Food, a feud and the best defensive dude: 5 bold predictions for Kentucky football season
LEXINGTON — Imagine a prediction in the fall of 2012 that Mark Stoops would last a decade as the Kentucky football coach.
Consider the absurdity of projecting then that Stoops would surpass Paul “Bear” Bryant as the winningest coach in UK history.
But nearly 10 years later, Stoops is nine seasons into his tenure and one win from tying Bryant’s 60 as the most ever by a Wildcats coach. He’s had two 10-win seasons in the past four, a feat Kentucky hadn’t managed in a single season since 1977.
It turns out bold Kentucky football predictions can come true.
Here’s a handful for 2022. You won’t need a decade to see how they turn out.
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Barion Brown returns a kickoff for a TD
Not so bold, you say? Not so fast.
Sure, the freshman wide receiver is a dynamic athlete. And yes, Stoops singled him out at Monday’s game-week news conference saying Brown “will give us some juice and give us a guy that can really hit it” on kick returns.
And so bringing one back all the way might not seem so far-fetched.
But check the history.
Since Stoops took over, no Kentucky player has taken a kickoff to the house. Not one. In nine years. Kickoff returns aren’t as easy as they used to be, but that’s nonetheless an extreme streak. Every team in the SEC East has at least three returns since UK’s last. Florida has seven. Last season’s FBS leader, Brian Battie of South Florida, returned three himself.
The last Cat to bring back a kickoff for six was Derrick Locke on Sept. 19, 2009, against Louisville. Brown is as good a bet as any to knock Locke off the last-time list.
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Will Levis repeats his viral feat
Levis enters the season well outside the top 10 Heisman Trophy candidates in Las Vegas odds, according to Vegas Insider.
So picking him to reach New York City as a finalist feels far-fetched, even for a bold prediction.
(Besides, esteemed colleague Alexis Cubit already took this one, vis-a-vis Louisville’s Malik Cunningham.)
But that long-shot status means Levis could use any viral boost to his Heisman candidacy. And a guy who’s already achieved internet infamy for eating a banana with the peel on and drinking coffee with mayonnaise surely can find another way into our collective online consciousness.
Levis — who’s “built like a Greek god,” backup QB Deuce Hogan said — seems tailor-made for the Bicep Egg Challenge. And why stop with an egg-cracking flex? Levis can break the shell over a glass and drink the raw yolk, “Rocky” style.
Similarly bold, if less absurd: When the season ends, Levis lands in the top 10 of the NFL draft, the highest-drafted Cat since Tim Couch in 1999.
Kentucky offense takes a step back
Levis is the best passing QB Stoops has coached at UK. Kentucky might have its deepest corps of tight ends and wide receivers in the Stoops era. The Cats are swimming with running back options.
But the guess here is that if UK is to return to its 10-win ways, the defense will carry the day.
Levis has a chance to be better than he was a season ago. He’s a more experienced starter. He’ll have more weapons at tight end and wideout. But even if he improves, he’ll no doubt miss the safety valve Wan’Dale Robinson provided.
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Robinson, now a rookie with the NFL’s New York Giants, was an experienced transfer from Nebraska who could make plays for his quarterback. Get the ball in his vicinity and Robinson could go to work. The Wildcats have options on the roster to develop into comparable big-play threats, but it will take time.
And speaking of time: Levis is going to need some as he adjusts to fresh faces and a new offensive system, particularly early with star running back Chris Rodriguez unavailable. That puts pressure on the left tackle protecting Levis’ blindside, redshirt freshman David Wohlabaugh.
It’ll be no surprise if the UK offense is cruising by late in the season, but the guess is in September it’ll sometimes stick in neutral.
J.J. Weaver is Kentucky defense’s best player
Given all he’s been through, it’s easy to hope for a banner year for the former Moore star.
And it’s not hard to see it happening.
It’s bold to bet on Weaver as the top dog on a Wildcat defense stacked with stars like Octavious Oxendine, Jacquez Jones and DeAndre Square.
But Weaver looked ready to hit another level before a torn ACL sidelined him nine games into his redshirt freshman year. And though he was dynamic as a sophomore, even he admits he was tentative on his surgically repaired knee.
Now he’s healthy. He’s experienced. He’s learned the finer points of his position. And he’s poised to be a defensive MVP.
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Mark Stoops pokes the basketball bear
Already this offseason Stoops has had to answer for a tweet in response to John Calipari’s “basketball school" stance and a remark some folks thought targeted South Carolina coach Shane Beamer.
And though Stoops said this week on his radio show he and Calipari moved on “in about two minutes,” it's not outrageous to think he’ll get the Twittersphere worked up at least once more this fall.
And maybe he won’t so easily let go of the Calipari beef. For as long as Stoops has been the coach at Kentucky, he’s been hearing that “basketball school” stuff, likely as a negative recruiting approach from his rivals.
Stoops is an emotional guy riding a winning high, and his team will have opportunities to topple high-profile opponents. It feels like Stoops could use the spotlight of success to take a dig. A #footballschool subtweet, maybe, or a thinly veiled reference to beating programs born on third base.
It’s probably too much to hope for Stoops vs. Cal in a C-A-G-E! MATCH! MATCH! MATCH! at the 50-yard line. But here’s hoping Big Blue’s kind-of-fun feud still has a little juice.