The 2021 Kentucky football schedule can be analyzed by sections. From Louisiana Monroe to Louisville, the Wildcats will face three distinct series of games that will help to formulate its win/loss record. The season can be broken down into a 4-3-5 phased slate of games. Let’s dive deeper shall we?
Mandatory Hot Start (First 4 Games)
A hot start references an early September noon kickoff and the mandatory temperature that the Wildcats will need to come out of the gate in 2021. I’m known for evening the playing field during the preseason and live by the “Any given Saturday” mantra when describing upcoming opponents. But let’s be honest here. UK should be able to name the final score against the visiting Warhawks in the opener.
Kentucky traveled to Columbia, Missouri a year ago and left with a disappointing 20-10 loss. Coach John Schlarman’s first game not on the Kentucky sideline played an emotional factor in UK’s performance. Revenge will be a motiving factor in 2021. The Tigers sport rising quarterback Connor Bazelak. The young Mizzou QB is attracting recruits and is one of the top signal callers in the SEC. A week-two win over Missouri could lead to a 4-0 start for the Wildcats. Conversely, a Tiger victory in Lexington could catapult UM to begin the season at 6-0. Both teams have this game circled on the schedule and fully understand its ramifications.
A week three matchup with FCS Chattanooga is in a perfect spot between league games against Missouri and at South Carolina.
at South Carolina
The Cats should be favored in Columbia. But, that place is rowdy and UK has surfaced as South Carolina’s annual must-win contest. Running back Kevin Harris had a field day at Kroger Field a year ago, rushing for 210 yards and a touchdown. The All-SEC performer returns for an encore performance along with quarterback Luke Doty. Star receiver Shi Smith is now in the NFL. Carolina does return All-SEC defender Kingsley Enagbare. New head coach Shane Beamer is providing offseason energy by selling tickets and recruiting at a high level. Preseason buzz is a good thing for the Gamecocks. Personnel deficiencies could surface once the season starts.
The Middle Three
Depending on which preseason poll you find most credible, Kentucky will face three, Top 10 opponents in the middle portion of its schedule.
First up is Florida at Kroger Field. The Wildcat-Gator annual slugfest has developed into quite a rivalry given the lopsided advantage that Florida has enjoyed in the series over the years. A home game against Dan Mullen’s squad should be fun. Florida plays Alabama and Tennessee prior to traveling north to Lexington and will be breaking in a new starting quarterback (Emory Jones). Jones is ultra-talented and replaces the league’s top passer, Kyle Trask. Mullen is a proven developer of the position which has led to Jones being named to multiple preseason All-SEC teams.
The Gators are also replacing TE Kyle Pitts and receivers Kadarius Toney and Trevon Grimes. The Gator trio combined for 33 touchdowns in 2020. The UF defense has the most to prove after an historically bad outing in 2020. Todd Grantham’s unit allowed 428 points and 30.8 points per game last season but returns preseason All-American cornerback Kaiir Elam.
The Tigers are reeling from a 5-5 record following a national title in 2019. Coach O has made changes to his staff and the Tigers are always talented. UK’s new passing game will face a stiff challenge against the best cornerback duo in the nation in Eli Ricks and Derek Stingley Jr. Quarterback Myles Brennan returns from injury and will compete with Max Johnson during fall camp. Receiver Kayshon Boutte recorded 45 receptions for 735 yards and 5 touchdowns last season. He’s poised to become one of the league’s top pass catchers in 2021.
The final game in the “Middle Three” is a road trip to Georgia. The Dogs are skilled and finally have an upper-echelon quarterback in JT Daniels. Joining Daniels will be running back Zamir White who rushed for 779 yards and 11 scores a year ago. Darnell Washington, a 6-foot-7, 270-pound tight end, is expected to have a breakout sophomore season. The rich also got richer in the offseason with the addition of top transfer TE/WR Arik Gilbert.
UGA lost several defensive players to the NFL, but Kirby Smart simply reloads. West Virginia transfer safety Tykee Smith joins Lewis Cine to construct a formidable safety combination. The Dawgs will have new starters at corner but returns All-SEC linebacker Adam Anderson and defensive tackle Jordan Davis.
The Final Five
A welcomed bye week starts the homestretch of the Wildcats’ slate. The Cats could be favored in all five of its final regular season games.
at Mississippi State
First up is a trip to Starkville to take on the Dogs. UK grounded the Air Raid last season after keeping the Bulldogs out of the end zone in its 24-2 win. Traditionally, year-two under Leach has produced vast offensive improvements. Quarterback Will Rogers showed flashes in 2020, but will have to hold off Southern Miss transfer Jack Abraham. MSU is advertised as an offensive-minded program, but the reality is that Mississippi State’s defense was the most efficient and productive portion of the Bulldog team in 2020. State returns six starters from the SEC’s fifth-rated defense and will be led by linebacker Aaron Brule, cornerback Martin Emerson, and defensive tackle Jaden Crumedy.
The Tennessee Volunteers drive north on I-75 for a November matchup against the Wildcats. UK beat up on the Vols 34-7 a year ago. UT has personnel issues due to the transfer portal and is facing uncertainties at several positions on the depth chart. However, the Volunteers will run an up-tempo offense that could be scary when hitting on all cylinders. Should be a fun game when first-year head coach Josh Heupel comes to town.
A bus trip to Nashville is next. Vanderbilt has a new head coach (Clark Lea) and rising sophomore quarterback, Ken Seals. The Commodores also have three effective receivers in Cam Johnson, Amir Abdur-Rahman, and Chris Pierce. The Cats travel well to the Music City, which could help in its final SEC game of the season.
New Mexico State
UK returns home to face New Mexico State on November 20th. Former UK quarterback and coach Doug Martin leads the Aggies, so there is a connection in the scheduling. NMSU has struggled as of late. This game should serve as a stat and depth builder prior to taking on the Louisville Cardinals.
Louisville is a tricky evaluation. On one hand, the Cards are led by a dynamic quarterback Malik Cunningham and an experienced offensive line. But, Cunningham was a turnover machine a year ago (12 interceptions, 3 lost fumbles) which led to the demise of the Cardinal’s season. Louisville has the potential to compete in the ACC if it improves upon its -12 turnover margin. The Cardinals showed defensive improvements last season and finished the year ranked fourth in the ACC after allowing 369 yards per game. The Cats are favored by one point by some prognosticators. That line could change as the season approaches its end.
What Does All This Mean?
For the middle three games to really matter, Kentucky needs to start the season off hot by going 4-0. The Florida-LSU-Georgia stretch is going to be challenging, but with two of the three at home, anything can happen. The Cats could be favored in its final five games of the season.
There’s no way to accurately predict how a twelve game schedule will play out. We’re all guessing at this point. Injuries and unforeseen circumstances are a part of the game. Breaking the season down into a 4-3-5 scenario helps to paint a picture of what could be an exciting season for the Wildcats.