Can Mark Stoops keep Kentucky football as a Top 25 team in the country? The 2022 season could be a massively important one for the Wildcats.
With 33 wins over the past four seasons, two 10-win campaigns and four consecutive bowl wins, head coach Mark Stoops has taken Kentucky football to new heights. Sure, they may never be the Wildcats basketball program, but don’t let that diminish the level of consistency and prevalence that Kentucky has reached under Stoops.
But now with one of the most talented groups that we’ve seen in quite some time, could the Wildcats be the best they’ve ever been under this regime?
The Kentucky Wildcats enter the season ranked No. 22 in the FanSided Top 50 Preseason Rankings.
Kentucky football 2021 season in review
Prior to the 2018 campaign, it had been more than four decades since Lexington had seen a 10-game winner on the football field. But after last season, that’s two years out of the last four that the Wildcats have gotten to the 10-win mark.
All three of Kentucky’s losses in the 2021 season came in the SEC, which is to be expected given the nature of the conference. However, even ending up 5-3 in the league while winning every other game is a pristine accomplishment, especially when punctuated by the 20-17 win in the Citrus Bowl over Iowa to end the season.
Previewing Kentucky Wildcats offense for 2022 season
- Returning starters (5): QB Will Levis, RB Christopher Rodriguez, TE Brenden Bates, OL Eli Cox, OL Kenneth Horsey
- Notable newcomers: WR Tayvion Robinson (Virginia Tech), 4-star WR Dane Key, OL Tashawn Manning (Auburn), 4-star OL Kiyaunta Goodwin
- Impact player: Will Levis
Last season, the offense was about middle of the pack in terms of production but, despite only returning five starters, there are reasons to believe that there could be an uptick on this side of the ball.
Rodriguez is a stud at running back and, despite some big losses on the line, the transfer portal was kind and should offer a great deal of push up front, particularly Tashawn Manning from Auburn, a mauler on the inside. But really, this offense will go as far as Will Levis can take them, especially with Wan’Dale Robinson now gone.
Levis is getting buzz as a potential first-round pick in the NFL Draft and deservedly so. He has a cannon arm and threw for 24 touchdowns a year ago, but the key will be honing in on his decision-making and, subsequently, cutting down on the turnovers. If he can do that and be a more efficient signal-caller, this could be one of the best Kentucky offenses in quite some time, if not ever.
Previewing Kentucky Wildcats defense for 2022 season
- Returning starters (5): LB JJ Weaver, LB DeAndre Square, LB Jacquez Jones, CB Carrington Valentine, S Tyrell Ajian
- Notable newcomers: DL Darrion Henry-Young (Ohio State), CB Keidron Smith (Ole Miss),
- Impact player: JJ Weaver
Mark Stoops has done a fantastic job throughout his tenure of getting guys in the building, developing them, and then reaping the fruits of veteran players. That’s largely the case again, even with only five starters returning.
Those five returners are going to be crucial. Leading the way is the leading sack-getter from a year ago, JJ Weaver, who will have even more pressure on him to get to the quarterback with the departure of Josh Paschal. Meanwhile, the rest of the linebacker corps was strong last season and should remain the same. Moreover, Valentine and Ajian in the secondary are stalwarts who should serve as anchors for that unit.
The big question is on the defensive line. There are talented players, including the Ohio State transfer Darrion Henry-Young along with some former 4-star recruits in Josaih Hayes and Justin Rogers. What we haven’t seen is just these guys get meaningful snaps up front, which will be something to monitor, particularly early in the year.
Kentucky football players awards watch for 2022 season
Several Kentucky football players are on preseason awards watchlists but these three stand out.
Eli Cox, Outland
Cox missed the end of last season due to a hand injury and will move from guard to center this season, but his pedigree is undeniable. As one of the few returners in the trenches for the Wildcats, he’ll have his chance to shine.
Will Levis, Maxwell/O’Brien
With 33 total touchdowns to his credit in 2021 and now with the hope that he progresses with the experience he garnered at Kentucky last year, Levis is going to have all the eyes focused on him. If he delivers, it could pay dividends both individually and for the team at large.
