Today, we begin counting down our top 50 teams in college football for the 2017 season. Each day, we will highlight one team as we count our way down to our preseason number one team in the country. To get us started, we begin our countdown with the Kentucky Wildcats.

Slowly but surely, Kentucky felt the football program was heading in the right direction under head coach Mark Stoops. After back-to-back seasons of just missing out on bowl eligibility by one tiny win, the previously unreachable goal was obtained by Kentucky. Now that the bar has been raised in Lexington, what comes next for Kentucky in 2017?

A bowl game is probably to be expected of the Wildcats, but a run to a division title in the SEC East is still a bit far-fetched. Right?

No. 50 Kentucky

2016 Record: 7-6 overall, 4-4 SEC (lost to Georgia Tech 33-18 in TaxSlayer Bowl)

Coach: Mark Stoops (26-36)

Last year in a nutshell

(Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)

The 2016 season did not start well for Mark Stoops (just to remind you, there is still a Stoops coaching college football this fall) and his Wildcats. After an 0-2 start to the season that featured a home loss to Southern Mississippi and a blowout loss at Florida, things looked grim out of the gates. But Kentucky kept its head above water in October and played themselves into position to bring an end to a bowl drought. All they needed to do was take down in-state rival Louisville and Heisman Trophy frontrunner Lamar Jackson in the regular season finale, and they did. Kentucky reached its first bowl game since 2010 and now looks forward to taking the next step forward as a program in 2017.

Recruiting Roundup

247 Sports Composite Ranking: 29th

Kentucky brought in one of its best classes under Mark Stoops this past spring, with a class that ranked just ahead of Ole Miss, UNC and, most notably, Louisville. Despite landing a top 30 class, however, Kentucky is still toward the bottom half of the SEC recruiting rankings according to the 247 Sports composite rankings.

The Class of 2017 included seven early-enrollees that got a chance to get started with the team this past spring, but the highlights of the class came later with four-star wide receiver JaVonte Richardson and four-star defensive end Joshua Paaschal. Kentucky pulled three four-star players out of Ohio, including the state’s third-highest-ranked player, Lynn Bowden, who could factor in as a wide receiver.

3 Key Stats

59.52 – Kentucky’s red zone touchdown percentage suggests the Wildcats are leaving a few too many points on the field. That success rate scoring touchdowns inside the opponent’s 20-yard line falls right around the middle of the pack in the SEC. If Kentucky is going to make a push to improve, cashing in on those red zone opportunities a bit more is a good way to go.

44.44 – Kentucky’s opponents converted third downs against the Wildcats 44.44 percent of the time. That was the second-best third-down success rate allowed in the SEC, with only Arkansas having a worse time trying to get off the field.

-7 – Kentucky had the worst turnover margin in the SEC last season with 28 giveaways., but the Wildcats did seem to have the upper hand in ball control later in the season. After a seven-game stretch with a negative turnover margin, Kentucky had a positive turnover margin in all of November.

Make-Or-Break Games of 2017

Sept. 23 vs. Florida

Record in last five meetings: 0-5

Last year’s result: L 45-7

Why it matters: With the wave of optimism surrounding the Kentucky football program in 2017, finally notching a win against Florida for the first time since 1986 would be encouraging. It could also mean Kentucky hangs around in the SEC East title race a little longer than initially expected.

Nov. 25 vs. Louisville

Record in last five meetings: 1-4

Last year’s result: W 41-38

Why it matters: If the last three seasons are any indication, it would not be unreasonable to suggest Kentucky’s bowl fate could be on the line in the regular season finale. But if all goes according to plan, Kentucky will already have bowl eligibility locked up before hosting the Cardinals.

Three Key Players

Stephan Johnson, QB – Jackson has a year under his belt leading the Kentucky offense and should be capable of leading the offense once again this fall. He will have the luxury of playing with an offense that returns some key pieces as well. Kentucky will need a bit more production out of him and a slightly better touchdown-to-interception ratio.

Benny Snell, RB – Look for Snell to be the go-to running back on the ground this fall, although Kentucky has some guys to mix in to change the pace when called for. But Snell will be the primary back to rely on.

Mike Edwards, S – Kentucky’s experienced defensive backfield will be anchored by Edwards. Edwards is one of the SEC’s top safeties, so having him roaming the field is a nice feature for the Wildcats defense.

Bold Predictions

The Wildcats fall short of the first back-to-back wins against Louisville but represent the SEC well with a win in the bowl season. Kentucky also finally gets a long-awaited home win against Florida in September to improve to 4-0 and enters the bye week sitting at 6-0.

About Kevin McGuire

Contributor to Athlon Sports and The Comeback. Previously contributed to Host of the Locked On Nittany Lions Podcast. FWAA member and Philadelphia-area resident.