[caption id="attachment_359934" align="alignnone" width="2560"] (Photo by Jimmie Mitchell/SEC)
The 2021 edition of SEC Media Days was unlike any other in the Mark Stoops era, and not just because it was filled with conference realignment talk. Typically the event provides the Kentucky football team with bulletin board material. This year the Cats are actually getting respect from well known voices throughout the league.
Five Wildcats earned preseason All-SEC honors
as Kentucky was picked to finish third in the East, trailing only Florida and Georgia. Some believe the Cats could end the season even further up the division's totem pole, but not everyone is completely sold the changes Stoops made this offseason will make an immediate impact.
The SEC's Most Important Quarterback Battle
The league is looking for new star signal callers. In 2019 nine quarterbacks represented their schools at SEC Media Days. This year only three quarterbacks made the trip to Hoover. Kentucky is not the only SEC school looking for a new quarterback, but Chris Doering believes the competition in Lexington has the most far-reaching consequences throughout the conference.
"I think it's the most important just because of the talent around the quarterback on the offensive side, how good the defense can be, how the schedule plays out -- I think this could be a year that they really take that next step forward
," the co-host of SEC This Morning told KSR
"Finding the right quarterback in a year where you're committed to changing the offense, bringing Liam Coen in, trying to open up the downfield passing a little bit more. I think finding the right guy is of the utmost importance to where Kentucky wants to get this season."
Cole Cubelic picked the Wildcats to finish second in the East, behind only Georgia. To meet and potentially exceed expectations, Kentucky needs "A-minus quarterback play," most likely coming from Will Levis.
"I think Will probably has the advantage because he gives you a little bit with his legs and obviously has the arm to push it down the field. That's what this is all about. That's what Laim Coen, that's what the new offense, that's what brining in the new quarterbacks, it's all about pushing the ball down the field," said Cubelic
Kentucky does not have a ton of pass-catching talent on the roster. Using two running back sets could alleviate some of the pressure on UK's wide receivers. No matter how much help the running backs and tight ends provide, Cubelic still wants to see a deep threat emerge.
"The best receiver Kentucky's had over the last six years had to go play quarterback. He couldn't even be a good receiver the entire time. You gotta find a receiver that can stretch the field, win one-on-ones, pull the safeties' attention, force defenses to play a different way, then you become truly balanced and I think that's where Kentucky would have an advantage," he said.
"The schedule lines up for Kentucky. October is the
month. I think you're talking about you can drop a game, maybe even split October and things can still be really interesting at the end of November."
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Skeptic of Change
Much of the optimism surrounding Kentucky comes with caveats. "If
they can find good quarterback play," is a big if
. Connor O'Gara from Saturday Down South
believes Coen is taking UK's offense in the right direction, but the Big Blue Nation might not see dramatically improved results this fall.
"It is a long-term move," said O'Gara. "I think it is hard to overhaul personnel in that way. To go from an Eddie Gran offense to Liam Coen's offense, which we know is going to be different, it's going to be much more balanced. They have some players to be able to execute that, but from a wide receiver standpoint, I look at Wan'Dale Robinson and I look at Josh Ali. Outside of that, I don't know if those options are going to be there. I can see a lot of moments this year in which Liam Coen realizes this isn't the Los Angeles Rams."
Knocking on the Door
Kentucky has clearly elevated its reputation in the SEC. Mark Stoops has changed the culture in Lexington. Instead of doubting UK, pundits now rely on the Wildcats to play sounds defense, win at the line of scrimmage and run the football. With a favorable schedule in 2021, Stoops could do something he's never done before.
"I don't think he's afraid of anything," the SEC Network's Peter Burns said of Stoops
. "You look at the schedule and you can get off to a 5-0, 6-0 start, then all of a sudden you've got Georgia right in the middle of that schedule. Heavy is the head that wears the crown. Why don't you go after it if you're Mark Stoops?"
Each time Stoops reaches a new milestone, he considers it another door his program has knocked down. There's only one door left to be knocked down: Atlanta. It may not happen in 2021, but Paul Finebaum believes an SEC Championship Game is on the horizon for the Wildcats.
"I think Mark Stoops is knocking on the door," Finebaum told KSR
. "I was so impressed with him yesterday when we talked and he's one of my favorite coaches because he's steady. He never changes. I think that program, the infrastructure is really good. The defense has certainly gotten a lot better. I think with the right choice at quarterback, they're really going to challenge Florida, at least for the second position (in the SEC East)."