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Kentucky Crystal Ball: Predicting every game for 2023

Aug 24, 2023

Editor’s note: Saturday Down South’s annual Crystal Ball series continues today with Kentucky. We’ll stay with the SEC East all week. Last week, we predicted every game for every SEC West team.

Previously: Alabama | Arkansas | Auburn | LSU | Mississippi State | Ole Miss | Texas A&M | Florida | Georgia

* * * * * * *

A missed opportunity, it was.

Kentucky was sitting there in the Ole Miss red zone down 3 points in the final 3 minutes. In a battle of unbeatens, the Cats had an opportunity to close out Lane Kiffin’s squad and perhaps earn its first top-5 ranking in the AP Poll since 1964. Sure, it was only late-September, but Kentucky had a chance to take an all-important step on the heels of a 10-win season.

And then, of course, a very Kentucky-like thing happened. Will Levis fumbled twice in the final 3 minutes to spoil a potential road victory. A 4-0 start was followed by a 3-6 finish. Forget a top-5 ranking. No ranking was on the table at season’s end.

Not only did Kentucky fail to put together its second consecutive winning season in SEC play — that still hasn’t happened since 1976-77 — but it also failed to win a bowl game. Until last year’s Music City Bowl loss to Iowa, Kentucky had won every nonconference game and every bowl game since the Benny Snell ejection against Northwestern at the end of the 2017 season.

But now, it’s up to Mark Stoops to turn the page. He made major moves this offseason with his top assistant and with replacing his top 2 skill players. So what’ll that amount to?

Let’s peak into Kentucky’s 2023 Crystal Ball:

The 2 most important personnel decisions for Stoops were obvious. How would the offense get back to the 2021 level? And who would he get to replace Levis?

Well, Stoops answered both questions about as well as any Kentucky fan could’ve hoped. He brought Coen back to replace Rich Scangarello. That came with a significant raise after Coen spent 1 season as Sean McVay’s offensive coordinator with the Los Angeles Rams. In 2021, Coen overhauled Kentucky’s offense with pro-style concepts and led the Cats to their best offense since 2007. Levis became a household name in college and in the NFL Draft world.

Coen’s return to Lexington made it that much more enticing for a potential transfer quarterback. Notre Dame fans might argue after landing transfer Sam Hartman, but there might not have been a better quarterback on the market than Leary. In 2021, Leary broke Philip Rivers’ single-season passing touchdown mark at NC State, but after entering 2022 as the ACC Preseason Player of the Year, his season was cut short due to a torn pec.

Leary came to Kentucky as the obvious QB1. He’ll be 24 years old in September. Leary has 1 year of eligibility left, and there’s a hope that he with perhaps the best returning group of receivers the program has ever had, he can solidify a UK offense that was in shambles for much of 2022. He isn’t built like a linebacker like Levis was, but he can be a better distributor of the football, especially in the event that UK’s offensive line doesn’t take a major step forward.

Speaking of that offensive line …

It was bad last year. It probably didn’t help that Levis was never afraid to take on hits, and he’d sometimes hold the ball too long. Whatever the case, The Big Blue Wall was The Big Blue Gate. No Power 5 team allowed more sacks than Kentucky, and as a result, Levis was banged up with various injuries throughout the 2022 season. A group that was once as rock solid as there was in the SEC went all the way down to No. 13 in its PFF grade.

It wasn’t just the pass protection. It felt like the ground game was predicated on Chris Rodriguez breaking 3 tackles at the line of scrimmage to at least push the pile forward. Fortunately, Rodriguez was great at that. Unfortunately, he’s gone to the NFL. In stepped the smaller, but durable 1,000-yard Vanderbilt running back Ray Davis, who would certainly appreciate an improved group up front.

The question isn’t whether this 2023 group will be better; it’s how much better can it be. Adding the likes of Marques Cox (Northern Illinois) and Tanner Bowles (Alabama) from the transfer portal should be a major help for Eli Cox and that new-look group. Marques Cox has All-SEC upside after he was a prolific 3-year starter at Northern Illinois.

Perhaps scheme will also help. Coen dealt with a porous offensive line last year with the Rams. He had to learn how to call plays with that being a major Achilles’ heel. Could this veteran group be in a better spot to handle that? It has to.

