SOMEWHERE IN ALABAMA (WDRB) – John Lewis and I are on the road to Hoover, Alabama, where Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops and three UK players will share their optimism about the 2017 season at SEC Media Days Wednesday afternoon.

Will the optimism be reciprocated by the hundreds of media members scrambling to cover the event?


I packed three preseason magazines for the trip. This is the consensus order of finish from The Sporting News, Athlon and Phil Steele:

1. Florida (Expected to be smashed by Alabama for the third straight season).

2. Georgia (My pick to win if quarterback Jacob Eason delivers).

3. Tennessee (Isn’t Butch Jones on the Hot Seat – legitimately this time?)

4. South Carolina (Do you believe in Will Muschamp? Do you?)

5. Kentucky (More on the Wildcats soon).

6. Missouri (Remember these guys actually won the East three years ago).

7. Vanderbilt (Let’s move on).

You know it shakes out this way because it always shakes out this way. As they say in the SEC, you pick the Gators, Bulldogs and Volunteers on top because It Just Means More in Gainesville, Athens and Knoxville.

Phil Steele shared a stat that the Wildcats are 0-15 over the last five seasons against Florida, Georgia and Tennessee. Real progress will require real change in that stat, especially with the Gators and Vols booked for Lexington this season.

Kentucky has shown it can handle South Carolina, dispatching the Gamecocks three straight seasons, driving Steve Spurrier into retirement.

It’s not outrageous to suggest Kentucky can finish ahead of South Carolina in the East this season.

But can Kentucky make the pre-season magazines look silly by surging into the top three in the East?


Here are three reasons it can happen:

The SEC schedule matters: Check the West Division teams the Wildcats are playing:

At Mississippi State. Ole Miss in Lexington. That’s as user-friendly crossover schedule as any coach in the East could ask for.

Nobody is picking the Bulldogs to win the West. Ditto for the Rebels. The consensus is they’re two of three teams at the bottom of the division. Kentucky dispatched Mississippi State last season. The Rebels will try to play through a self-imposed bowl ban. By the first weekend in November, their motivation could disappear

South Carolina gets Arkansas and Texas A&M from the West. Not awful, but more challenging than what awaits Kentucky. Tennessee goes to Alabama and welcomes Louisiana State to Knoxville. That is awful.

Experience Matters: Stoops figures to start 20 or 21 juniors or seniors. That’s a comforting number for any coaching staff. There’s no reason to force freshmen onto the field before they’re ready to contribute.

Steele’s yearbook has more numbers than reflect the experienced core that Stoops has developed. He calculated an experience chart based on the number of seniors and percentage of contributing players who return at every FBS program.

Kentucky ranks 20th nationally – and fourth in the SEC on that chart, trailing only Auburn (7), Georgia (13) and Missouri (19). The Wildcats look slightly more experienced than South Carolina (26). Tennessee is 48th overall and seventh in the league.

Advantage, Kentucky.

Benny Snell Matters: The 13 touchdowns that Snell delivered last season confirmed that he was a monster inside the tackles. But he also averaged nearly six yards per carry after pounding his way past Boom Williams on the depth chart.

Translation: Snell is more that simply a power back with a nose for the end zone.

With four offensive linemen returning in front of him, a poised veteran quarterback next to him and a creative offensive coordinator (Eddie Gran) who bumped the Wildcats’ per game offensive average to over 400 yards per game for the first time since 2010, Snell is positioned to grow into one of the SEC’s productive backs.

Expect the Wildcats to be picked fifth in the SEC East race. Don’t be surprised if they finish higher.

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