Ask the editors: What to look for from Kentucky this football season


Kentucky’s quarterbacks watch a teams drill during the UK football Fan Day open practice on Saturday, Aug. 7, 2021, at Kroger Field in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

As SEC schools look forward to a somewhat “traditional” semester, stadiums around the southeast will soon be filling back up with cheering fans, and football will hopefully assume a more normal form. According to the Kernel’s sports editor Hunter Shelton and assistant sports editor Barkley Truax, here’s what to watch for from Kentucky this football season.

What will UK’s 2021 record be?

Hunter: Kentucky has every chance to find themselves at 4-0 to begin the season. Two non-conference matchups against Louisiana Monroe and Chattanooga bookend a tough week-two test in Missouri, a team that some have pegged as a dark horse to compete with the top of the conference. If they can surpass the Tigers and defeat a lackluster South Carolina team in Columbia, the Cats will return to Lexington to face a gauntlet.

Back-to-back matchups against Florida and LSU will truly test Mark Stoops’ crew as they then travel to Athens to face Georgia, followed by a date with Mississippi State in Starkville. Kentucky needs to win one of these four games and consider anything extra as a bonus.

If the Cats make it out of that stretch alive, they’ll be rewarded with an easier end to the season. After hosting Tennessee, the Cats should win their final three games of the season against Vanderbilt, New Mexico State and a trip across Kentucky to take on Louisville in what’s been a one-sided rivalry as of late.

Nine wins could be in the cards for the Cats, but 7-5 should be a more realistic outcome.

Barkley: On a positive note, Kentucky will likely go 4-0 against their non-conference opponents this year in ULM, Chattanooga, New Mexico State and Louisville. On a more sour note, Kentucky’s more than likely slated to lose anywhere from 3-5 SEC games.

The three-week span to start in October versus Florida, LSU and Georgia will test the Wildcats’ drive and determination when it comes to staying motivated; they’re heading in as underdogs for all three games.

Other games Kentucky could drop are Missouri and Tennessee. Mizzou had a great season last year compared to expectations and many experts believe whoever wins the week two matchup between the Tigers and Wildcats in Lexington will finish third in the east. For Tennessee, the only reason to watch out for them is because, well, it’s Tennessee vs. Kentucky.

Where will UK finish in the Eastern division?

Barkley: They should finish no better than third, no worse than fourth.

As I stated prior, the week two matchup between UK and Mizzou will set the tone for the rest of the season. Georgia and Florida are expected to go one-two in the division, and with a hot start from Kentucky, why shouldn’t they sneak into third place? Fans are optimistic about the Florida and LSU game, but BBN shouldn’t bank on coming away with victories.

One positive is that they’re both playing UK in Lexington this year. Home-field advantage in a packed Kroger Field is real and shouldn’t be overlooked.

In the end, whoever wins that week two matchup will come away with a third place SEC East finish.

Hunter: I will say that this team is deep and talented enough to finish second behind Georgia. Florida has a lot of questions, and it’s no guarantee that they’ll live up to usual Gator expectations. If the Wildcats can avoid those yearly detrimental losses to the Missouris and Tennessees of the world, they could find themselves in another “control your own destiny” position if the other top teams slip up along the way.

If the season starts to hit the rails like they’ve been prone to do in the past, don’t be surprised to see Kentucky’s name ranked fourth or fifth in the east at the end of the season.

Which ranked team gives UK the best chance to pull off an upset?

Hunter: It’s hard to say anyone except LSU for now. Last season didn’t show any promise that the Tigers were going to rebound quickly from the loss of talent from the 2019 National Championship squad.

Ed Orgeron must show that he can get more out of a squad that may not stack up with some of the other heavy hitters in the west. There are question marks for LSU at multiple skill positions, and if those concerns aren’t addressed by Oct. 9, a mid-season matchup in Lexington poses a possible statement game for Stoops and Co.

Barkley: That team will likely be LSU. Coming off an abysmal 5-5 season following an undefeated national championship the year before, the No. 14 ranked Tigers are not necessarily “back” until they can prove it on the field.

LSU has a decision to make when it comes to quarterback after Myles Brennan’s arm surgery in July. Sophomore Max Johnson and true freshman Garrett Nussmeier are the only two other scholarship quarterbacks on Coach O’s roster, and no one knows what to expect from either.

Getting LSU at home in the middle of the season is something Kentucky fans should be salivating for, as it gives Mark Stoops and company a chance to get their signature win of 2021.

What player(s) are poised for a breakout year?

Barkley: Yusuf Corker is someone that defensive coordinator Brad White specifically mentioned over fall camp. White said that if Corker can have a good season, the defense will have a great season.

He’s expected to fill the roles current NFL rookies Brandin Echols and Kelvin Joseph held last season, as Kentucky’s secondary looks to have another stellar season.

Hunter: If the depth of this team is going to shine through, it’s going to be a couple of freshmen that break out for the Cats.

Running back La’Vell Wright will be tasked with an entry level number of snaps, in rushing and receiving opportunities. If he is available to create a three-headed monster with Chris Rodriguez Jr and Kavosiey Smoke, the Wildcats’ running game will be as dangerous as ever.

Wide receiver Chauncey Magwood will also be in a position to insert himself in a high spot on the depth chart. After Josh Ali and Wan’Dale Robinson, there is no affirmative third receiver, and Magwood is someone that impressed in fall camp so much that it wouldn’t be surprising to see him earn more and more snaps throughout the year.

What will Will Levis look like this season?

Hunter: Will Levis carries a mountain of pressure on his back as the season gets underway. If he and new offensive coordinator Liam Coen mesh, then the sky’s the limit. His arm talent is NFL-caliber and he is capable of spreading the ball all over the field. He can be a dual-threat if needed and has all the intangibles necessary to succeed in the SEC. Fans will get to see Levis operate in the system that fits his style best, which should only lead to the best results.

Barkley: Levis is a quarterback in a linebacker’s body. He can throw a pass effortlessly 50-yards down the field and do damage on the ground after being surrounded by Penn State’s run-heavy offensive scheme for the past three seasons. The hype around Levis is real, and Kentucky hasn’t had this type of excitement around the quarterback room in nearly two decades – a challenge Levis has said he’s ready for in the past.