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SEC Football: Four reasons on why Kentucky will capture an SEC East crown in 2017

Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

Nothing screams offseason more than hot takes, outlandish stories and controversial radio shows to increase ratings. Between the months of May and early July, media pundits fish for story ideas that may not necessarily be factual, but for entertainment and conversation value, these stories make headlines. Despite the masses being disgusted by the content, some consumers enjoy the offseason flair – as it gets them ready for another highly-anticipated year.

A multitude of insane story lines will be made for the Southeastern Conference in the upcoming season, including coaches on the hot seat and Heisman Trophy predictions. While everyone else continues to chase Alabama head coach Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide in the SEC West, its counterpart – SEC East – remains a division of inconsistency and a toss up to see who’s the best. Although Georgia is the most talented and Florida recruits well on defense, neither program has been successful in either consistently winning the East or a conference championship since Nick Saban arrived at Alabama in 2007. To begin my installment of summer hot takes for TDA Magazine, yours truly is picking the University of Kentucky to capture an SEC East title.

Before the BS meter starts skyrocketing, pay close attention to the case.

Wildcats’ head coach Mark Stoops and his team are coming off its first winning season since 2009 (7-6) and its first bowl season since 2010 at 6-6. Kentucky could have easily been a 9-win team, should it have beaten Southern Mississippi to start the 2016 year and Georgia at home. Prior to falling to the Bulldogs, the Cats were 5-3 and 4-2 in SEC play. A victory over Georgia would have placed Kentucky at 5-2 in conference, tying them for first place in the SEC East. With it scoring at least 30 points/game for the first time since 2010 and players returning with a lot of confidence, listed below are four reasons as to why the Wildcats will win the East.

Experience on Defense

Kentucky returns seven interceptions from a season ago, which is fourth in the SEC behind Arkansas (eight), South Carolina and Georgia (tied with 11) and Alabama – who has 12. Rising juniors Mike Edwards and Derrick Baity led the team with three interceptions a piece, while Edwards finished second on the team in tackles (100) from his safety position.

Mike Edwards ||"Ain't tryin"|| Kentucky University 2016 highlights

One of the more eye-popping numbers is the amount of sacks the Wildcats return. Coach Stoops and company are third in this department for the SEC, as its 20.5 sacks is more than what Alabama gets back (17).

Junior linebacker Josh Allen captained the defensive front with seven sacks, and fellow junior Jordan Jones totaled four sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss.

Impact starters on Offense

They may not be well-known, however, Kentucky has studs on offense.

Sophomore running back Benjamin Snell, Jr sets the tone for this team with his physical running style. Much commotion was made about Stanley “Boom” Williams and Jojo Kemp for good reasons, but Snell presents an entirely different animal when the football is in his hands. The 5-foot-11, 223-pound rusher amassed 1,091 yards rushing with 13 touchdowns on 186 carries through 13 games as a true freshman. He averaged 84 yards per game and was the primary catalyst behind getting the Wildcats to 30 points a game and a bowl berth.

Good things are expected from Drew Barker as he continues to rehab from a back injury; nevertheless, Stephen Johnson may continue being the starting quarterback. Johnson, a senior, kept Kentucky in games for the most part. He completed 55 percent of his throws during his junior year for 2,037 yards with 13 touchdowns to six interceptions. Regardless of not being dangerously athletic, Johnson does have mobility. He was the team’s fourth leading rusher, compiling 327 yards and three touchdowns on 93 attempts last season.

Seniors Jeff Badet and Garrett Johnson are the targets at wide receiver.

Badet anchored the position group in yards with 670 and four touchdowns on 31 catches, while Johnson carried a team-high five touchdown receptions on 585 receiving yards with 39 grabs. Along with those two, Kentucky has one of the league’s best tight ends in C.J. Conrad. Conrad, a junior, put in four touchdowns on 19 receptions with 262 yards in 2016. Stoops is starting to get things going on the recruiting offensively, with this year’s class ranked inside the top-30.

Wildcat fans saw their school sign quite a few four-star athletes, including wide receiver JaVonte Richardson – who stands at 6’4″ and 210 pounds from Maple Heights, Ohio. After averaging 420.2 yards offensively a game, Kentucky is definitely ready to expound upon those numbers.

