LEXINGTON — A month ago I feared that if the Kentucky Wildcats lose their football season opener against Western Kentucky (Saturday at Nashville’s LP Field, 7 p.m. Eastern, on ESPNews), it could have a long-term negative effect on coach Mark Stoops’ dream to turn around Kentucky football.
That was a knee-jerk reaction. I no longer have that concern.
The fear for Kentucky fans, of course, is that such a loss might deflate the confidence of the players, whose confidence already could be a little fragile after three years of losing, including a dreary 2-10 mark in 2012.
And it could deflate the confidence of a top 10 recruiting class for 2014.
But, having spent a good bit of time around Stoops and some of his assistants, I believe they could sell sand in a desert, both to the current players and to potential recruits.
In fact, a losing season this time around may, to at least a small degree, compel good prep talent to commit to Kentucky, seeing opportunities.
Though, as a sidenote, I would like to see the recruiting efforts of the UK coaching staff branch out more to the interior line
on both sides of the football. It appears Kentucky has enough running backs and wide receivers for a good, healthy base in Neal Brown’s air raid plans.
But, bottom line on this issue, I feel that all a UK loss to WKU this weekend will do is leave the Wildcats’ season record more like 3-9 or 4-8, instead of a potential 5-7.
Earlier this summer, I picked Stoops’ first Kentucky team to finish 6-6. I am backing off that now because I’ve found fall practice to be uneven at best, and I realize that Kentucky may have only a handful of experienced players ready at this point for top-level SEC competition.
That problem is more acute on the defensive side. If the Wildcats lose guys like linebacker Avery Williamson or defensive ends Za’Darius Smith and Alvin “Bud” Dupree, for any length of time, Kentucky is in big trouble, especially if they lose more than one of them at the same time.
Offensively, there may be more depth, so UK may be able to afford more injuries, as long as those injuries are not on the offensive line.
My 6-6 optimism was based on the idea that the Wildcats match up so much better with the final six opponents this season than they do with their first six.
But, upon further review, reality tells me that the only players standing after week six — particularly after that stretch of Louisville, Florida, South Carolina and Alabama in weeks 3-6 — may be the few, the proud, so to speak.
Here’s a brief look at the entire UK schedule:
Saturday, vs. Western Kentucky (in Nashville, 6 p.m. Central): I’m taking UK, 38-34 ... look for an explanation in Friday’s State Journal.
Sept. 7 — Miami of Ohio (noon on Fox South). A Kentucky win over Western might actually make this week two battle with the RedHawks more dangerous than a loss to the Hilltoppers.
Either way, however, Stoops and company will be fired up for the home opener and roll, 42-17.
Sept. 14 — Louisville (Noon on ESPN). If U of L quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is healthy and playing, I see no chance for Kentucky in this one.
The Wildcats may be able to score on the Cardinals, but UK’s defense is much, MUCH too young to contend with Bridgewater and company.
If Florida’s 2012 defense couldn’t slow the Cardinals, Kentucky’s 2013 defense certainly can’t.
Fortunately for the Wildcats, Charlie Strong is a pretty class guy. Make it 42-17, Louisville.
Sept. 28 - Florida (TBA) - If the Wildcats can score an upset against one of the big boys, this could be it.
Quarterback Jeff Driskell is dramatically overated, and the Gators’ skill position guys aren’t anywhere near the caliber of the Urban Meyer/Steve Spurrier Gators.
Still, I can’t quite go there. Make it 37-31, Florida.
Oct. 5 — At South Carolina. No chance. I reiterate: None. USC, 56-13.
Oct. 12 — Alabama. See above. But, it is at home. Make it 49-13.
Oct. 24 — At Mississippi State (7:30 ESPN). Twelve days off after the South Carolina/Alabama twinbill helps. This may be one of the most difficult to predict because it sure seems like Coach Dan Mullen has lost momentum in Starkville.
Still, I do worry about the health of the Wildcats at this point, and this game is at MSU. So go with the Bulldogs, 31-27.
Nov. 2 — Alabama State. It’ll be interesting to see if Stoops and his staff can motivate the Wildcats to give an honest effort in a spot where few favorites would. That will determine the margin. I’ll make it 56-14, Kentucky.
Nov. 9 — Missouri. I feel like most people are penciling this in as a Kentucky victory, and I’m not sure why. Missouri may not be top of the line SEC, but UK isn’t, either. Still, I’ll give the Wildcats a 28-27 edge.
Nov. 16 — At Vanderbilt. Coach James Franklin has it going at Vandy. This isn’t an impossible spot for Kentucky, but I’ll make it 38-24, Commodores.
Nov. 23 — At Georgia. On paper, you’d think the Bulldogs should win this big, but even the Wildcats’ bad teams in recent years have been at least competitive against Georgia. Make it 42-24, Bulldogs.
Nov. 30 — Tennessee. Butch Jones has wowed both the fans and recruits in Knoxville much as Stoops has done in Lexington. Both of these teams are a year or two away. Make it 38-31 UK.