Last season: 5-7 (2-6 SEC)
Opener: Sept. 3 vs. Southern Miss (7:30 p.m. on ESPNU)
Fun fact: Kentucky is eight wins shy of collecting the 600th victory in program history. The Wildcats had their 600th loss last season against Florida.
COMING SATURDAY: LSU
It was there for the taking.
After racing out to a 24-7 halftime lead against state rival Louisville last season, the Kentucky Wildcats were just 30 minutes away from their first bowl invitation since 2010. Then came the second half and a colossal collapse that resulted in a 38-24 defeat that clinched a second straight 5-7 record and a third straight losing year under coach Mark Stoops.
"It felt like a lot of the other games where we come so close but we're not able to finish," senior running back Jojo Kemp said last week at SEC media days in Hoover, Ala. "The main motto this year is to finish, finish, finish."
Kentucky has missed out on bowls the past two seasons despite racing out to a 5-1 start in 2014 and a 4-1 start last year. The Wildcats had chances last season in close losses to Florida (14-9), Auburn (30-27) and Vanderbilt (21-17), but they also were waxed by Mississippi State (42-16), Tennessee (52-21) and Georgia (27-3).
Kemp, a 5-foot-10, 200-pounder from DeLand, Fla., was hoping for more positive results when he signed in 2013 as Rivals.com's No. 10 all-purpose back nationally. Kentucky has played 24 conference games since his arrival and won just four.
"Nobody said it was going to be easy competing in the SEC," Kemp said, "and to be successful at Kentucky, you have to do the little things all the time."
Kemp led the Wildcats in rushing as a freshman, collecting 482 yards on 100 carries. He set a career high with 131 yards in an upset of South Carolina as a sophomore and last year rushed for 555 yards, averaging 5.7 yards per carry.
In a 58-10 thumping of Charlotte, which was Kentucky's lone win after Oct. 3, Kemp rushed 11 times for a new career best of 165 yards and three touchdowns.
"What he's meant, number one, is inspiration," Stoops said. "He's a tough guy. He's very inspirational, and he's really grown. That's the biggest thing and the greatest message he can show to our team as he's here and he becomes a leader on this team.
"He has great competition at his position, but he is extremely important to us, and the maturity that he could help our team with is immeasurable."
Kentucky returns nine offensive starters, which does not include Kemp or sophomore quarterback Drew Barker, who replaced Patrick Towles late last year and completed 35 of 70 passes for 364 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. Towles transferred to Boston College after last season, while former Signal Mountain quarterback Reese Phillips left Lexington for longtime Football Championship Subdivision power Montana.
There are six starters back on a defense that ranked 12th last season among SEC teams in yardage allowed (394.2) and 13th in points allowed (27.4).
Kemp and junior Stanley "Boom" Williams give Kentucky a potentially solid 1-2 rushing punch, with Williams having amassed 855 yards last year while averaging 7.1 yards per carry. The obvious key is Barker, who was 6-of-22 passing against Louisville and has untested backups.
The Wildcats have difficult road tests against Florida, Alabama and Tennessee, as well as a tricky home opener against a Southern Miss squad that went 9-5 last season and lost the Heart of Dallas Bowl to Washington. Kentucky has not had a coach miss out on a bowl game each of his first four seasons since John Ray, who went 10-33 from 1969 to '72.
"Not only is this a big year for Coach Stoops, it's a big year for the whole program," Kemp said. "It would mean a lot to get to a bowl this year. However we do it, I'm going to be happy. We want to change the culture around Kentucky football.
"We've been working so hard for this moment."
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.