While UK has gone through some offensive ups and downs during this 5-year stretch, the defense has been a constant. Here are the Cats’ SEC ranks in scoring defenses:

The only 2 other SEC teams that ranked in the top 5 in each of those years were Alabama and Georgia. That’s the Stoops effect, and I’d also argue that defensive coordinator Brad White is one of the more underrated assistants in America.

So with that, what should we make of the fact that UK ranks just No. 86 in percentage of returning defensive production and has 5 starters back? Well, that Kentucky will still probably be one of the conference’s top defenses.

JJ Weaver returns to lead that group as the alpha dog for Stoops and White. Zion Childress and Jordan Lovett flashed a lot of promise as underclassmen in 2022, and they should lead an otherwise young secondary. Nobody flashed more promise as an underclassman than 348-pound defensive tackle Deone Walker, who earned true freshman All-American honors. He’ll be the anchor of that group alongside Keeshawn Silver.

To recap, Kentucky returns key starters at every level of that defense, Stoops and White are still running the show and the sky is still blue. In other words, pencil Kentucky in for another top-5 defense in the SEC and don’t think twice about it.

We didn’t really get the best vibes from the UK offense early last season. This season? That’s a different story. Coen’s return to the UK sidelines is a successful one in a lopsided Week 1 win.

Second-year receivers Barion Brown and Dane Key continue their phenomenal start by both surpassing the century mark in a game that’s over by halftime.

Never sleep on a Year 2 Joe Moorhead offense, but UK will overwhelm the Zips early with a heavy dose of Davis. The good vibes of UK’s offense continue in a 35-14 win for the program’s third consecutive 3-0 start.

A revenge game in Nashville. It’s a revenge game for Kentucky after last year’s stunning home loss to the Dores, and perhaps there’s a little revenge for Vandy after Davis left for Lexington. What does that produce? A thriller. For the first time, Kentucky faces a team that can test its young secondary. It results in a halftime lead for Vandy. But unlike last year, UK finds offensive answers in the second half. Specifically, the passing game gets rolling. Veteran UK receiver Tayvion Robinson sparks a pair of scoring drives in the third quarter, and after a shaky start, Kentucky’s defense adjusts to AJ Swann and Will Sheppard. A strip sack of Swann puts Vandy’s late comeback on ice and UK gets its revenge.

Kentucky has the upper hand on Florida now. I know. That seems wild considering many of us are old enough to remember when the Florida winning streak was 31 years old. After winning 3 of the past 5, Kentucky adds another to the win column behind a huge day from Key and Brown. Key, just as he did last year on that long pass from Levis, is on the receiving end of another long touchdown. Against a disciplined defense on the road, Graham Mertz reverts to the player who couldn’t string together scoring drives at Utah. Kentucky makes it 3 in a row against Florida for the first time since the Bear Bryant era.

Two things will be fascinating to watch in this matchup, which could tell the story: How much does Georgia’s defensive line regress and how much does Kentucky’s offensive line progress? Kentucky’s revamped offense the past 2 years scored just 19 combined points against the Dawgs, 6 of which came on a garbage time touchdown pass in the final seconds of the 2021 game. Can Leary turn that around? Maybe, but the odds of doing so in a winning effort in Athens aren’t great. A pair of interceptions prove costly in a 3-score Georgia victory.

Stoops won 7 of the past 8 matchups against Mizzou, which had 3 different head coaches during that stretch. At the same time, 5 of the past 6 games were decided by 10 points or less. Once again, it’s a game that’s decided late. Both teams struggle to string together scoring drives and it turns into a low-scoring affair. Just like last year, the first team to 20 might be sitting pretty. So what’s the difference? Brown takes a screen pass 75 yards to the house to break a 10-10 tie and give Kentucky a touchdown lead that it holds onto late.

If there’s a coach in the SEC who has totally baffled the Stoops-White defense, it’s Josh Heupel. A 45-point showing in Lexington was followed by Tennessee’s 44-point knockout last year in Knoxville. The chunk plays tipped the scales in the Vols’ favor both times. This time, it’s not necessarily an offensive explosion from the Vols, but chunk plays again prove to be the difference. Squirrel White gets free for 2 long touchdowns and Leary struggles to keep pace. Tennessee keeps Kentucky at an uphill climb all day and uses the 3-headed rushing attack late to keep the Cats off the field for a potential game-tying drive. Heupel improves to 3-0 against Stoops.

