Kentucky will face eight SEC opponents in 2021. From an early, pivotal matchup against Missouri to a trip to Nashville to take on the Commodores, the Wildcats will be presented varying challenges along the way. We have months to break down the schedule, but let’s take a quick look at each conference opponent, shall we?
Missouri (September 11)
UK will be looking for payback after an underwhelming performance in Columbia a year ago. There were several underlying circumstances that led to the Cats’ demise against the Tigers; however, recording just eight first downs and 145 total yards is a sting that should resonate in the Joe Craft Football Training Center leading up to September 11.
Mizzou returns sophomore quarterback Connor Bazelak from a team that surprised the league with a 5-5 record under first-year head coach Eliah Drinkwitz. The Tigers return four out of five starting offensive linemen but must replace longtime starting running back Larry Roundtree. Drinkwitz will have a new defensive coordinator in Steve Wilks. The former NFL head coach is tasked with replacing losses at safety and linebacker to the Draft. Mizzou’s schedule is back-loaded. A win at Kroger Field could lead to a 6-0 start.
At South Carolina (September 25)
The Will Muschamp era is over in Columbia. Enter Shane Beamer. The new Gamecock head coach sports a tradition-rich last name and a boatload of youthful energy to a program that has struggled as of late. Carolina limped to the finish line in 2020 following a 2-8 season including dropping six consecutive contests at the year’s end.
Beamer returns starting quarterback Luke Doty who saw action in the Kentucky game last season. He’ll be joined by All-SEC running back Kevin Harris (1,138 yards, 15 TDs) and tight end Nick Muse (30 catches, 3 TDs). Receiver Shi Smith departed for the NFL. Transfer WR Ahmarean Brown joins the offense after scoring ten touchdowns and averaging 18.1 yards per catch for the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. The defense was depleted in 2020 but returns standout Kingsley Enagbare. Carolina travels to Georgia before taking on Kentucky. Personnel challenges will be highlighted against the Bulldogs.
Florida (October 2)
The defending SEC East champions lost a great deal of offensive weaponry to the National Football League. QB Kyle Trask departs Gainesville after finishing the 2020 season ranked first in the SEC by throwing for 43 touchdowns against just 8 interceptions. Gone also is the pass catching trio of Kyle Pitts, Ka’Darious Toney, and Trevon Grimes, who combined for 151 receptions and 31 touchdowns last season.
The Gators uncharacteristically struggled on defense a year ago. They finished ranked eighth in the SEC after allowing 30.8 points per game and ninth in the conference by surrendering 428 total yards per contest. Defensive end Zachary Carter (5 QB sacks) will hope to lead the resurgence and be joined by All-American cornerback Kaiir Elam. Florida should also be strong at linebacker with Ventrell Miller and Brenton Cox.
Florida dropped its final three games of the 2020 season to finish with an 8-4 record. Dan Mullen is a proven developer of quarterbacks. Emory Jones replaces Trask under center. Many project Jones to be a national-level performer in 2021; time will tell. Mullen’s offense will seek to be more balanced. The Gators rushed for 131 yards per game last season, which ranked 11th in the SEC.
LSU (October 9)
Head coach Ed Orgeron cannot be happy with his 5-5 record following a national championship. The Tigers’ season started with an embarrassing home loss to Mississippi State but the Bayou Bengals bounced back to win their final two contests of the season. Much like Florida, LSU’s defense was completely out of character a year ago. It finished ranked 13th in the SEC after giving up 492 yards per game. Orgeron will sport two of the best cornerbacks in the league in All-American Derek Stingley and Eli Ricks.
A quarterback competition will take place during fall camp. Myles Brennan and Max Johnson will battle to become QB1. The eventual winner will benefit from having receiver Kayshon Boutte (735 receiving yards) as a reliable and explosive playmaker. The Tigers averaged 433 yards and 32 points per game in 2020. Orgeron returns 18 starters which has led to the Tigers being ranked in the Top 10 in most preseason polls.
At Georgia (October 16)
The Dawgs are the preseason favorite to win the SEC East. Head coach Kirby Smart’s roster is loaded with elite talent and got richer following the recent portal additions of tight end Arik Gilbert and former Clemson cornerback Derion Kendrick. Like most seasons, Georgia is stacked to compete for a conference and national title. But, this season UGA has the quarterback that it’s so dearly missed during recent runs.
