With the Fourth of July holiday now in our rearview mirror, talking season is officially here. SEC Media Days begins in Hoover next week so it's time to take a more in depth look at what the Wildcats have in front of them in 2019. With eight home games on the docket, expectations are high in the Big Blue Nation.
UK is entering 2019 set on not taking a step backwards following a historic 2018 season. They have the schedule to accomplish that goal.
The Wildcats only play four road games with Georgia being the only trip that would be classified as a big upset if UK were to win. Under Mark Stoops, UK has historically played its best football in September and if they are able to do that again you can start to dream big dreams.
The Rockets are historically one of the teams to beat in the MAC despite winning just three conference championships in the last two decades. Throughout their history, Toledo has had numerous coaches use the job to catapult into stardom. Nick Saban, Gary Pinkel, and Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell all used it to blast off their coaching careers. Jason Candle may be the next one in that group.
The former Mount Union player came to Toledo in 2009 to work with fellow college teammate Campbell and he's still in The Glass City a decade later. After winning 28 games in his first four seasons with a MAC title under his belt (something Campbell never accomplished) it will not be long until he is at a Power Five program.
Under Candle's watch, Toledo is known for their hurry-up offense and a risk taking defense built on speed. Last year the Rockets ranked 40th in the FBS in adjusted tempo while their defensed ranked 43rd in havoc rate (percentage of plays ending in a turnover, sack, tackle for loss, or pass break-up). That is their identity.
This year, however, they will be leaning on their ground game. UK transfer Bryant Koback put up six yards per carry and scored 14 touchdowns on 153 carries last fall. He's due for a big season. Quarterbacks Mitchell Guadagni and Eli Peters both started for the Rockets and each return. Guadagni missed six games due to injury, but showed some real playmaking ability while in the lineup (8.8 yards per pass attempt, 8.6 yards per non-sack carry) despite a high sack rate. Peters, meanwhile, was more of a game manager who didn’t provide a run threat. These two are in a battle and the starter likely won't be named until game week.
The Rockets return three starters upfront and should have one of the MAC's best offensive lines. Where the big questions loom is at receiver. Outside of slot man Desmond Phillips, there is pretty much no playing experience and that is a concern for a team that wants to pass the ball a lot.
On the other side of the football, the Rockets lose seven starters but that's not necessarily a bad thing since they gave up over 30 points per game for the fist time in the Candle era. Opponents put up nearly six yards per play against coordinator Brian George's 4-2-5 defense. The Rockets weren't really good at anything. Defensive end Jamal Hines is small (216 pounds) but that did not stop him from a huge rookie season. The Cincinnati native recorded 15 run stuffs and had two interceptions. He's a future star.
Eastern Michigan Eagles
Entering the 1988 season, EMU had been to two bowl games all-time. After five seasons at the helm, Chris Creighton has led the Eagles to two postseason appearances. Pound-for-pound no head coach may be doing more than the former NAIA, Division III, and FCS head coach.
The Eagles are fresh off their second 7-win campaign in three seasons and have two Power Five upsets under their belt. Kentucky better have their antennas up when EMU rolls into Lexington.
On offense, EMU has struggled to establish any running game but that changed when they turned to dual-threat quarterback Mike Glass III. The former junior college transfer averaged 7.5 yards on non-sack carries and put up 8.8 yards per pass attempt. He took a few too many sacks, but he was a huge reason this offense finished with their second highest offensive efficiency rating of the Creighton era.
EMU loses their top receiver, but they have four of their top five pass catchers returning. Line Latu is the most dangerous after averaging 16.1 yard per catch in his first season over from junior college. Arthur Jackson III is a very good possession receiver. There are huge questions on the offensive line, but this EMU passing attack should be very good.
The last two seasons, EMU has produced some of the best defenses in the MAC ranking in the top 60 overall in S&P+'s rankings. However, it feels like the Eagles are retooling with only three returning starters. However, the secondary should be very stout.
All three returning starters are in the secondary and the Eagles have two studs in safety Vince Calhoun and nickel Brody Hoying. Calhoun had over 84 tackles last season in addition to being a very good coverage safety while Hoying recorded 11 tackles for loss. They'll pace the defense while corner Kevin McGill nearly hit double-digits in passes defended.
After a brutal end to the Jim McElwain era, former Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen returned to Gainesville to lead the Gators back to national relevancy. In a bit of a surprise, he led UF to 10 wins, snapped the losing streak against Florida State, and crushed Michigan in the Peach Bowl in his first season. Expectations are sky high entering 2019 and some people think the Gators may have what it takes to take down Georgia.
