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Kentucky Wildcats preview

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Kentucky hopes for more production from QB Patrick Towles. Andy Lyons/Getty Images

For a glorious six games last year, Kentucky looked bowl-bound. Then the Wildcats went winless in their final six. Some promising young talent (26 redshirt freshmen) should make a difference, but scratching out the first winning season in Lexington since 2009 will nonetheless be a chore.

Offense

How the Wildcats beat you: Shannon Dawson, a disciple of Hal Mumme’s Air Raid offense, takes over as the Wildcats’ offensive coordinator after four years at West Virginia. Dawson’s aim for this team? Be as physical as it is fast. That charge will be led by Kentucky’s versatile stable of running backs, particularly Stanley “Boom” Williams and Jojo Kemp, and what the Wildcats hope will be an improved line with four starters returning. Patrick Towles has to hold off redshirt freshman Drew Barker for the starting QB job, but Towles was a pleasant surprise last fall and should be able to handle a heavier load in his second full season as the starter.

How you beat the Wildcats beat you: Towles’ production waned during Kentucky’s six-game losing streak. Often, he simply didn’t have enough time to make anything happen; other times, he rushed his decision-making. The Wildcats don’t have the muscle on the offensive line or playmaking at receiver to make up for negative plays, which means first downs will be vitally important. During the losing streak, Towles threw just 4 TD passes and was sacked 23 times. Kentucky hopes to have more deep threats in 2015, but defenses will load up to stop the run and force Towles to prove he can make them pay.

Defense

How the Wildcats beat you: With star pass rushers Alvin “Bud” Dupree and Za’Darius Smith having departed, a combined 25 sacks from the past two seasons is gone. Kentucky plans to mix in some four-man and three-man fronts and hopes junior Jason Hatcher and redshirt freshman Denzil Ware can provide the same kind of pressure. Other than Dupree and Smith, just about everybody else on defense returns, so the Wildcats should be less susceptible to busted assignments and giving up explosive plays. They should be particularly strong up the middle, with 2014 standouts Josh Forrest and Ryan Flannigan returning at linebacker and A.J. Stamps back at safety.

How you beat the Wildcats: While Kentucky will look to bring pressure from different angles, it’s unclear whether the Wildcats can rush the passer without having to sell out and blitz, especially with Dupree and Smith no longer around. And if Kentucky winds up in a lot of single coverage in the secondary, it could be disastrous. The Wildcats gave up 157 points in their final three games last year and were torched for more than 40 points in five of their last six (they averaged 31.3 on the season). They simply ran out of gas on defense last season, and a big part of that was a lack of depth.