In what turns into a defining time of Zach Arnett’s rookie season, he rallies the Bulldogs for their first victory in nearly a month. For the 2nd time in 3 seasons, Leary can’t produce scoring drives in Starkville. (His NC State team lost there in 2021.) Whether it’s dropped passes or penalties, Kentucky’s offense sputters and Mississippi State’s defense delivers its best home performance of the year. Decamerion Richardson picks off 2 Leary passes and sets up a pair of Mississippi State touchdowns. For the 8th consecutive year, the home team wins, and Kentucky leaves Starkville without a win there since 2008.

Kentucky fans might be thinking that the Tide will be on the ropes after a predicted loss to LSU, but history suggests it’ll be anything but that. In regular-season games following a loss since 2008, Alabama is 10-0 with 7 of those wins coming by at least 3 scores. Alabama rectifies the secondary issues that it had the previous week against LSU, and Leary struggles to keep drives alive in obvious passing situations. There’ll be no field rush in Alabama’s first trip to Lexington since 2013.

I get the sense that there’s no love lost between Stoops and Shane Beamer. Will sunglasses be discussed in this one? Maybe. But unlike last year’s rock fight, this one becomes a fun Saturday night SEC Network game. Spencer Rattler and Leary, both vying for All-SEC love, throw 3 touchdown passes apiece in a game that feels like the last team with the ball will win. Kentucky lines up for a 45-yard field goal to tie it at 38 all, but … Beamer Ball strikes. A blocked kick in the final minute is returned for a touchdown and sends the Williams-Brice crowd into a frenzy as South Carolina hangs on.

What’s the best way for Kentucky to get the bad taste of a losing streak out of its mouth? A meeting with Louisville. For the 5th consecutive year, Kentucky punches its in-state rival in the mouth. Coen empties the bag of tricks with end-arounds to Brown, and Leary dials up a long touchdown to Key off a flea flicker. Jeff Brohm’s offense has some success early, but after a rough stretch for the UK secondary, Childress steps in front of 2 passes and prevents this from staying close in the second half. A 3-touchdown win in Louisville caps an up-and-down regular season.

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The record says this is the same team as last year. Sometimes, though, a team can improve while failing to see it in the win column. Why? The schedule gets harder.

That’s the biggest thing preventing me from saying that UK will finish 2nd in the East. The latter half of conference play is an absolute gauntlet. It’s either 11-win teams at home or 8-win teams on the road. UK could likely be an underdog in all 4 of those games, not to mention the trip to Georgia in the first part of SEC play. To get to 8 or 9 wins, Kentucky will need to beat multiple teams that it shouldn’t, at least according to the experts.

As great as Stoops has been, getting those quality road wins has been tough to come by. Beating Florida in The Swamp last year was great, but then the Gators finished 6-7. Winning at Tennessee in 2020 was great, but then the Vols finished 3-7. You’d have to go back to the 2018 Florida game to find a Kentucky road victory that came against a team ranked in the AP Top 25 at the time of the matchup and at the end of the season.

This could serve as a frustrating reminder of how small that margin for error is. Even if the Cats have a prolific offense, it could still have those challenging moments. And even the best Stoops-White defenses still have the occasional letdown game.

Kentucky has a chance to look like one of the more improved teams, and it has the personnel pieces in place to do that. But the schedule could challenge that depth in ways that Stoops’ squad can’t overcome.

At least not to the standard that’s been set the past 5 years.

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That back half of the schedule is absolutely brutal. Surprised to see that Connor actually picked UT to win a game. Last half dozen picks I;ve seen form him has UT losing every game.

I think the win total will be a little higher but it all depends on the O-line. If the Cats are still struggling with the O-line, especially at right tackle, I think Coen can use a blocking TE or RB to give Leary just a little more time. IF Leary does have a quick release and he ability to read defenses, then those factors along with an extra blocker should neutralize any O-line issues. The the WRs have a frim grasp of their roles and routes when a QB is having to throw quick.

As for the actual games, I think the Cats can win a close one in Starkville. Other than that, I think Conner is about right on his picks.If everyone is healthy for both teams, we could be in for a great game at SC, but I’ll go with the home team on that one. GBB!