Mullen has been called a quarterback whisperer and he did a magnificent job developing Feleipe Franks. In his redshirt sophomore season, Franks averaged 7.6 yards per attempt, threw for 24 touchdowns, avoided sacks, and was an effective runner when called upon. He was a productive game manager and that allowed Florida to put up 35 points per game. Franks was awesome in November and had an outstanding performance in the bowl win. If the Gators are to take the next step, it will be because of Franks becoming less game manager and more playmaker.
The Gators return their top seven pass catchers and four of their top five backs. Not many programs have better skill talent depth than Florida. That depth and talent will give Franks a great chance to step into stardom. Where the questions lie are on the offensive line.
Only one starter returns in the trenches and center Nick Buchanan was at times a weak spot for the Gators last season. Florida has a lot of unknown parts in this group filled with their fair share of recruiting misses. If this unit isn't able to produce it could hamper the progression for Mullen's offense in year two.
Todd Grantham took over the Florida defense last season and they were extra aggressive in his 3-4 scheme. The Gators forced a ton of havoc while occasionally allowing a big play. With eight starters returning, expectations are high.
CJ Henderson and Marco Wilson might be the best corner duo in FBS. Jabari Zuniga is one of the best defensive ends in the SEC. David Reese has played at an all-conference level at inside linebacker when healthy. There is a ton of depth at saftey. Louisville transfer Jonathan Greenard figures to play a big role at rush end. On paper, this is a top 10-15 defense.
Mississippi State Bulldogs
Dan Mullen left for Gainesville, but he left behind a fully stocked cupboard for Joe Moorhead. The offensive savant inherited a nasty defense and the league's most experienced quarterback. But after playing one of the nation's toughest schedules, the Bulldogs were only able to collect eight wins. Entering year two, the expectations are high for Moorhead and if the Bulldogs don’t take a step back he will quickly find himself in hot seat territory.
Nick Fitzgerald returned for his senior season in 2018 as one of the best running quarterbacks in the country. However, the improvement in the passing game never occurred and that was the biggest thing that held State back. This season, the Bulldogs have two quarterbacks who are more known as runners than passers. Those same issues could plague the Dogs.
Keytaon Thompson played a ton his freshman season and led State to an upset win over Louisville in the Gator Bowl. He started the opener last season due to a Nick Fitzgerald suspension and played sparingly throughout the season. He is a dynamic runner (nearly 700 yards on less than 100 career carries) with big play pass ability (8.1 yards per attempt). However, he has a career completion percentage of just 47.6 perecent. High risk, high reward.
In the offseason, Moorhead hit the grad transfer market and beat out Kentucky for Penn State quarterback Tommy Stevens. The big quarterback looks like a Fitzgerald clone without the game experience or breakaway speed. In an effort to improve the passing game, State landed Kansas State transfer Isaiah Zuber who led the Wildcats in receiving last year. He appears to be the possession target this offense is missing.
Kylin Hill is back for his junior season after rushing for 734 yards in an injury riddle season. Hill had 22 catches last year and if he stays healthy he could be one of the SEC's most productive tailbacks. On the line of scrimmage, Darryl Williams is slated to be one of the best centers in college football and he'll be surrounded by experience. If the passing game comes alive this has the potential to be a top-15 offense.
Former Vanderbilt/Penn State/Tennessee defensive coordinator Bob Shoop did a masterful job last season with the Bulldogs finishing the season with the top overall defense in FBS per S&P+. However, eight of those starters are gone and the deepest defensive line outside of Clemson is suddenly in rebuild mode.
State will be leaning on former Georgia defensive end and Last Chance U star Chauncey Rivers to become the next draft pick. At the second level, Errol Thompson is one of the best inside linebackers in college football and he should be a first-team selection at SEC Media Days. Running mates Willie Gay Jr. and Leo Lewis are both very talented. In the secondary, Cameron Dantzler is one of the best corners in the SEC and former Michigan Wolverine and UK target Brian Cole mans the nickel spot. There are a ton of questions, but this defense still has next level talent.
Kentucky starts out 2019 with two MAC foes that should be wins. After that there are two games they'll likely be a touchdown or more underdogs in. Most think Florida will be a top-10 team while Mississippi State appears to have a top-25 caliber roster. If the Wildcats are somehow able to get out of this stretch at 3-1 then things are in motion for another great season.