A leap forward? A step back? Predicting the outcome of every 2022 Kentucky football game

Brett Dawson
Louisville Courier Journal

LEXINGTON — Improvement isn’t always linear. 

Any coach will tell you that. A team’s trajectory rarely goes straight up. Players hit peaks and dip into valleys. Mark Stoops is living proof, with even Kentucky football’s steady climb marked by some missteps. 

The Wildcats followed a 10-3 breakout in 2018 with a more pedestrian 8-5 record, then a 5-6 stumble in a pandemic-shortened 2020 season. Last year, Kentucky bounced back to another 10-3 record.

So what happens next? One more leap forward? A step back? 

There are cases to be made for both. 

The Wildcats have work to do offensively, but the defense has the kind of depth and experience that elevated Kentucky in the first place. 

CatsHQ:Everything you need to know about Kentucky football players, schedule and analysis in 2022

A look at how the season might play out:

Miami (Ohio) at Kentucky, Saturday 

Prediction: Kentucky 24, Miami 14

This is no opening-night pushover. Media covering the MAC picked the RedHawks to win the league’s East Division, and quarterback Brett Gabbert is coming off a season in which he threw for 2,648 yards with 26 touchdowns and six interceptions. 

“Any time you are really well coached and you have a good quarterback, I can promise you this, they’re ready to come in here and play,” Stoops said this week. 

The guess is that Kentucky’s defense will be ahead of its offense — and ahead of most offenses — to open the season. That should be enough to secure a win, but it might not be easy. 

Kentucky football position breakdown:Confidence and some concerns on the Wildcat defense?

Kentucky at Florida, Sept. 10

Florida Gators head coach Billy Napier talks with Florida Gators quarterback Anthony Richardson (15) during fall football practice at Sanders Outdoor Practice Fields in Gainesville, FL on Tuesday, August 23, 2022. [Matt Pendleton/Gainesville Sun]

Prediction: Kentucky 21, Florida 20

This feels like a coin flip, with the Gators playing their second game under new coach Billy Napier and the Cats traveling to the Swamp in Week 2, likely without running back Chris Rodriguez and with so many young players on offense. 

It’s hard to imagine an offensive breakout on either side, so give the edge to Kentucky’s defensive experience and coaching continuity in an early season game that probably would look significantly different on both sides in November. 

Youngstown State at Kentucky, Sept. 17

Prediction: Kentucky 52, Youngstown State 10

Stoops’ hometown team hails from a place steeped in football tradition. But the FCS Penguins are coming off a 3-7 season and haven’t finished better than .500 since a 6-5 record in 2017. 

This looks like the best chance early for the offense to get into a groove. By this point, the new faces at wide receiver and on the offensive line will have games under their belt, and they should physically overmatch most everyone on the Youngstown State roster. 

Watch this:Ranking the top 5 Kentucky football players primed for a breakout 2022 season

Northern Illinois at Kentucky, Sept. 24

Prediction: Kentucky 38, Northern Illinois 20

This is no late-September pushover. Media covering the MAC picked the Huskies to win the league’s West Division, and … that all seems familiar. Yes, Kentucky will play both division favorites in the MAC, and on paper the Huskies might be a little better. Theirs is the league’s more balanced division, and NIU is the media pick to win the MAC Football Championship. But UK should be finding an offensive identity by now, and the defense should be stout enough to limit Northern Illinois’ scoring. 

Kentucky at Ole Miss, Oct. 1

Prediction: Ole Miss 31, Kentucky 24

The cliche says a team that thinks it has two quarterbacks doesn’t have one, and it’s intriguing — if not alarming — that the Rebels entered Week 1 having not settled on a signal caller between sophomores Luke Altmayer and Jaxson Dart.

But other than a successor for QB Matt Corral, Ole Miss looks loaded. And the SEC road has been relatively unkind to Kentucky. Even in its two 10-win seasons, UK was a combined 4-4 in conference away from home. 

Kentucky football position breakdown:What can we expect from the new-look offense?

South Carolina at Kentucky, Oct. 8

Prediction: Kentucky 27, South Carolina 21

The Gamecocks finished 7-6 last season under first-year head coach Shane Beamer, and that was a significant step forward for the program. But remember that thing about linear improvement? Las Vegas has set South Carolina’s wins over-under at the same six it managed last regular season, meaning the expectation is the improvement this season will be minimal. Stoops is 7-2 against the Gamecocks in his UK career. New SC QB Spencer Rattler will make this a battle, but Kentucky should get an eighth win in 10 tries. 

