Kentucky hopes third try finally pays off with bowl bid
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) Two straight years coming up short of a bowl bid have the Kentucky Wildcats eager to seize the opportunity this season.
Reaching the six-win threshold, though, won't be an easy task after a pair of 5-7 seasons.
The schedule is more well-balanced than in the past, and the backload of games against highly-regarded opponents may pave the way for that bowl-eligible sixth win.
''It gets frustrating, but you can't dwell on the past,'' Kentucky running back Stanley ''Boom'' Williams said. ''We made some critical mistakes (in the past) that cost us, but that's what we have the offseason (for), so we can learn from those mistakes and can better ourselves and not make the same mistakes this year.''
Kentucky's offense will look different in many ways.
Sophomore Drew Barker is now the quarterback in place of Patrick Towles, who has transferred to Boston College. Calmer has overcome several off-field incidents early in his career, and looks to build off a strong spring that earned the starting job.
''I've always been kind of a calm person,'' said Barker, who will run a new pro-style offense. ''I haven't gotten too up or too down and I'm not really an emotional person. I can see that, but sometimes you have to kick it up into a different gear. That's something I have been working on for sure.''
With nine returning starters on offense and 15 back overall, the Wildcats believe they have the personnel and experience to come away with a winning season. They even have the facilities in place - a $45 million training center that might put some NFL complexes to shame.
''I really believe this team has what it takes physically and mentally to take us to the next level,'' coach Mark Stoops said. ''We're up for the challenge.''
Here's what to look for:
DEEP BACKFIELD: Kentucky returns three running backs who rushed for at least 318 yards last season, including speedy team-leader Williams (855 yards, six touchdowns). Also back are Jojo Kemp (555, six TDs) and Mikel Horton (318, three TDs).
OVERHAULED STAFF: The Wildcats have five new assistants: offensive coordinator Eddie Gran; co-coordinator and quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw; Lamar Thomas (receivers); Matt House (special teams) and Steve Clinkscale (defensive backs). Gran, Hinshaw and Clinkscale previously worked together at Cincinnati.
SEASON OPENER: Kentucky's Sept. 3 matchup against Southern Mississippi is important for reasons beyond starting well. With the SEC opener looming the following week at Florida, the Wildcats need this win to avoid a possible 0-2 start along with showing they're headed in the right direction. USM is coming off a bowl appearance and debuts offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson, who held the same job at Kentucky last season.
KEY GAMES: Kentucky plays a nationally-televised game at Florida on Sept. 10 and travels to defending national champion Alabama on Oct. 1. A tough three-game stretch against SEC East foes features a Nov. 5 home contest against Georgia sandwiched between road games at Missouri (Oct. 29) and division favorite Tennessee (Nov. 12).
PREDICTION: Despite another rugged schedule, the Wildcats have enough experience to win their non-conference games and get enough division victories to earn their first bowl bid since 2010.
Follow Gary B. Graves on Twitter: www.twitter.com/GaryBGraves
AP freelance writer Keith Taylor contributed to this report.
College football: www.collegefootball.ap.org