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Here are five things to watch in Kentucky’s journey back to respectability:
1. MARK STOOPS’ INFLUENCE: The third and youngest Stoops brother to become an NCAA head coach arrived in Lexington with a reputation as a defensive guru after success at Arizona and Florida State. His track record includes an encouraging trend of immediate improvement and Stoops’ most impressive turnaround came with the Seminoles, who improved from 108th to 42nd in total defense his first year and ranked second last season. D.J. Eliot will run the 4-3 scheme but Stoops will definitely have a say in matters.
2. MULTIPLE QBs: Coaches hope that a clear winner emerges from the competition between Maxwell Smith, Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles, but they haven’t ruled out using multiple quarterbacks as an alternative. The bottom line is that the experienced Smith must stay healthy after returning from an ankle injury, Whitlow must smooth out rough edges to his mobile game and Towles must show more than he did in five appearances last season.
3. ‘AIR’ APPARENT: Neal Brown learned the pass-heavy “Air Raid” offense as a Kentucky player under coach Hal Mumme and aims to continue its record of success as offensive coordinator at his alma mater. Brown comes in off an impressive body of work at Texas Tech, which ranked 15th or higher in total offense the past three years while the Red Raiders’ passing game was seventh or better including second (361.9 yards per game) last year. Creating the same excitement and proficiency will take work with the Wildcats, who averaged just 176.2 passing yards last season.
4. DEPTH: Injuries decimated Kentucky last season and resulted in a lot of growing pains with underclassmen forced into extensive action. The upside is that 31 Wildcats have made at least one start with the defense boasting depth across all three units. While they feel better about their experience, the key remains staying healthy.
5. THE SCHEDULE: Kentucky’s tough home docket includes games against rival Louisville and defending national champion Alabama, but the most intriguing matchup comes on Sept. 28 when Kentucky hosts a Florida team likely to be ranked in the top 10 and including wide receivers coach Joker Phillips, Stoops’ Wildcats predecessor. Besides watching the reception Phillips receives in his first visit back to Commonwealth Stadium, it will be interesting to see if he gets the last laugh against his alma mater.
Predicted order of finish: Last in seven-team SEC East.