Chris Rodriguez, Maxwell
Helping the cause with Levis is Rodriguez, who averaged over 100 rushing yards per game last season and seems primed to make that happen again. He’s elusive and explosive and should be able to put his talents fully on display in the 2022 season.
Kentucky Wildcats biggest game on 2022 schedule
We’re going to see a big test for Kentucky basically right out of the gate as the second game of the season will take the Wildcats to Gainesville for a date with the Florida Gators on Sept. 10.
As Florida enters its first season under Billy Napier, there are both reasons for hope but also serious questions about what the Gators will be. That’s the perfect time for Kentucky to catch this team as their experience and consistency within the program could prove invaluable in such a matchup, even if they’re on the road.
With a tough finishing stretch in the SEC and in the rivalry matchup against Louisville, setting the tone early with the conference opener against Florida should prove crucial.
Kentucky football best-case scenario
The best-case scenario out of Lexington starts with the Wildcats taking business against Florida and in the three surrounding non-conference games, none of which present much of a threat. That’s a 4-0 start before the team heads to Oxford to try and halt the Lane Train.
With the turnover that Ole Miss will be enduring, we can chalk that up as a win for the Wildcats as well, the same of which is true for home games against South Carolina and even Mississippi State, despite the Bulldogs being a tricky matchup. Still, the best case is this team is starting at 7-0 before going into their open week.
Out of that, they really pick things up as they go on the road against Tennessee and Missouri before finishing with three games at home against Vanderbilt, Georgia and Louisville. While only the Vandy game is a true gimme for Kentucky, all of those games except for the matchup with the reigning national champs are winnable.
It might be the pie-in-the-sky option, but there is a world where this Kentucky football team finishes the regular season at 11-1, but still out of the SEC Championship Game thanks to the loss to Georgia.
Kentucky football worst-case scenario
Unfortunately, the worst-case scenario for Kentucky is not great. If the offensive and defensive lines fail to coalesce quickly, that could spell an early loss at Florida and then things could get worse from there.
Ole Miss, though experiencing changeover across the board basically, is going to be explosive and dangerous, which could be a problem if the Kentucky offense isn’t blocking well up front — they won’t be able to keep the pace. Mississippi State could cause more problems with the Mike Leach offense finally getting its feet firmly on the ground in Starkville, which would put the Wildcats at 3-3 going into the off week.
With things going awry, we can chalk up at Tennessee and at home against Georgia as losses, which would make the matchup at home against rival Louisville the difference between 6-6 and 7-5. This won’t please many Kentucky fans, but if this team is going into that matchup at 6-5, I like the upside of Louisville far better at that point, meaning the lowest bar for the Wildcats this year is a 6-6 regular-season finish. Still bowling, but not at all what Big Blue Nation is hoping for.
Kentucky football 2022 season prediction
The good news for fans is that I don’t see the 6-6 scenario truly coming into play — it’s more of a doomsday scenario than anything.
Instead, the best bet for this team probably lies with them finishing the regular season at 9-3. As stated, I’m marking down Georgia as a loss no matter what, but they also likely drop at least two more games from the matchups against Florida, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Tennessee. But I still like the team to get it done in the battle for the Bluegrass State against Louisville so, not only is it another nine-win season with a chance at getting to 10 again, but the in-state bragging rights will still taste just as sweet.
Kentucky football 2022 bowl game prediction
Bill Bender’s bowl projections for Sporting News put the Wildcats in the Gator Bowl against Pitt.
Up Next: No. 21: Arkansas
Other articles in this series:
- No. 23 Penn State
- No. 24 Pittsburgh
- No. 25 Texas
- No. 26 BYU
- No. 27 Houston
- No. 28 LSU
- No. 29 Ole Miss
- No. 30 Air Force
- No. 31 Iowa
- No. 32 Purdue
- No. 33 Mississippi State
- No. 34 Florida
- No. 35 Boise State
- No. 36 Florida State
- No. 37 UCLA
- No. 38 Minnesota
- No. 39 Fresno State
- No. 40 Kansas State
- No. 41 South Carolina
- No. 42 Boston College
- No. 43 Louisville
- No. 44 Auburn
- No. 45 Appalachian State
- No. 46 Coastal Carolina
- No. 47 UCF
- No. 48 Maryland
- No. 49 Iowa State
- No. 50 Nebraska