New coach Mark Stoops seeks to pull the Wildcats out of the SEC East cellar with an improved 4-3 style defense and by pursuing higher-level recruits, but he faces as complete a rebuilding job as can be found in any BCS conference. The bar, to be sure, has to be set low. Last year's Kentucky team was bad even by its own standard, going winless in conference play and allowing at least 27 points in all 10 of its losses.
The quarterback play has been a relative disaster as well. Stoops' early recruiting efforts have drawn rave reviews, but he's months from closing those deals, and years from reaping any benefits from them. Offensive lineman Larry Warford, a third-round pick of the Detroit Lions, was the only UK player drafted off last year's team. The Wildcats have a few other linemen on hand who may merit a shot at the NFL, but none are expected to be high picks.
Top senior prospect
LB Avery Williamson: The Wildcats' middle linebacker is far and away their top pro prospect. His productivity was largely unmatched in the SEC last season with 135 tackles on the year. Williamson (6-foot-3, 240 pounds) filled holes against the run game nicely and shows very good instincts for screens and misdirection by the offense. Williamson made only 4.5 tackles for loss of his 135 stops, which is indicative of how easily opposing offensive lines controlled UK's D-line. He is also what NFL clubs look for as a community leader.
DL Alvin Dupree: After spending last season at linebacker, Dupree moves up to handle an end spot for Stoops in 2013. His 12.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks last year led the Wildcats. The former high school tight end may not be as heavy as NFL clubs prefer defensive linemen to be (6-4, 254), but he may only need a year there to draw scouts' full attention. Dupree is ready for the transition.
P Landon Foster: Averaged 42.9 yards per punt as a freshman last year, and downed 13 punts inside the 20-yard line. If he adds a bit more distance and maintains consistency, he'll have a chance to go late in the 2016 draft.
DB Ashely Lowery: Marginal prospect who has shown promise at strong safety. Made 43 stops last year in an injury-shortened season. Lowery was involved in a serious car accident earlier this year, but made a quick recovery.
OL Darrian Miller: UK's returning starter at left tackle, Miller (6-5, 288), a junior, started every game last year. Saw some action at tight end his freshman season in 2011. Not an early-entry candidate, but a name to watch for 2015.
DL Donte Rumph: The defensive tackle made 36 tackles last year with six for loss and four sacks. At 6-3, 323 pounds, he is big enough to clog the middle of the field. He's the nephew of Alabama defensive line coach Chris Rumph.
OL Zach West: A 6-4, 312-pound sophomore guard who should be one of UK's top performers up front this season. Started every game last year on the left side.
Three must-see games of 2013
Sept. 14 vs. Louisville: This in-state rivalry has gone Louisville's way for the last two years, but Kentucky has won four of the last six. Look for the Cardinals to make it three in a row with a vast edge at quarterback.
Nov. 9 vs. Missouri: New coach Mark Stoops' defensive background is expected to bring UK more of an identity on that side of the ball. Against Missouri's hurry-up, no-huddle attack, Stoops' defense will be well-tested in a winnable game.
Nov. 30 vs. Tennessee: Not many of Stoops' realistic opportunities in his first year would do more to ingratiate him with UK fans than a rare win over the Volunteers.