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Can Kentucky become a true SEC East contender?

Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson (15) attempts a pass over the defense of Louisville's defensive lineman Chris Williams (44) during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016, in Louisville, Ky. Kentucky won 41-38. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)
AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley

The Kentucky Wildcats had a breakthrough in Mark Stoops’s fourth season on the job. The ‘Cats finished 4-4 in SEC play, only the second time in the past 15 years they’ve avoided a losing conference record. Plus, they’re going to their first bowl since the 2010 season.

Now that UK has made it back to respectability, could it take another step forward and become a legitimate divisional contender? After all, the SEC East is probably the worst Power Five division. If ever there was a time for the Wildcats to make a move, now is it.

To begin, it’s worth pointing out that Kentucky wasn’t as close to winning the division this year as it may have seemed. Even if the Wildcats had beaten Georgia instead of losing by three and LSU had beaten Florida to put both UF and UK at 5-3, the Gators still would have gotten the trip to Atlanta thanks to the tiebreaker. There isn’t anything else to plausibly change that would’ve then put Big Blue in the SEC Championship Game.

UF’s 13-6 win over Vandy was more comfortable than the final score indicates. It was obvious the Commodore offense had no real shot of getting in the end zone in that game. None of the Wildcats’ other three SEC losses besides the one to UGA were close. The ‘Cats were outgained by a combined 1,052-310 in blowout losses to Florida and Alabama. They were also down 49-22 late in the fourth quarter to Tennessee before two touchdowns in the last four minutes made the final score deceptive.

247Sports has a tool that shows how much talent a team has using composite recruiting rankings. The four teams that were clearly above Kentucky in talent all beat the Wildcats, and again, only the game against a team with both a rookie head coach and a true freshman quarterback was a close loss.

Except for the season-opening loss to Southern Miss, the Wildcats beat every team that was lower than them or no more than about 10 percentage points higher. They went a perfect 5-0 against teams near to them in talent: Louisville, Mississippi State, Missouri, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt.

Louisville wasn’t even the highest of the pack of five similarly stocked squads, by the way: Its team talent score of 663.44 is nearly indistinguishable from UK’s 647.93. That fact actually makes the Wildcats’ bitter rival a decent comparison point — the Cardinals almost certainly would’ve won the SEC East this year had they been in that division.

The most obvious difference is that UL has a star player in Lamar Jackson. UK simply doesn’t have anyone close to his playmaking ability on either side of the ball. JUCO transfer Stephen Johnson was a pleasant surprise filling in behind center after Drew Barker went down with a back injury. The offense has performed better with him than it did with Barker. He was horrible as a passer in the team’s four losses with him at the helm, though, and his overall throwing stats in SEC play aren’t promising. He’s not a complete player like a star would need to be.

Louisville—not unlike the 2010 South Carolina and 2013-14 Missouri teams that won the East—doesn’t have top-to-bottom depth but has enough top playmakers in key spots. Stoops has had a few here and there with Boom Williams now and Bud Dupree a couple seasons ago, but he’s not going to claim the division crown until he can find more of them.

Kentucky offensive coordinator Eddie Gran congratulates quarterback Drew Barker after a touchdown in the first half of an NCAA college football game against Southern Mississippi Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016, in Lexington, Ky. (AP Photo/David Stephenson)

Kentucky offensive coordinator Eddie Gran congratulates quarterback Drew Barker after a touchdown in the first half of an NCAA college football game against Southern Mississippi Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016, in Lexington, Ky. (AP Photo/David Stephenson)

UL also has a top offensive mind in head coach Bobby Petrino. Stoops and new offensive coordinator Eddie Gran did a remarkable job — on the fly — of converting the pass-heavy offense designed for Barker into a run-first attack with Johnson, Williams, and Benny Snell. Perhaps over the offseason they can flesh it out better and refine it with practice.

The head coach’s department has been a problem in Lexington. Stoops is a defensive guy, but his only UK defense ranked above the 80s in S&P+ so far came in 2014 when he had Dupree and Za’Darius Smith rushing the passer. The Wildcats allowed more than 30 points seven times this year, and the defense couldn’t hold on late in the close loss to Georgia. It’s difficult to see UK winning the division with as bad a defense as it has fielded of late.

With all of this said, Kentucky might actually have a shot at winning the East next year. Only three of their top 10 tacklers are seniors, so the defense has a chance to progress. The offense will return nearly everyone who played a major part if Boom Williams doesn’t declare for the draft. Only center Jon Toth from the line and the replaceable Jojo Kemp and Ryan Timmons from the skill position players graduate after the season.

Two-time division champ Florida will lose a ton from its defense in 2017, and that defense is the main reason it won the East these past two seasons. Kirby Smart is still a giant question mark as a head coach, and Butch Jones has put himself on the hot seat with his team’s performance down the stretch. None of the three traditional East powers look like a lock for Atlanta next year.

UK will have the best draw from the West next year among itself and those three powers. The Wildcats play Mississippi State as always, but they also get an Ole Miss team that fell apart this year and might be headed for disarray. Georgia faces MSU as well, but it must play at Auburn. Florida drew Texas A&M to go along with its annual LSU game, while Tennessee has to play both LSU and Alabama. The schedule even sets up nicely in places, as Wildcats get a bye before their trip to Starkville and will play the Gators and Rebels at home.

The stars might align for Kentucky to make a serious run at the East crown in 2017. The Cats will only get there if they can overcome talent deficits with coaching, find star players, and fix the defense. Next year will be a good test of just how good a head coach Mark Stoops is.

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