Quarterback JT Daniels emerged as the starter at the end of the 2020 season. The offense averaged ten more points per game with Daniels under center. He threw for 1,231 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2020. He is joined by running back Zamir White (779 yards, 11 TDs), receivers Kearis Jackson and Jermaine Burton as well as and tight end Darnell Washington. Star WR George Pickens suffered a knee injury during spring practice and is expected to miss most of the season.
Georgia lost a great deal of defenders to the NFL Draft including six defensive backs. Hard-hitting safety Lewis Cine returns and will be joined by All-SEC defensive lineman Jordan Davis. West Virginia safety transfer Tykee Smith should stabilize the new secondary. Linebacker Nakoby Dean is also back to quarterback the defense.
At Mississippi State (October 30)
Mike Leach brought the Air Raid to Starkville but the offense didn’t get off the ground much following its opening game explosion against LSU. The Bulldogs ranked 13th in the SEC after scoring a 21 points per game. It averaged a lowly 43 rushing yards per contest which reflected its lack of balance. 340 total yards per game ranked 104th in the nation. MSU’s -7 turnover margin was good — or bad — enough to be listed 13th in the conference. Quarterback Will Rogers is coming off a promising true freshman performance in 2020 after completing 69% of his passes and averaging 197 yards per contest. He will compete with Southern Miss transfer Jack Abraham. WR Jaden Walley will lead a receiving corps that was influenced by the transfer portal. Former Washington State 4-star Jamire Calvin reunites Leach in Starkville. He’ll be joined by Austin Williams, Malik Heath and others. Ironically, a pair of running backs could be the strength of the passing game in Jo’Quavious Marks and Dillon Johnson.
With a struggling offense, Leach is fortunate that his defense was stout throughout the 2020 season. Coordinator Zach Arnett’s group allowed 28 points and 390 yards per game. It does lose LB Errol Thompson and defensive linemen Kobe Jones and Marquis Spencer; however, DL Jaden Crumedy and starting cornerbacks Martin Emerson and Emmanuel Forbes return to execute Arnett’s 3-3-5 scheme.
Tennessee (November 6)
A 3-7 season meant the demise of former head coach Jeremy Pruitt. Josh Heupel is the new head coach in Knoxville and inherits a personnel nightmare due to several of its top players opting to transfer out of the program. Gone are starting linebackers Henry To’o To’o and Quavaris Crouch. Running back Eric Gray is now a Sooner. Fellow RB Ty Chandler is at UNC. The list goes on, but you get the picture.
Michigan transfer quarterback Joe Milton will compete with Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker, Harrison Bailey, and Brian Maurer for the starting role. Offensive lineman Cade Mays anchors a front that is fluid in the personnel department. The Vols will throw the football all over the field under Heupel.
Former Penn State Co-defensive coordinator Tim Banks’ 4-2-5 defense will feature several new faces when the Vols take the field against Bowling Green. Defensive lineman Matthew Butler will anchor its front and Alontae Taylor will lead the UT secondary during its rebuild.
At Vanderbilt (November 13)
Head coach Clark Lea takes over for the Derek Mason in Nashville. Lea is a Vandy man to the core. The program’s former fullback returns home to tackle the tall task of making Vanderbilt credible on the football field. The Commodores finished the 2020 season with an 0-9 record and ranked near the bottom in most SEC statistical categories. To make matters worse, star running back Keyon Henry-Brooks entered the transfer portal. Quarterback Ken Seals threw for 214 yards per game a year ago and returns a solid group of pass catchers in Cam Johnson, Amir Abdur-Rahman, and Chris Peirce.
Vanderbilt allowed 37.3 points per game in 2020. It scored 14.8 points per game. The math doesn’t add up. Lea has his hands full in his year one of the rebuild in the Music City.
What Does All This Mean?
Kentucky will face Mizzou, LSU, Florida and Tennessee at the friendly confines of Kroger Field. A trip to Athens will be a challenge. However, away games to Vandy, Mississippi State and South Carolina aren’t exactly daunting road trips. The schedule is favorable in SEC terms.
I’ve most likely left out key personnel for all teams listed above with the transfer portal firing on all cylinders. Oh well. Things happen fast these days, but I wanted to present a short overview of UK’s SEC opponents.
Hurry up, football season.