SEC preview: Kentucky looks to continue steady improvement

Tony Walsh/The Red & Black

Mark Stoops, head coach of the University of Kentucky football team, speaks at the 2018 SEC Football Media Days in Atlanta last month. 

Leading up to the start of the college football season, The Red & Black will preview each of the 13 teams Georgia plays alongside in the Southeastern Conference. Today, The Red & Black takes a look at the Kentucky Wildcats.

2017 Results

7-6 (4-4 SEC); Finished third in the SEC East

Summary of last season

Kentucky opened its season with three consecutive wins, including two on the road (one of which was a 10-point win at South Carolina). The Wildcats were unable to sustain their hot start and make a push in the SEC though, as a one-point loss to Florida preceded a losses to Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Georgia.

Of Kentucky's six losses, three were by three points or fewer. Kentucky ended its season with three straight losses and finished at 7-6 for the second consecutive year, but the narrow defeats indicated slow improvement.

Key returning players

• Benny Snell, running back: Snell returns in 2018 as an already-established leader in the SEC, and the absence of Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and Derrius Guice (all now in the NFL) could give him a window to be the clear leader in his junior season. The Westerville, Ohio, native led the conference with 19 rushing touchdowns last season and finished third with 1,333 total yards. While the Wildcats experience a change at quarterback, Snell provides consistency at his position.

• Josh Allen, linebacker: Allen made 62 total tackles last season as a junior, which ranked fourth on the team. In addition, he tallied seven sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception as his play vaulted him into Butkus Award consideration. While Georgia’s Roquan Smith eventually won the award, Allen placed as a semifinalist. With the loss of Courtney Love at inside linebacker, look for Allen’s role as a leader to intensify during his senior campaign.

Slow but steady

Before the current streak of two consecutive 7-6 seasons, Kentucky and head coach Mark Stoops compiled two straight seasons at 5-7. In Stoops’ first season, the Wildcats were just 2-10. The slow improvement over the past five seasons is indicative of Stoops’ ability to turn the program around, but 2018 will serve as a clear indication of whether or not the Wildcats have reached their ceiling for the time being.

Season outlook

Kentucky gets to host Mississippi State, South Carolina and Georgia in Lexington this season, with the matchup against Georgia serving as the only game against a preseason top-10 team that it has on its schedule. Non-conference opponents include Central Michigan, Murray State, Middle Tennessee and Louisville.

As they fight to earn a spot in a third consecutive bowl game, the Wildcats can also circle away games at Florida, Missouri and Tennessee as checkpoints toward possibly earning a spot in the SEC East’s top three teams.

Printed with permission from The Red & Black independent student media organization, based in Athens, Georgia. For more UGA sports news, visit www.redandblack.com/sports.

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