Hey Cat fans, any other sites besides KSR & ASOB that you would recommend for news about the Cats?

The Rivals subscription is worth it for Justin Rowland’s coverage of recruiting. The House Of Blue forum is the best premium message board.

Getting Liam Coen back at OC will help a lot.

I can see Cats beating MissSt and SCAR but I can also see them losing to FL and possibly even Mizzou. UK hasn’t done well at MissSt but I think this year they edge them out. FL will be a good one to watch.

I know they will play extra tough against my Vols too.

I think they win 7-8 from a fairly tough schedule and spank overrated Louisville.

Try “Vaught’s Views” for additional UK coverage.

No offense, but I have Kentucky finishing the 2023 at 5-7. The wins will be against Ball State, Eastern Kentucky, Akron, Florida and Missouri while the losses will be against Vanderbilt, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, South Carolina and Louisville. Thus, no bowl game for the Wildcats for the first time since 2015.

Why would anyone be offended? I notice this is your first comment, and you don’t seem like much of a fan. Predicting losses to Vandy and Louisville seem more like troll comments.

I think you would be correct LSUSMC. Let’s hope it’s not the ghost of Paris10! (Sorry, had to go there.)

I remember him. Not my favorite.

I have a hard time seeing them losing to Vandy

Vandy beat UK and UF last year, not too difficult to see imo

Your comments from previous years tell us all we need to know about you. BTW… honestly, are you still living at home? You were a couple of years ago when you were running your mouth.

I am. I’m only 19 no rush to move out since because of Biden gas and groceries and electrical bills are as expensive as they’ve ever been. Why you wanna know so bad anyway, cat?

Just making a point. Trust me, it has shown in some of you immature comments from last year, and probably will again.

Aww but you are the smart ones DieselNova so get out there, be smart and get to pulling yourself up by your bootstraps or something! Or keep living at home and blaming politicians.

And yes, I only say that because you are typically very quick to run your mouth

You don’t get to decide what’s immature. I’m right more often than not.

Tf do you want me to do? Starve? Valdosta, Georgia isn’t exactly the safest place to live on your own either, a lot of violence. And especially at the current price. All I know is under Trump that sh*t was cheap. Y’all’s age don’t make you smarter. Just older. Fools get old too.

And running my mouth is what Internet forums are for


Yawn. Yes we all take the politics of people still living with their parents seriously. You are so smart, I’m sure you’d have no issue pulling yourself up by your bootstraps or whatever youu usually rant about when it is somebody else.

I was 19 when Clinton was in office. Managed to move out and have my own place in spite of the big bad bogeyman in the White House. Plenty of 19 year olds do it today. You want to live at home, fine. Nobody cares. But don’t pretend it is anyone’s doing but the guy in the mirror.

And yes, running your mouth is fine but you and SEC123 are the chief crybabies when someone jumps on a Vol article and returns the favor so GFYS

PREACH SupraDawg. This kid is clueless

Well this is all hilarious. We Shall see how it goes. I bet my left N U T the Cats are better than 7-5. 73 you’re no D A M N Ky fan picking a loss to Loserville.

Darude is coming to perform before the Kentucky/South Carolina game. There’s going to be a lot of Sandstorm played that day to rival the repeated use of Rocky Top.

Wait and see, the combination of Leary and Coen will be enough for the Cats to be really good on offense. Leary will light up sc defense in the Willy B and the Cats will finish at 8-4. I see the FL and MissSt games as toss ups instead of given losses.

Word out of fall camp is very encouraging. O-line may be regaining big blue wall status (hopefully). Stoops has not had any meltdowns and seems generally satisfied with the team at this point. All of that is very encouraging, at least to me. Coaches and players seem to be in good spirits and ready to play ball.

Sometimes it seems like the OL or DL is doing much better when it is really a weakness on the other side of the line.

I suspect that the OL should be much better than last year’s debacle as the bar was set low, so maybe Leary can hold up better than Will did last season.

If the OL gets back to average in the SEC, that would be a huge improvement.

I think your offense will take off if you have any type of running game. In spite of what some i d i o t s here think, Leary is a QB worthy of the SEC and I think he will surprise a lot.

