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After four-straight winning seasons, including a combined 18-8 over the last two, the Kentucky Wildcats finished 5-6 in 2020. To be fair, the COVID-19 pandemic created a 10-game, conference-only schedule … making a .500 record more difficult to obtain.
Despite the losing record, Kentucky went to its fifth-straight bowl game under Mark Stoops, and a 23-21 victory over NC State in the Gator Bowl makes three consecutive bowl victories under the eight-year head coach.
OutKick has been going through and breaking down the offseason outlooks for all 14 SEC teams. So far, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Texas A&M, LSU and Auburn have been covered. Now it’s time to take a closer look at Kentucky.
For other offseason outlooks from around the SEC, click here.
Key Losses: C Drake Jackson; OT Landon Young; EDGE Boogie Watson; LB Jamin Davis; CB Kelvin Joseph; DT Quinton Bohanna; P Max Duffy; K Matt Roffolo
Key Returning: QB Joey Gatewood/Beau Allen; RB Chris Rodriguez; RB Kavosiey Smoke; WR Josh Ali; TE Keaton Upshaw; OT Darian Kinnard; OG Luke Fortner; DE Josh Paschal; EDGE J.J. Weaver; S Yusuf Corker; S Tyrell Aijan
Key Additions: OG Jager Burton (4-star); ILB Trevin Wallace (4); WR Dekel Crowdus (4); WR Christian Lewis (4); WR Wan’Dale Robinson (TP, NEB); WR Tre’Von Morgan (TP, MICH ST); ILB Luke Fulton (TP, MICH ST); QB Will Levis (TP, PSU); SDE Justin Dingle (TP, GT), OC Liam Coen (LA Rams)
Key Games: vs. Florida (Oct. 2); vs. LSU (Oct. 9); at Georgia (Oct. 16); at Miss State (Oct. 30); vs. Tennessee (Nov. 6); at Louisville (Nov. 27)
Outlook: Once again, Kentucky is losing some key NFL talent. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see 5-6 Wildcats drafted come April, and it could even be more than that. The Wildcats have proven those losses aren’t as crippling as they once were.
There will be an ongoing quarterback battle in the spring between Beau Allen and Joey Gatewood, but the hope is one of the two emerges as a quality option. Allen seems to be a better fit schematically for new offensive coordinator Liam Coen’s offense, but Gatewood’s raw talent cannot be automatically discarded.
The good news for the offense is at running back. Chris Rodriguez (119 carries, 785 yards, 11 TDs, 6.6 YPC) broke out this past season, so having a complementary run game should take pressure off whoever starts at quarterback.
There was also the surprising return of Darian Kinnard and Luke Fortner for one of the best offensive lines in the country. That means Kentucky has three starters on that unit returning. Yes, losing Drake Jackson and Landon Young will hurt, but they’re in much better shape than many thought they’d be.
It could be argued that the defense is losing four of its most impactful starters. Linebacker Jamin Davis was a surprise breakout, but he’s now off to the NFL. There is still talent at all three levels, especially along the line and at safety, but this is a group that helped the Wildcats overcome a lot of offensive inefficiency in 2020.
Can they do it again with those losses? Maybe, but it won’t be easy. On top of that, having to replace the nation’s top punter, Max Duffy — as well as kicker Matt Roffolo — means special teams takes a massive hit as well.
The SEC East is unspectacular right now. Outside of Georgia, there isn’t a lot of certainty. Florida will be good, and Missouri should be improved. But it’s possible that Kentucky could once again finish as a top-3 team in the East.
How they finish will depend on how things against teams such as Mississippi State, Tennessee and Louisville.
Follow Clint Lamb on Twitter @ClintRLamb.