Keys to Success for Kentucky Football in 2017

LOUISVILLE, KY - NOVEMBER 26: Stephen Johnson
LOUISVILLE, KY - NOVEMBER 26: Stephen Johnson /

Off a promising 2016 season, Kentucky Football hopes to build on that momentum and achieve greater success this year.

Big Blue fans hope the Wildcats keep moving forward in the always-tough SEC. To do so, Coach Mark Stoops‘ squad will need to improve in some facets, maintain performance in others and need a little reversal of fortune in a luck category. And yes, mentioning luck to a Kentucky Football fan can result in uncontrollable body spasms. But hang in there, it will all make sense.

Turnover Margin

The Wildcats went 7-6 last season, including the Taxslayer Bowl loss to Georgia Tech, despite a terrible showing in one of the game’s most important statistics. Kentucky Football was minus seven in turnover margin. The Cats ranked 107 out of 128 FBS teams in that category. It is actually pretty remarkable they had a winning record in spite of that ugly number.

UK had 28 turnovers, while their opponents gave the ball up 21 times. The composition of those turnovers is where Kentucky Football has a reasonable expectation for improvement.

Interceptions were pretty much a wash, with the Cats picking off 13 passes versus 12 by their foes. Intercepting passes is in large part a skill. The Cats’ defensive backfield is probably the team’s strongest unit.

Safety Mike Edwards is the team’s top NFL draft prospect and is expected to see time at nickel back this year. Derrick Baity and Chris Westry return as starters on the corners. Newcomers like Jordan Griffin. Yusuf Corker and Davonte Robinson add depth to the unit. The Cats certainly have the potential to add to that interception total.

Kentucky Wildcats Football
Kentucky Wildcats Football /

Kentucky Wildcats Football

The Luck Factor

Fumbles are where Kentucky Football went wrong on turnover margin last season. The Cats lost 16 of the 23 fumbles they committed. They recovered eight of 18 balls on the ground from their opposition.

There is a skill component to forcing fumbles, but recovering fumbles is largely a function of luck. The bounce of the ball. Particularly damaging to Kentucky Football were scoop-and-score fumbles where the defense took the turnover on in for a touchdown without their offense even needing to take the field.

With improvement in this area to just a break even level, the Cats can get that turnover margin closer to the middle of the pack.  Which could lead to another win or two.

Success In Close Games

Kentucky Football was outscored 407-390 on the season, but still achieved that winning record by gong 4-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less. Not to get too stat nerdy here, but a high winning percentage in close games is hard to sustain season to season. If you are into math, it is called regression to the mean.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the Cats will fall back this season. The reason why is tied to the turnover factor discussed earlier. A couple of those fumbles returned for touchdowns were in wins versus Vanderbilt and Mississippi State.

Those plays turned what should have been comfortable wins into nail biters. Another came on Kentucky’s first possession in the bowl game. That play put the team in deficit from which they never recovered. Eliminate those costly turnovers and a regression in the close game results may not be so devastating.


The list of Kentucky Football quarterbacks who led the team to seven wins in one season is pretty short. Stephen Johnson has to be the most unlikely member of that fraternity.

The unheralded junior college transfer was barely on any Cat fan’s radar when the 2016 season started. When Drew Barker went out for the season early in the third game, Johnson stepped in and led the team to wins in seven of the next 10 games.

Showing perfect timing, Johnson saved his best performance for the regular season finale against arch-rival Louisville. He outdueled Heisman winner Lamar Jackson and led the Cats to a 41-38 win, bringing the Governor’s Cup back to Lexington for the first time since 2010.

Johnson showed a great touch on the deep ball, and more importantly great poise. His unflappable demeanor is just want a team needs behind center.

Going into this season, Johnson will need improvement in two specific areas. He gave up too many of those fumbles, especially in the backfield where they were converted into instant scores by the opposing defense.

That habit has to stop. Johnson also needs to improve his accuracy on short and intermediate throws. Tight end C.J. Conrad has been grossly under utilized since arriving on campus. Johnson struggled mightily to connect with Conrad on short throws over the middle. Hitting those attempts will loosen up defenses focused on stopping star running back Benny Snell, Jr.

If Johnson should struggle, all eyes will turn to Barker. From all accounts he has performed well in camp. If he has recovered from back surgery and can take a hit, he could step in if needed. Not to be forgotten is redshirt freshman Gunnar Hoak, who has looked sharp in the last two spring games.

Putting It All Together

Kentucky Football has reason to be optimistic heading into the 2017 season. They have lots of returning starters on both sides of ball. The recruiting success of Coach Stoops’ staff has built what appears to be the deepest Wildcat team in many years.

Next: Kentucky WRs Will Play Big Role in 2017

The schedule is tough, but that is a way of life in the SEC. Wildcat fans will eagerly await the season opener September 2nd at Southern Mississippi and see if the Cats can build on their momentum.