TAYLOR: 10 victories are within reach for Wildcats

The expectations are high at Kentucky as Mark Stoops enters his ninth season and the second longest-tenured coach in the Southeastern Conference. He needs just one more win to tie Fran Curci for the most wins in school history. Curci won 100 games in his eight seasons with the Wildcats from 1973-81.

During an unprecedented pandemic campaign with an All-Southeastern Conference schedule, Stoops led the Wildcats to a postseason appearance for the fifth straight season as the Wildcats edged North Carolina State 23-21 in the Gator Bowl, giving Kentucky its third straight bowl victory.

Kentucky is poised to make a move in the SEC East after three divisional foes — South Carolina, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt — hired new coaches, giving UK an opportunity to climb the proverbial ladder and reach the plateau that Georgia and Florida have claimed on what seems like an alternating basis since divisions in the league were formed nearly three decades ago.

Growing weary of not achieving balance on offense, Stoops hired a new coordinator and added a new offensive line coach to replace the late creator of the Big Blue Wall, John Schlarman, who passed away last year following a lengthy cancer battle. Liam Coen took over as offensive coordinator and Eric Wolford is Kentucky’s offensive line coach.

The schedule features seven home games and five away contests, which gives the Wildcats the potential to achieve a double-digit winning season for the first time since the 2018 season and the final year of the Benny Snell era.

At first glance, 10 victories are within Kentucky’s reach, depending on the team’s start, which includes three home games in the first month of the season. The Wildcats should win at least eight games and earn a sixth straight bowl berth.

• Sept. 4 — Louisiana-Monroe: Terry Bowden is back, but it will take the Warhawks time to rebuild. Kentucky 48, ULM 13.

• Sept. 11 — Missouri: Many see Missouri as a must-win for the Wildcats to open the SEC schedule. Not a make-or-break, but a win to open the SEC will be a good thing. Kentucky 38, Missouri 35.

• Sept. 18 — UT-Chattanooga: Kentucky will play three teams from Tennessee this season and the Mocs won’t be as much of an issue as Tennessee or Vandy. Kentucky 42, UT-Chattanooga 24.

• Sept. 25 — at South Carolina: The Gamecocks are starting over with a new coach and Kentucky’s first league road game in Columbia should be easier than past experiences. Kentucky 30, South Carolina 17.

• Oct. 2 — Florida: The Gators are reloading, but that doesn’t mean things will be any easier for the Wildcats. Florida 34, Kentucky 28.

• Oct. 9 — LSU: The Tigers didn’t have much success a year removed from winning a national title, but coach Ed Orgeron added some new faces in the off-season to help speed up the recovery process. Kentucky 34, LSU 30.

• Oct. 16 — at Georgia: The Bulldogs are tough to beat anytime, especially at home. Georgia 28, Kentucky 21.

• Oct. 30 — at Mississippi State: Last year, Kentucky had no problem defending Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense and the Wildcats know what to expect this time around as well. Kentucky 38, Mississippi State 31.

• Nov. 6 — Tennessee: The Volunteers are starting over again with a new coach and a revamped roster that’s unproven as a unit. Kentucky 24, Tennessee 21.

• Nov. 13 — at Vanderbilt: The Commodores have a new coach and have always given the Wildcats trouble no matter the circumstances, Kentucky 21, Vandy 10.

• Nov. 20 — New Mexico State: The Aggies will be just what the Wildcats need after close calls against Tennessee and Vandy in back-to-back fashion. Kentucky 49, New Mexico State 10.

• Nov, 27 — Louisville: The Governor’s Cup returns after a one-year hiatus, which is good news for the Commonwealth. It’s still bad news for the Cardinals. Kentucky 32, Louisville 28.

Prediction: 10-2. Worst-case scenario: 8-4. Flip wins to LSU and Louisville.

Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at keith.taylor@kentuckytoday.com or Twitter @keithtaylor21.