NCAA Football Preview - Kentucky Wildcats

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Updated: 8/18 9:53 am

There was some optimism early in the campaign, especially after the Wildcats picked up a strong 41-7 home victory over Miami-Ohio on Sept. 7, but they failed to build upon that momentum, falling into a five-game losing streak.

The squad had a much-needed mid-season matchup against FCS squad Alabama State, which it defeated easily (48-14), but from there it fell into another slide with four straight setbacks to close out the season, all by at least 13 points. UK finished the campaign 2-10 and 0-8 in the SEC, its second consecutive winless campaign in the league.

Despite the down year, the university saw enough positives in Stoops' first season to reward him with a contract extension that will have him onboard through 2018.

2014 ANALYSIS:

OFFENSE: The Wildcats couldn't generate much offense a year ago, ranking second-to-last in the SEC in both scoring (20.5 ppg) and yardage (341.3 ypg). In year two under offensive coordinator Neal Brown, who held the same position for high-flying Texas Tech from 2010-12, the team should be able to see improvement, especially with four starters returning along the offensive line.

The keys to the offense will be handed over to Patrick Towles under center. Towles used his redshirt last season and appeared in five games as a freshman in 2012 (19-of-40, 233 yards, TD). Maxwell Smith (1,276 yards, nine TDs, INT in 2013) is still on the roster but is not fully recovered from a shoulder injury.

UK's rushing attack averaged only 4.1 yards per carry a season ago. Jojo Kemp (482 yards, three TDs) is the top returning rusher, although the starting gig is expected to go to Braylon Heard, who ran for 348 yards (6.7 ypc) as a sophomore at Nebraska in 2012.

The team's most experienced skill position is wide receiver, where Javess Blue (43 receptions, 586 yards, four TDs) and Ryan Timmons (32 receptions, 338 yards, two TDs) are back as starters.

DEFENSE: Stoops is widely regarded as a defensive guru from his time at Florida State and Arizona, but his coaching scheme did not translate very well to the field in 2013, as UK ranked 13th in the SEC in total defense (427.2 ypg) and last in scoring defense (31.2 ppg). The good news is that the unit welcomes back seven starters.

The key to the defense is along the front line, which is anchored by senior leader Alvin "Bud" Dupree, who racked up 61 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 7.0 sacks and two forced fumbles last season.

"(Bud) is a great player," Stoops said. "He's so versatile. He's improved in so many ways, but he's everything you want. He's a great young man, a great leader. I don't just throw out a lot of compliments all the time for players. They have to earn that, but he's a player that's special. He's as good as the guys I was around at Florida State."

Za'Darius Smith (59 tackles, 6.0 sacks) takes advantage of the extra attention offenses give to Dupree. Khalid Henderson (51 tackles) will lead an inexperienced crop of linebackers.

Four starters are back in the secondary, including Blake McClain (59 tackles), Fred Tiller (49 tackles), Ashley Lowery (46 tackles) and Cody Quinn (27 tackles), although that crew combined for just one interception.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Landon Foster had plenty of punting opportunities last season, kicking it away 68 times with a 41.3-yard average. Alex MacGinnis, a redshirt freshman, will take over place kicking duties.

In addition to being the team's leading receiver in 2013, Blue also had 25 kickoff returns for 510 yards and seven punt returns for 20 yards. Demarco Robinson is also expected to field returns again.

OUTLOOK: Stoops' squad was clearly behind the eight ball in the loaded SEC a season ago, and the results were not pretty, but with a year under his belt, the head coach thinks he and his team are more equipped to handle the tough road in 2014.

"I'm excited about this team," Stoops said. "This team has worked extremely hard. They've done everything we've asked them to do...I think the area where we need to improve the most was leadership. I feel like our players have worked hard to be better leaders, to be more accountable, to be more dependable to their teammates and to the program."

While failing to improve upon their recent atrocious seasons will be nearly impossible, the Wildcats are still a long way from competing in the SEC. They'll likely be the underdog in every league game they play, with their Nov. 15 matchup at Tennessee their best chance to end their conference losing streak. Expect another long season in Lexington for a team still a year or two away from competing for a bowl.

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