Cats beat Florida for the 3rd straight year.

I don’t have any issues with this. The difference between 7-5 and 8-4 or 9-3 hinges on those road games at Miss St. and South Carolina.

The one big thing that puts fear into me is Devin Leary has a history of being injury prone, and we have no one behind him. So, here’s hoping the Big Blue Wall has completed it’s remodel.

I’ve seen the ‘injury prone’ comment by other people. To me ‘prone’ would mean that he gets injured often. Other than the torn pectoral muscle, has anyone else read anything about other injuries that kept him from starting/playing?

From his game logs that I reviewed it looks like he took over as QB about midway through his true freshman year, played in 4 games as a sophomore (redshirt), was the starter the whole year as a junior and was the starter for the first 6 games of his senior year until the pectoral muscle injury ended his season. The game stats would indicate that he didn’t miss a lot of time due to injury with the possible exception of his sophomore year. He played in 4 of the first 5 games that year, with the Wolfpack winning 3 of those 4 games. He threw for 8 TDs and 2 INTs in those games which sounds like good numbers for a true sophomore. Maybe he was sidelined due to an injury or maybe they the Pack had a better option at QB.

Hopefully someone has a little more info about injuries he has sustained during his 4 year at NC State.

Could see them winning vs MSU and USC just as easily as losing them. Win those two and I think 9-3 is possible. Lose them and 7-5 is likely.

Didn’t Mertz play at Wisconsin? Why is Utah mentioned?

I’d like to believe the Cats could sneak a win from one of either Bama, UGA, or UT, but they are also as likely to have a clunker game or two. In the end, I think 8-4 is my expectation. I think 10-2 is the ceiling and 7-5 is the absolute floor. This assumes a Leary-led offense throughout the year (stay away injury bug!!).

Tennessee@ Mississippi StateAlabama@ South Carolina@ Louisville

Good lord that is a rough stretch for any team

Yeah, I think our SOS is about 16th nationally.

Why couldn’t they give that to Georgia?

why can’t the Vols be better and make the schedule harder?

Good question. Now you’ve got me scratching my head.

We’re literally the hardest game on your schedule

I can’t even post lighthearted comments without being attacked. Get off my d!ck old timer.

I know. And you aren’t that good. I wish we’d schedule some harder teams too. Have to wait for the playoffs I guess

And you give as good as you get. Stop crying

Not for Georgia, though.

I actually picked UK to start 7-1, which includes a win over UT. (I don’t think I would bet on that, but I did pick it.) However, they then remember that they are Kentucky and finish 1-3 to go 8-4 on the year. We shall see.

Kitty cats 8-4

Look, I think Kentucky is going to have a good team this year with a lot of balance. The offense should be decent and I look for the defense to maybe be the best Stoops has had in his time in Lexington. Having said that, when I look at the schedule, it’s going to be a tough year. Taking a loss against a team that has more talent is one thing. To lose a game like in Oxford last year, or Vandy at home is where I am frustrated. I don’t take any games for granted or look for an automatic win beyond the non-conference games. They will lose to Bama and Georgia. That’s ok- be competitive, get a few breaks and maybe be in a position in the 4th quarter to make something happen. But when I look at Florida, Tennessee, Mizzou, SC, State and even Vandy- you’ve got an opportunity to win but also lose those ball games.

I feel the same way about UT this year. There are so many games that could go either way (not Bama and UGa). Anywhere from 7-5 to 9-3 for the Vols this year. That’s still better than 4-8 or 5-7 like it was in the not too distant past.

Enjoy the year Cats. It should be fun any way you slice it.

I’ve got the cats at 9-3 or 10-2!

I’ve got my hopes on a similar scenario.

I don’t take it as a given that we lose to Bama. We should be able to somewhat bottle up their run game and force the new QB to make plays in the passing game. If they can’t score TDs in the red zone and are forced to kick FGs, that game will be winnable at home.

I believe Ky will find a way to beat one of the 4 teams this writer showing beating them in consecutive weeks. I’ll say Miss St. So 4-4;8-4. Win the bowl game and finish in Top 25.

I really don’t think UK will lose to MSU, or Vandy. I think they will do better than 7 wins. My expectation for them is 8 or 9 and who knows, if the offense can really move the ball through the air better than last year and the D shows up?