Well people, we finally did it. After months of summer, of a slow news cycle filled with commentary about LeBron James dunking at his son’s AAU games, and LeBron James embracing Taco Tuesday and LeBron James… well, you get the point. College football was finally back Saturday. And not a moment too soon. As riveting as “Taco Tuesday” commentary is, it was nice to have actual games to watch and talk about these past few days.
And as it pertains to the people who frequent this website, it was an ultra-productive Saturday afternoon for Kentucky, as – unlike so many of their SEC brethren – the Wildcats won, and won convincingly in their opener against Toledo.
And with that win, it leads us to one of the greatest traditions in all of sports: Aaron’s Week 1 “Observations from an Outsider.”
Yes, I’m kidding when I say that it’s one of the great traditions in sports, but since I started working for KSR, I have shared my Week 1 observations every season. And – with absolutely no basketball to discuss – it seemed like a good time to bring it back.
To be clear, this article isn’t me claiming to be some sort of Kentucky football expert (I leave that to my main man Nick Roush) but instead, these are simply things that I observed while sitting on my couch and watching on Saturday like the rest of you.
So what did I see? Here are eight things:
Terry Wilson is a Completely Different QB In the Pocket
If you watched UK football at all last year (and I know everyone reading this article did), it’s no secret that Terry Wilson’s greatest weapon was his ability to make plays with his legs. It was also clear watching Saturday that Toledo knew this, and that their No. 1 priority was to keep Wilson contained, and not let him beat them with any big runs. To their credit, they did. He finished with one-yard rushing on nine carries.
That’s also what makes Saturday’s result so wild: If you’d told me before the game that Wilson would have a total of one-yard rushing, I’d assume the Wildcats would be in trouble. Instead, it was the opposite, as they cruised to a win.
Which leads me to my biggest takeaway from Saturday: Wilson is a completely different guy in the pocket passing the ball.
Now look, I don’t want to pretend to be Tony Romo here and start talking about coverages or schemes or any of that. But what I can tell you is that Wilson seemed more conformable in the pocket than he was last year, took what the defense gave him, and his accuracy is clearly way improved. Besides the obvious (that whole “19 of 26 passing” thing) he had a bunch of throws that were right on point, including most obviously, that deep touchdown pass to Bryce Oliver in the third quarter. Heck his best pass of the game might have been a beautiful dart to Lynn Bowden, when Bowden couldn’t quite keep his feet in bounds.
Will Wilson be able to keep up his success in the pocket? Only time will tell. But if he can, it adds a whole new dynamic to the Kentucky offense. Can you imagine how much more dangerous UK can be overall if defenses know that they have to protect against the deep ball, as well as the Wildcats’ running backs and Wilson running?
That’s scary. And also, very much a reality if Wilson can continue to play the way he did on Saturday.
There’s Plenty to Like in This Year’s Running Back Group
Look, we all knew it was going to be impossible to replace Benny Snell this season. You can’t simply say “next man up” when you’re talking about one of the greatest running backs in school history, after all.
That’s why I also liked the approach the Kentucky coaching staff took on Saturday: Rather than trying to replace Snell with one guy, they gave three players a chance to get major carries – AJ Rose, Chris Rodriguez and Kavosiey Smoke (forgive me for being the 8,687th percent to say “Mannnnnn is Kavosiey Smoke a cool name.” I wish my parents had named me that). All three showed flashes on Saturday and all three clearly bring something slightly different to the table. Rose appears to be the more slender, sleek back, Rodriguez most replicates Snell in size and style and Smoke is the home run threat.
Now, what will be interesting to see is how Kentucky uses the backs going forward. Do they try to make one the “featured” back similar to Snell? Or do they continue to get all three involved?
I know that Mark Stoops isn’t asking for my opinion, but I’ve got to say, I hope all three continue to get touches. It’s like I said up top with Wilson, the more versatile this offense can be, the tougher it will be to defend. And what’s tougher than having two or three guys out of the backfield who can make plays? Especially if you’ve got a couple of them on the field at a time?
The answer is “not much.” Which is why it will be interesting to see how Stoops and his staff deploy these backs going forward.
The Size of Kentucky’s Wide Receivers Could Be an Ex-Factor This Season
Outside of Wilson’s presence in the pocket, the one thing that surprised me the most Saturday was the size and physicality of Kentucky’s wide receivers. Lynn Bowden is obviously the exception here (his speed and skill, certainly not his size stands out) but it seemed like basically everyone else that Kentucky lined up at wide receiver was a monster. Ahmad Wagner (insert your own “all that guy does is draw pass interference calls” jokes here), Allen Dailey Jr. and Keaton Upshaw are all big, physical dudes.
