preseason, the team quickly met adversity, with defensive leader Vito Tisdale going out for the season due to injury. Then multiple players were suspended due to off the field issues, leaving the Cats without players on both sides of the ball to begin the season. Ramon Jefferson, a running back transfer that shined in the preseason went out on one of his first attempts of the season, leaving Kentucky thin at running back, a position thought to be the strength of the team. The injury issues continued through the season, leaving Kentucky thin at times on offense and defense.
At first, the offense seemed to be good, but not great. There were vulnerabilities on the offensive line, and even against lesser competition the line struggled against blitzes and simple schemes. Will Levis still shined with his new weapons, as he was able to distribute the ball to the playmakers. Dane Key had great hands, while Barrion Brown showed explosive speed, and Tayvion Robinson showed an ability to make plays with the ball. Kentucky started off to a hot start, reaching 4-0, but there were frustrations and suspect play calling and execution. The offensive line was a clear issue, even with adjustments to put Kenneth Horsey at the tackle position to sure up the left side. The plays just weren’t generating the explosive offense that Levis had led just a year before with OC Liam Coen.
Then came the Ole Miss game in Oxford. The Cats had every chance to win that game but could not put it together. From a missed field goal, to a dropped interception, a missed targeting penalty, and a game winning TD called back on a penalty, it just felt like the Wildcats fumbled every chance to win the game.
The next game was South Carolina, a game that Cats were expected to win. Levis missed with an injury and the Cats immediately fumbled on the first drive, giving the Gamecocks all the momentum from the start. Kentucky could never get any offense moving and again the special teams stumbled, losing in what looked like a brutal outing.
Following the Gamecocks loss, Kentucky put up a respectable effort and beat SEC West foe Mississippi State. Will Levis battled hard, despite being hobbled by various injuries, putting the Bulldogs away 27-17. This shimmer of hope gave Cat fans some hope that something was coming together, but the very next week they were proven wrong. With the nation watching, the Cats put up a dud effort in Knoxville, getting crushed by the then CFP hopeful Tennessee Vols. Kentucky allowed the most points they had allowed in a long time, letting the Vols torch them for 44 points.
The next game faced the nations 28th ranked defense in Columbia, Missouri. While only putting up a hard fought 21 points, Kentucky’s defense was capable of holding off a late push by Mizzou, outlasting them enough to squeak out 21-17 win.
Unfortunately, the most embarrassing outing was yet to come, as the Cats hosted Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt came into Kroger Field, not having won a SEC game in 26 straight attempts, and seemed to control the game. Kentucky was limited to 106 yards in the air, but managed 213 on the ground. This may have been the game that checked out many fans, as it seemed as if the scheme issues that plagued the Cats were not going to be resolved this season.
Even worse, number one Georgia came into town the next week, and Vegas set the spread at a hefty 22.5 point favorite for the Bulldogs. Respectably, the Cats put in a great effort, holding a dominating force to only 16 points, their lowest total all season. Again, the special teams unit was a major issue. But at last, the Cats put together an explosive offense in the fourth quarter, just a little too late to put together a comeback effort. Freshman Barrion Brown showed his greatness, totaling 10 catches for 145 yards against one of the nations toughest defenses. The Cats only managed six total points, but the offense was able to excite fans and flash the talent this team possesses.
To finish the season, Kentucky faced off against in-state rival, and in a great move of fan-service, they dominated the Cards in a 26-13 outing. The Cards could never get a game plan going, having to switch QBs back-in-forth in order to find something that worked. Kentucky ran all over the Cards, as C-Rod finished with 120 yards, and Levis passed for 188 and a pair of touchdowns. Key and Brown had a touchdown catch each, and Kentucky dominated both sides of the ball.
The team finished at 7-5, below expectations that were set near 10 wins in the preseason. Even though the record may show an underwhelming season, there are still silver linings to appreciate. Remember, this is Kentucky, a school that has been known for decades as ‘poor old Kentucky’. If Kentucky would have faced this amount of adversity a decade ago, they may finish last in the SEC and be the same underperforming program that it was for a long time. This team fought through injuries, scheme issues, and a tough schedule and still finished over .500.
Stoops and company pieced together a game plan to finish the season that helped finish with pride and respect. Coach Stoops deserves the respect and trust that he will get this train back on track, as he has built this program from a two win team to a team that has won consecutive Governor Cup’s and reached a bowl game in four straight seasons. This offseason will be a test to see what Stoops can do to strengthen his staff and what he can do in the recruiting world combined with the transfer portal. Pieces are bound to come to go in the modern world of the transfer portal.
It will be an interesting offseason to see how different this Wildcat team will be for the 2023 season.