Kentucky opens the season against Louisiana Monroe at Kroger Field on September 4. The Warhawks travel to Lexington following an 0-10 season with a new head coach in Terry Bowden. The transfer portal and the sting of a winless 2020 campaign have left Bowden searching for playmakers. Let’s be honest here; the Wildcats should win big on opening day. But, the next game on the slate could be an early defining moment for Mark Stoops’ football team and the SEC East race.
I’ve always said that for Kentucky, a season’s worth can be identified in the “Battle of the Columbias.” In other words, how the Wildcats fare against Missouri and South Carolina prominently dictates its standing in the SEC East; that trend will continue in 2021. First up is the Missouri Tigers. Eliah Drinkwitz led UM to a 5-5 record in his first season including a 20-10 win over Kentucky.
The Cats dropped a contest they should have won; however, their offensive ineptitude is what really aggravated the Big Blue Nation. The Tigers featured a capable and escalating freshman quarterback that annoyed Brad White’s SEC-leading pass defense for four quarters. To say that UK was ineffective on the offensive side of the football would be an understatement. The Wildcats managed just eight first downs and 145 total yards. Time of possession numbers were equally as ugly; Missouri held a 43:10 to 16:50 advantage. In summary, the Tigers controlled the football game in every statistical category and earned its first win against the Cats in five seasons.
Missouri returns four of its five starting offensive linemen to block for sophomore quarterback Connor Bazelak. I’m a lot higher on the Tiger quarterback than most. His calmness in the pocket and quick processing aided the signal caller to complete 67.3% of his passes. The one-time UK recruiting target threw for 2,366 yards and 7 touchdowns in 2020’s shortened ten-game season. Longtime starting running back Larry Roundtree departs Columbia, Missouri after rushing for 3,720 yards and 40 touchdowns. Tyler Badie will be the Tigers’ feature back going forward.
Missouri finished 2020 averaging 26.7 points and 402 total yards per game. It rushed for 135 yards and passed for 266 per contest a year ago. Receiver Damon Hazelton is gone, but UM returns Keke Chism and Jalen Knox to form a formidable pass-catching duo.
The Tigers lost linebacker Nick Bolton to the NFL. Bolton dominated the contest against UK in 2020. The Tiger defense returns a pair of defenders that have caused havoc to opposing offenses in Kobie Whiteside and Trajan Jeffcoat. The defense will have a new play caller in 2021. Steve Wilks returns to the college football after 14 seasons in the NFL including a one-year stint as the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals.
2020 saw Missouri allow 32.3 points and 408 total yards per game. In spite of having two safeties (Tyree Gillespie and Joshuah Bledsoe) selected in the NFL Draft, the Tigers intercepted just four passes in 2020. The Red Zone was another statistical category that highlighted defensive struggles after finishing 12th in the SEC.
The Kentucky game is equally as important to the Tigers. They should be favored in five of their first six outings in 2021. A pivotal matchup in Lexington looms large for Drinkwitz in year two. Perusing Missouri media outlets reveals a fan base that feels that it should beat the Wildcats on an annual basis. Sound familiar?
What Does All This Mean?
Kentucky and Missouri will face off in a week-two contest that could project to the overall finish in the SEC East. Fall camp is vital for both. For the Tigers, replacing starters at safety and Nick Bolton will be a focal point for first-year defensive coordinator Steve Wilks. Developing second year quarterback Connor Bazelak into a legitimate upper-echelon SEC signal caller will be a priority for Drinkwitz.
Both teams should cruise in week one. Kentucky takes on Louisiana Monroe while UM faces Central Michigan. Don’t expect the Tigers or Wildcats to expose a great deal on September 4. Both teams will have new play callers that will square off at Kroger Field. UK will feature first-year offensive coordinator Liam Coen against new Mizzou defensive coordinator Steve Wilks. Both have NFL backgrounds. An opening game chess match could mask each team’s intent for the conference opener. I get more and more excited about the September 11 matchup.
Both the Cats and Tigers desperately need a week-two win. Kentucky finished the 2020 season with a 41-18 win over South Carolina and a 23-21 victory over 23rd ranked North Carolina State in the Gator Bowl. Mizzou lost its last two games of 2020 after falling 49-14 to Georgia before getting rolled by Mississippi State 51-32. UK will be looking for payback after an ugly, ugly loss in Columbia. Mizzou finished third in the SEC a year ago and will seek to continue its rise. There will be a great deal of intrigue and anticipation leading up to kickoff. Kentucky has announced that full crowds will return to Kroger Field in 2021. A boisterous home-field advantage could benefit the Wildcats.
Hurry up, football season.