Mississippi State at Kentucky, Oct. 15

Prediction: Kentucky 24, Mississippi State 21

Another in a series of swing games for the Wildcats, whose conference season could fluctuate wildly based on a few matchups with up-and-coming teams. The Bulldogs beat UK last season in Starkville, Mississippi, and they return quarterback Will Rogers, who threw for 4,739 yards last season with 36 touchdowns and nine picks. Plus, there’s a case to be made for Mississippi State as a top-five defense in the SEC. In Starkville again, you’d like the Dogs’ chances. In Lexington, give a slight edge to the Cats. 

UK football:With raised expectations, Kentucky football needs to win these 5 games in 2022

Kentucky at Tennessee, Oct. 29

Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker (5) avoids a tackle during a football game between the Tennessee Volunteers and the Pittsburgh Panthers in Neyland Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021.

Prediction: Tennessee 38, Kentucky 31

Stoops is 2-7 against the Vols, and given the pedestrian state of the Tennessee program for much of his tenure, that’s looking like a string of missed opportunities to pad the win total. Now things are looking up in Knoxville, with 14 starters back from a 7-6 team. One of them is QB Hendon Hooker, who picked apart the UK defense last fall for 316 passing yards and four touchdowns. Tennessee’s 45-42 win last season in Lexington has to rub the UK defense the wrong way. Expect a better effort this time around. That probably won’t be enough for a second-straight win in Knoxville. 

Kentucky at Missouri, Nov. 5

Prediction: Kentucky 30, Missouri 21

If the Tigers are to take a significant step this season, beating Kentucky is crucial. And it seems to mean something to Missouri. At SEC Media Days, Tigers defensive back Martez Manual said Kentucky is “more of a rivalry game than Arkansas,” an opponent Missouri plays annually in the Battle Line Rivalry. (In fairness, that trophy dates back to 2015; it’s not exactly Oklahoma-Texas’ Golden Hat). 

“I hate that white and blue,” Manual said. 

He’ll probably keep hating it. The game is no given for Kentucky — again, that SEC road is unforgiving — but even with an improved Mizzou defense (eight starters return), UK should score enough to tame the Tigers. 

Big year ahead:Will Levis changed Kentucky football last year. His next challenge is to be even better

Vanderbilt at Kentucky, Nov. 12

Prediction: Kentucky 42, Vanderbilt 21

It’s reasonable to wonder after the Commodores’ 63-10 Week Zero win at Hawaii whether Vandy will be a tougher out for SEC opponents. And it probably will. But Vanderbilt was 0-8 in conference play a season ago, and only two of those losses were by single-digit margins. That’s a lot of ground to gain in a year, and though the Commodores have kept Kentucky from running away with some games, UK has won seven of nine meetings under Stoops. There’s no reason to think that’ll change this fall in Lexington. 

Georgia at Kentucky, Nov. 19

Prediction: Georgia 27, Kentucky 20

The Cats have closed the gap on the beast of the SEC East, but last season showed there’s still a way to go. Yes, Kentucky was competitive in Athens, trailing the eventual national champs 14-7 at the half. But the Bulldogs defense controlled the second half, and UK scored on the literal last play of the game to cut the final margin. Much of that UGA defense has moved on — three starters return — but Georgia still is the cream of the East crop. 

More on the Cards:Everything you need to know about Louisville football players, schedule and analysis in 2022

Louisville at Kentucky, Nov. 26

Head coach Mark Stoops exults as his players hold the Governor's Cup trophy after the Wildcats rolled past Louisville 52-21 Saturday night. Nov. 27, 2021

Prediction: Kentucky 42, Louisville 28

Speaking of gap-closing, the Cards expect to field a team good enough to at least compete with the Cats this fall. But Kentucky’s cushion has been big enough to expect a fourth straight Governor’s Cup win. UK has won the past three games by a combined score of 153-44. The guess is that it won’t come so easily this time around, but barring a pitch-perfect performance from Louisville, the teams’ traveling trophy should stay put in Lexington. 

Season record prediction: 9-3

Final predictions: A 10-2 record would all but lock up a trip to a New Year’s Six bowl game. But UK doesn’t seem there just yet. Too many toss-up games, too much uncertainty on offense. Falling to eight wins feels far more likely than swinging 10. This seems like a steady season for UK — no big dropoff, no sizable leap forward — and so let’s end it just where it did a season ago, back in the Citrus Bowl, this time for a date with Wisconsin.