This Saturday, Sept. 2, the University of Kentucky Wildcats will kick off their 2023 football season at home against the Ball State Cardinals. The non-conference noon game will be the 10th season opener of the Mark Stoops era, and leading into one of the most highly anticipated years in program history. Coming off of an offseason that was filled with many program-altering additions, such as Liam Coen, Devin Leary and Ray Davis, the Wildcats believe they have brought in enough star power to compete at a top level this year.
When you pair this with Kentucky bringing back their entire star-studded receiving core, an incredibly talented tight-end room, and the deepest defensive line committee Cats fans have ever seen, it is no wonder Mark Stoops and company are gleaning with excitement about the prospects of this team. But what is their ceiling? Is an excellent year for Kentucky football still limited to 7-8 wins and a trip to Nashville for a bowl game? Or does the new edition of the Wildcats have a chance of being something we haven’t seen in over half a decade- a true contender in the SEC?
The tricky part, in any season, for Stoops and his Wildcats, is overcoming a brutally strict schedule. When you play in the SEC, you can be a top 25 team in the nation and still only manage to squeak out seven wins in the regular season. Simply put, going above .500 in SEC play is no small feat. And in order for the Cats to churn out eight regular season wins (the mark by which many fans consider the line between success and failure), that is precisely what they have to do. For the Cats to start “knocking down doors,” and hit 9-10 regular season wins and give them a shot to play for the SEC Title, they will have to not only sweep their non-conference schedule (including the University of Louisville), but also have a winning record in the SEC.
While this doesn’t seem like an incredibly hard accomplishment, it is one that has only happened twice in the last 40 years. Even in years where the Wildcats have an “easier” schedule rotation, 9-10 wins just don’t happen when you play in the conference that has won four straight NCAA championships and 13 of the last 17. And this season, not only does Kentucky have a tougher schedule than they did last year, but they have one of the hardest schedules they have had since Stoops has been here. This season alone, Kentucky will play games against both Georgia and Alabama. They will defend their turf against a team they struggle with even when they are bad (which they are far from this year), the University of Tennessee Volunteers. They will travel to a vastly improved SCAR team, coming off of a red-hot finish to 2022. To top it off, they get rivals UofL and Mississippi State on the road in games that both programs will be desperate to win. And, the best part about it is that all of these SEC games (and Louisville) will be in consecutive weeks to start the season, without a single non-conference reprieve to give players a break. Overall, this schedule is tough.
But does that mean the Wildcats have no hope of winning big? Absolutely not. Coach Stoops has assembled one of the most significant collections of talent on both sides of the ball in his entire tenure. Following the (re)addition of Offensive Coordinator Liam Coen, and the return of Defensive Coordinator protegee Brad White, the Wildcats are poised to excel in all facets of the game. Unlike previous years where Kentucky would lean on an unreal talent like Benny Snell or Chris Rodriguez to remain in games that they shouldn’t have any shot in, this team should have enough talent and experience spread around the field to actually be a contender. Despite having an extremely daunting schedule, this means the Cats will have, at least, a puncher’s chance in every game they play. This alone makes anything possible for what can be achieved in 2023.
Between the Cats’ low floor due to their brutal matchups and their high ceiling, experts have predicted anywhere from 4-10 wins for Kentucky this season. So, what will 2023 have in store for the Wildcats? Let’s go game-by-game and make some predictions:
Sept. 2 vs. Ball St.
2023’s Home opener, playing in front of a sold-out crowd. While there might be some early kinks with Liam Coen re-implementing his offense and doing so with a new QB taking the snaps, the Wildcats should take home an easy win. 28-13 W.