And as we saw against Toledo, all three are going to create matchup problems for defenses. It was obvious against Toledo that the Rockets had no answers for Wagner (other than to grab him and hold on for dear life) and with Bowden and all the skill on the outside, I eventually expect it to open up more opportunities for Upshaw down the middle of the field as well. Also, although we didn’t see it, can you imagine the importance of having size like Kentucky does at wide receiver when they’re in the red zone? After all, who the heck is going to win a jump ball against Wagner?
Point being, the wide receiver group stood out on Saturday and should continue to do so throughout the season.
The Defense is Coming Together – And I Liked the Individual Talent
While I know there were some frustrations with fans about the effort of the defense on Saturday, overall, I was kind of OK with it. If you take out the first drive of the season (where there were obviously jitters for a bunch of new starters) and one big run from the QB on the second touchdown, Toledo really wasn’t able to do much of anything.
Furthermore, what I really liked was that it appears that, even after losing a bunch of veterans off last year’s team, Kentucky still has playmakers all over the field on that side of the ball. Kash Daniel is an obvious star, and it was awesome to see Josh Paschal out there flying around and making plays after everything he’s been through.
DeAndre Square, Boogie Watson and TJ Carter were other guys that stood out to me.
The Special Teams Were on Point Saturday
Again, I don’t claim to be any X’s and O’s savant, but ask anyone who knows anything about football and they’ll tell you that special teams are the most underrated part of the game. We spend so much time focusing on offense and defense, but how often does a missed field goal, a botched punt or a big return end up as the difference in a game?
So with that, it’s always good to see special teams operating on a high level on opening day, and that was clearly the case on Saturday afternoon. On his only field goal attempt Chance Poore absolutely blasted a 46-yard bomb, and Max Duffy was – and I’m not joking when I say this – maybe Kentucky’s best player on the field Saturday with a 54-yard average on his punts.
Again, I know it’s not sexy to talk about punt yard average or field goal kicking, but they are important to winning games. And Kentucky thrived in both on Saturday.
Now, the One Thing to Improve: Closing Out Games
If I did have one critique or criticism from Saturday it would simply be this: It felt like when Kentucky got a comfortable lead, they took their foot off the gas a little bit. After they went up 24-14 in the middle of the third quarter, and had a chance to really put away the Rockets, they had three straight possessions that ended in a punt or fumble. From there the Wildcats scored twice in the final few minutes so it didn’t end up mattering. But if I had one minor critique it would be that.
And in the end, it was just that: Minor. It’s also kind of understandable. That’s not to make excuses for the Wildcats, but we’ve got to remember that they have a lot of young guys who were playing their first meaningful snaps in college football. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that a lot of the guys on this team were “acting like they’ve never been there before” – mainly because they haven’t been.
So again, it’s something minor to work on, and something I’m sure Mark Stoops has discussed with his team since the end of the game Saturday. Still, despite it, let’s never forget…
A Win Is A Win
As the old saying goes, it doesn’t matter how you get a win, just as long as you get there. Kentucky certainly did that on Saturday afternoon, and it took on added significance as the day wore on and more and more SEC teams simply couldn’t pull out victories.
Sure, it’s easy for anyone (myself included) to say that at times Kentucky looked a bit sloppy or unfocused, but relative to Tennessee or Missouri or South Carolina was it really that bad? You’d rather be 1-0 than 0-1 and in a week from now or a month from now no one is going to remember how Kentucky won. Just that they got the W.
Speaking of Tennessee and Missouri and South Carolina…
Doesn’t the Outlook of Kentucky’s Football Season Look Even Brighter Today Than It Did a Week Ago?
Look, I’m not going to sit here after one week and predict any certain number of wins for Kentucky this season. Especially after a surreal 10-win campaign a season ago.
But after what we saw on Saturday – not just from Kentucky, but from the rest of the SEC – shouldn’t optimism be even higher for the Wildcats? It seems so.
Again, I’m not predicting anything. But it’s clear that right now Tennessee is a mess, South Carolina is a mess (and Kentucky always beats them anyway) and Missouri probably isn’t as good as any (myself included) thought in the preseason. Even though they both won, neither Mississippi State or Arkansas (Kentucky’s two opponents from the SEC West) looked very good last weekend, and we’ll see what Louisville does tonight (I’m writing this article before their game against Notre Dame) but the Cardinals are obviously in major rebuild mold. Heck, even Florida didn’t look all that impressive in Week 0. Now again, I’m not predicting a second straight win for Kentucky against the Gators in two weeks, but it certainly feels more likely than it did before Florida’s first game.
Point being, that as great as last season was, there’s no reason to think Kentucky can’t again compete with just about anyone they play all season.
There is a lot to work on after Week 1.
But a lot to like as well.