On the heels of one of the more memorable seasons in program history, Kentucky looks to build on its forward momentum. The 2022 schedule presents the Wildcats with a difficult road schedule, along with some favorable home stretches, at the beginning and end of the season. With media days approaching, it is time to make sense of what 2022 has in store for Mark Stoops and his Wildcats.
#12: Youngstown State
In what can be looked at as a kind gesture from Youngstown natives Mark Stoops and Vince Marrow, the Penguins will travel to Lexington on September 17th. Youngstown State finished at the bottom of the Missouri Valley conference in 2021, going 2-6 in the conference play and 3-7 overall. It is also worth noting that the Penguins are the only FCS opponent that Kentucky will face this season. Heading into his third season in Youngstown, Head Coach Doug Phillips is looking to keep his job security in place as his 4-13 record in his first two seasons has left many skeptical. Phillips did have the unfair circumstances of being hired before the 2020 COVID season that eventually got moved to spring of 2021 for FCS teams. With a normal spring, summer and fall camp in place for the third year coach, improvement is expected. Even with improvement, the talent gap between a bottom tier MVC team and a top tier SEC team is enough to make this game a breeze for Kentucky.
#11: Miami (OH)
For the second time in the Mark Stoops era, Miami (OH) will make a trip to Kroger Field. In their previous meeting, the QB combo of Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow made Stoops’ home debut a good one. The RedHawks went bowling in their 2021 campaign and capped off their season with a bowl win over North Texas to finish above .500, with a 7-6 record. Young talent led the way for Miami in 2021 and they will return some of their top stars as a result. Brett Gabbert is a solid QB who makes good decisions, only throwing 6 interceptions last season. Gabbert did lose his top target, Jack Sorenson, to the NFL after eclipsing 1,400 yards receiving. To keep up with Kentucky, the RedHawks will need a new star to breakout in the passing game, as their rushing attack leaves much to be desired. With all of this said, this is once again more about the name of the front of the jersey than it is the back. Kentucky should simply out physical and out talent Miami (OH) in what should be a breeze of an opener.
The first SEC team to make this list should be no surprise, as the Commodores are once again in rebuild mode under second-year Head Coach Clark Lea. The former Notre Dame Defensive Coordinator brings the same defense first mindset that gave Derek Mason success in his early days in Nashville. Vanderbilt returns starting quarterback Ken Seals, but the job is not exactly his just yet. It is expected that Mike Wright will make a valiant effort to take the top spot after getting quite a few reps last season. Despite the opposite trajectory of both problems, Vanderbilt has always kept things close with Kentucky. Even with that fact, the experience and continuity of the Wildcats’ staff and roster should reign supreme for this matchup at Kroger Field.
#9: Northern Illinois
The defending MAC West Champions roll into Lexington on September 24th, for what could be a trap game for Kentucky. Following this week four matchup, the Wildcats are slated to travel to Oxford, Mississippi for a game at Ole Miss. This could easily be one of those scenarios where some looking ahead is taking place. These Huskies are not to be taken lightly. Northern Illinois has had quite a bit of success in the past decade and half, finding themselves as one of the best group of five teams in the country. They are just a year removed from upsetting ACC opponent, Georgia Tech, on the road. Scoring points on the Huskies shouldn’t be an issue as they ranked 112th in opponent points per game last season. The issue lies within if Kentucky can stop their balanced attack that was good enough for a top 40 offense in the country and allowed for a 9-5 record despite the spotty defensive play. Don’t be shocked if this game is too close for comfort heading into the locker room.
In the SEC, no schedule is a cakewalk, but it would be a disappointment if Kentucky couldn’t get away from this stretch without a 4-0 record.
The rest of my list will be posted on the site in the coming days, following this one with 8-5 and 4-1. Stay tuned.