This week, I talked with Jason Marcum of A Sea of Blue to get some insights on the Wildcat football team ahead Alabama’s matchup with Kentucky. And give me some credit, I didn’t even start needling him about basketball yet!
1- Man, I don’t know who Kentucky got on the wrong side of, but three straight weeks of Georgia, Missouri, and Tennessee, followed by Alabama after a breather against Mississippi State, is a whale of a month for the Wildcats. I know Kentucky was undefeated and riding high before the three straight losses... How’s the general fan optimism now? Still high on the team and just accept it was a ridiculously hard stretch? Or are you more frustrated at some backsliding?
Ah, such is life in the SEC. The optimism definitely took a big hit after losing at home to Missouri. The Tennessee loss just felt inevitable after the past four decades, so it was nice to see them beat a team they should in Mississippi State. There’s definitely a mix of just accepting it was a hard stretch while also being disappointed they couldn’t win one of those two games vs. Missouri/Tennessee.
Overall, there’s still hope this team can have a strong season without reaching double-digit wins, and I expect Kentucky fans to have a big turnout on Saturday.
2- In a year where most of the NCAA has seen a decrease in scoring across the league, Kentucky’s offense is scoring 10 more points per game than they were in 2022... And that’s after losing a pretty high NFL draft pick at QB. What’s been the root of the improvement this season?
The biggest keys to why last year went like it did was Rich Scangarello being a disaster of an OC and Will Levis suffering a foot injury at Ole Miss that hindered him the rest of the year. The offensive line also being bad didn’t help, but Scangarello refusing to adjust made it a lot worse.
This year, Devin Leary has been pretty solid while having an improved offensive line and an OC in Liam Coen who plays to his players’ strengths. Leary is definitely no Will Levis, but what we saw last year wasn’t exactly Will Levis either. And we can’t forget that Dane Key and Barion Brown were true freshmen last year and now have a better feel for the college game.
3- Barion Brown is a name that I recognize as a guy Alabama fairly heavily a couple of seasons ago as a top-100 prospect. He’s now led the Wildcats in catches in 2 straight seasons. Is this a guy that should be getting more hype as an All-SEC level receiver?
Brown was a stud for Kentucky as a true freshman, which brought about immense hype for Year 2. Unfortunately, a preseason injury cost him much of training camp and led to a slow start to the season for him, while he also developed a bit of a drop problem. He also plays in an offense with fellow true sophomore Dane Key, who is a rising star in his own right, and a fifth-year senior in Tayvion Robinson who knows the college game well and is a better route runner, so Brown hasn’t produced like we’d hoped.
Saying this, he has the ability to be an absolute game-wrecker, like we saw last year vs. Georgia. There’s no doubt in my mind he has All-American potential if he can put it all together and stay healthy. It would certainly help Kentucky if he gets back to showing that kind of potential this week.
4- Going into the season, J.J. Weaver is was the known name as a pass rusher for Kentucky (at least, from an outside perspective) He’s got a solid enough 4 sacks, but Deone Walker and Trevin Wallace have both passed him up with 4.5 sacks each - from the defensive tackle and off-ball linebacker positions. How has having that production in the pass rush in three different areas helped out this Kentucky defense?
Kentucky’s defense is very bendish but don’t breakish and doesn’t tend to produce a lot of sacks (they didn’t rank in the top 50 nationally in sacks from 2020-22), so having those three be able to make plays is really helpful. Deone Walker especially helps open up things for others with all the attention he draws on the interior. He has the potential to be a first-round pick in 2025 and can really make it hell for any offensive line in America to block. Weaver is a good edge rusher that can put pressure on a lot of offensive tackles, while Wallace can blitz from all over the defense.
5- Speaking of defense, the Wildcats are allowing 237 passing yards per game at a really high 66% completion rate. What’s going on back there? Are there legitimate concerns, or just one of those things that looks worse on the stat sheet than the actual secondary play has been?
Oh they’ve struggled, no doubt. The safety group was dangerously thin coming into the season and have been without both starters at various points, forcing true freshman Ty Bryant into the spotlight. While Bryant has played admirably, it’s never good to ask a true freshman safety to defend SEC offenses like what Missouri and Tennessee have. And the other safety playing a lot is Texas State transfer Zion Childress, who played well in a limited role in 2022, but hasn’t been consistent as a full-time player in 2023.
The cornerback group was a major question mark entering the year. Maxwell Hairston has been a standout on one side, but everyone else has been inconsistent in SEC play. That’s led to Cincinnati transfer JQ Hardaway playing more recently, and he’s done well. So there’s hope those two can handle the boundary, but can the guys behind them step up? That’s what Kentucky needs to have any hope of slowing down teams like Alabama.
6- If Kentucky loses this week to Alabama and then wins out en route to an 8-4 season... Would you consider it a successfull one?
For sure. Coming into the season, I had them at 8-4. The thought was they’d beat Missouri and lose at South Carolina, so an 8-4 finish at this point would likely just be flipping those two games. And now with Louisville almost certainly being a top-15 team in the finale, to win in their building would be massive, so this would absolutely be a successful season with 8-4 finish.
7- And as a corollary to the last question: Mark Stoops has now been at Kentucky for a full decade, and the results have mostly been above average to good (all of which is better than Kentucky was for a long time before him). Are there any rumblings about wanting a new coach, or are Wildcat fans happy with how things are?
Stoops has done a great job of helping Kentucky reach sustained success in the sense of winning 7+ games just about every year after it endured six straight losing seasons. He also ended the Florida streak, which seemingly no one else could do. He’s far from perfect and could use some work on in-game decision-making and clock management, but he’s still a good coach that’s kept Kentucky Football relevant. Some of the Twitter and message board experts want to move on thinking they can find the next Nick Saban, but that’s what they thought when they were ready to move on from Rich Brooks and ended up with Joker Phillips, so be careful what you wish for.
Overall, I believe the majority of fans are happy with Stoops and think he can continue helping the program take small but positive steps forward.