Coming off of a storybook 2021 season in which Kentucky entered the national conversation not just for basketball but football as well, all eyes turned toward the 2022 season. Despite being more known as a state for the horse racing events, Kentucky is coming up with positive results in college sports.
Though there were no projected double digit win totals to be expected, there was more hope than what was seen.
If anything, the 2023 Music City Bowl was the perfect encapsulation of the Wildcats’ season as a whole. It showed that the defense was the real deal nearly the entirety of the season while the offense struggled to keep pace. But let’s take a deeper dive and see what went wrong and what needs to be addressed before the start of the 2023 season.
Music City Bowl
Before we do a deeper dive, let’s go into the Music City Bowl. Kentucky faced an always solid Iowa Hawkeyes outfit. Traditionally, the Hawkeyes have been a strong defensive team that favored the run and wouldn’t get into any shootouts.
That was exactly what the Wildcats faced but they had no answer for the Iowa defense. A 21-0 shutout, in which the offense never mounted much of a threat, followed. It also encapsulated the season as a whole.
The Defense is for Real
If there is one silver lining, it is the defense. The Wildcats finished with an overall defensive efficiency ranking in the SP+ of 6th overall. This is the highest finish for a Wildcats defense since linebacker Josh Allen, who was the consensus National Defensive Player of the Year, led the 2018 unit to a 15th-place finish.
Breaking it down further, the pass defense was the star of the show. They led the way with the second-fewest passing yards allowed in the SEC at 170.8. Given the talent in the conference, that is an impressive number in plenty of ways.
The defense also finished 12th in the nation in total defense and 11th in scoring defense at 19.2 points per game. There has been a proclivity for strong defenses under Mark Stoops and that is a positive sign for the future.
The Season was a Disappointment…But Only Kind Of
The Wildcats finished the season 7-6 overall but it’s only somewhat of a disappointment. No one expected to grow or replicate the 10 wins posted in 2021, just their second season of 10 wins since 1977.
On top of that, they continued their domination over rival Florida, posting a 26-16 victory in the second week of the season. They also hung tight with top-ranked Georgia, losing a 16-6 decision in November. While things ended with Kentucky losing two of their last three and three of five, there is a lot to like.
What About the Offense?
The question now becomes “what will the offense do?” Even with Will Levis gone, there are some promising parts of the offense to put a focus on. Take freshman wideout Barion Brown, for instance. He is the first UK freshman to record 50 receptions and also posted freshman-record totals for yards (628) and touchdowns (4). He and Dane Key (37 receptions for 519 yards) are going to be the foundation for any offensive growth.
The key is going to be to address the quarterback position and an atrocious offensive line. If Kentucky can figure out how to get those two areas under control, production should come up. More importantly, it should be able to keep up with a defense that has been very good during Stoops’ tenure in Lexington. Expecting 10 wins in 2023 might be a tall order but these are not the Wildcats of old.
credit to Kentucky Athletics for the image