Favorable schedule

Florida, Missouri, Tennessee and Ole Miss all will travel to Kroger Stadium in Lexington, Ky., to face the Wildcats next season. With the NCAA hurting the Rebels and Tennessee rebuilding, both matchups become winnable games for Kentucky. As for the Gators and Tigers, situations at quarterback for both schools and on defense for Missouri must be fine-tuned before the fall.

Georgia has had some close calls with the Wildcats in recent years, including a 27-24 loss at Sanford Stadium to the team during the 2009 season. Kentucky has given the Bulldogs the most issues in years where Georgia has been ranked in the top-25. A combined 18 points was the deficit for the Cats in its downfalls to the Bulldogs in 2008 (No. 13), 2011 (No. 19) and 2012 (No. 5 in the nation).

Coach Stoops took care of Missouri, Vanderbilt and South Carolina last season, so there isn’t much doubt as to if he can do it again for Kentucky. Obviously, Mississippi State is a tough task on the road at Davis Wade Stadium, but a strong outing from Benny Snell and company could prove wonders in that meeting.

Placekicker Austin MacGinnis nailed a clutch, 51-yard field goal as time expired, to give the Wildcats a 40-38 victory over Mississippi State at home in 2016.

Game-Winning Kick by Austin MacGinnis

Competition in East

If Georgia knew how talented it was, it would win the SEC East every year.

The Bulldogs recruit studs at all position groups, but have not won a championship since 2005. Under Mark Richt (2001-15), Georgia was a steady eight to 10-win team but overall it equals the Los Angeles Clippers of the National Basketball Association – being a team that struggles with advancing from good to great.

“We’re too young.”

This was Tennessee’s excuse the last four years under Butch Jones. He built up a ton of hype going into the 2016 season, having Volunteer fans believe their time had finally come.

With a quarterback in Joshua Dobbs and a fearsome defense led by Derek Barnett, media outlets pegged the Vols as winners of the SEC East, the conference championship and one of the four seeds in the College Football Playoff. Unfortunately, the orange and white checkered board fell flat on its face. Tennessee limped to a 9-4 year after a 5-0 start, including a 45-34 stunning loss to Vanderbilt. Replacing the talent that he was supposed to win it all with is going to be difficult for Jones and his staff. To add more insult to injury, it’s been the two inconsistent teams offensively in Florida and Missouri that have represent the East twice in the SEC Championship Game during Jones’ tenure at Rocky Top.

Give Jim McElwain credit on getting the Gators to two SEC title game appearances, but the quarterback play in Gainesville (Fla.) has been stale since 2007 Heisman winner, Tim Tebow. Will Grier could have been special in 2015; however, the world will never know after he was dismissed from the program for taking Performance Enhancing Drugs or PED’s. Florida is hoping that Notre Dame transfer, Malik Zaire is the answer to its problems under center.

South Carolina and Vanderbilt are emerging fast, yet both programs need a few more pieces to really make a legitimate run. As for Missouri, it has responded to Barry Odom being the successor of Gary Pinkel. Drew Lock had a bounce back year at quarterback, chiming in with 3,399 passing yards and 23 touchdowns to 10 picks on a 55 percent completion mark in 2016.

Both Damarea Crockett at running back and J’Mon Moore at wide receiver are game changers on offense, but defense is what ultimately wins this conference. The departure of Charles Harris leaves 12.5 sacks returning from last season and six interceptions back on the roster. Missouri has to acquire or demand more firepower to grow on defense, before it goes about its business.


Swagger has return to the “Big Blue Nation” in football, and what was once a floormat is starting to push back.

Inconsistent play from the more well-run teams in the SEC East is opening the door for Kentucky to make an actual statement. It has taken Mark Stoops a while to get all his recruits in a row to fit his system, but now it seems as though the process has fallen into place. Talent, experience, good coaching and an unpredictable division is why the Wildcats make the perfect selection to win the East.

Stephen M. Smith is a managing editor and senior writer for Touchdown Alabama Magazine.  You can “like” him on Facebook or “follow” him on Twitter, via @Smsmith_TDALMag.

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Stephen Smith is a 2015 graduate of the University of Alabama. He is a senior writer and reporter for Touchdown Alabama Magazine. He has covered Alabama football for 10+ years and his knowledge and coverage of the Crimson Tide's program have made him among the most respected journalist in his field. Smith has been featured on ESPN and several other marquee outlets as an analyst.

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