We are just 20 days from football time in the bluegrass, and in the upcoming weeks, there will be plenty of coverage here at KSR. Just like you, I am ready to get past practice reports and eager to start the football season. So, to break up the string of practice reports, here is a ranking of Kentucky’s toughest opponents this season.
Every year in the SEC, your week 11 opponent is usually the worst team you’ll play on your schedule. Hence the infamous “cupcake week” in the SEC, serving as the last tune-up for your season finale against your biggest rival.
That is no different for UT-Martin. Last year the Skyhawks finished eighth in the OVC with a record of 2-10. With UT-Martin picked to finish sixth in the OVC this year, this will serve as nothing more than an FCS tune-up as the Cats prepare for Louisville on Senior Day at Kroger Field.
Speaking of Louisville, they fall as the next to weakest team Kentucky will play this season. If I would’ve told you this three years ago – hell even two years ago – you would call me insane.
However, this is not a slight to Louisville, the rivalry is better when both teams are good, but the Cardinals football program is a dumpster fire right now. From the 2-10 disaster season last year, and Scott Satterfield even saying he has some of the worst talents in the power five, things don’t look good for the Cards. Kentucky scored at will in Cardinal Stadium last year with a ground and pound team, and with the growing expectation that this year’s offense will be much more explosive, this one could get out of hand quick.
10. Eastern Michigan
Eastern Michigan is just an out of conference tune-up before the Cats hit the meat of their schedule. While they did go to a bowl game last year, the Eagles relied on a spread out rushing attack with six players getting over 45 carries last season. A team that doesn’t have a reliable passing game is the perfect matchup for the Cats.
I expect Kentucky to comfortably take this game in week two.
To be quite frank, Arkansas is by far the worst team in the SEC West. It is huge that Kentucky can get the Hogs at home this season for their 2019 western conference matchup. The Razorbacks went 2-10 last season with a terrible defense, allowing opponents to average 413 yards per game. If Kentucky’s plan to have a prolific offense comes to fruition, they could very easily run it up on the Hogs in Kroger Field.
8. at Vanderbilt
Playing at Vanderbilt is always a huge plus for Kentucky’s schedule. It’s never quite a road game because as we all know, blue gets in.
Vanderbilt hasn’t been good for quite some time, either.
However, one star to keep an eye on for the Commodores is Kesahwn Vaughn, who has a case for best running back in the conference. Fortunately, Vandy’s offensive strength plays right into the strength of Kentucky’s front seven. Last year Kentucky’s defense didn’t face Vaughn, so that will be a fun matchup to watch in Nashville this season.
At the end of the day, Vandy is still Vandy and I expect Kentucky to walk out of Nashville with a victory.
Toldeo is a bit of a tough one, as both sides have huge matchup problems across the board. Earlier this week, Toledo lost starting center Bryce Harris – who was second-team all-Mac last season – which spells bad news for the Rockets. Kentucky’s front seven will be absolutely nasty this season, then you pile on an injury to Toledo’s starting center I fully expect it to be a rough day for the Rockets rushing attack and for Kentucky’s line to disrupt most passing plays.
However, they do run a spread offense which could set up as perfect reps for Kentucky’s young secondary or it could be exposed as an Achilles heel and be disastrous for week one.
This game will be too close for comfort, but I feel like the Cats will handle their business week one.
6. at South Carolina
Kentucky has owned South Carolina in the Mark Stoops era. I repeat, Kentucky has O W N E D South Carolina.
This game means everything to South Carolina. More or less, Kentucky will be their super bowl this season if they want to stay relevant like they so desperately think they are.
With easily the most ridiculous schedule in the nation, South Carolina will have to beat Kentucky to even sniff six wins and for Will Muschamp to keep his job.
But South Carolina just isn’t that good. For the 10th straight season, we will hear about how good Jake Bentley is, but I haven’t seen him doing anything against the Cats that say otherwise. Maybe that changes this year with an inexperienced secondary, but I still expect the secondary to get theirs against Bentley. After all, Bentley has thrown five picks compared to three touchdowns in his two meetings against Kentucky.
In my opinion, this game will be the best performance for the secondary this season, and that will be crucial for a road victory against the Gamecocks.
Tennessee is without a doubt the most unpredictable team on Kentucky’s schedule this season. The Vols went 5-7 last season with the 110th ranked offense in America, but they still embarrassed Kentucky in Knoxville.
Jarrett Gaurantano torched the Cats last season, and when he returns to Lexington for the first time in two years he will be much more improved than the first go around. Gaurantano isn’t in any conversation for the Heisman or best quarterback in the SEC, but the guy can air it out – if that wasn’t already proven last year against the Cats. Kentucky must emphasize the importance of slowing down Tennessee’s passing game, and there’s plenty of time for the secondary to improve before facing the Vols on November 9th.
It’s hard to tell exactly what will happen for Jeremy Pruitt in year two with Vols, but they’ve caught a lot of hype heading into 2019 (go figure). As it stands, this game is a tossup because if we learned anything after last year, the Tennessee game is never a gimmie.
4. at Mississippi State
Last year everyone RAVED about Mississippi State’s defense (even though they couldn’t stop Benny Snell). The Bulldog defense only allowed 15 touchdowns in 13 games last season. Now all of that is gone for the Bulldogs. Mississippi State loses four guys out of their front seven, including three backups.
Mississippi State has predicated themselves on having one of the top defenses in the conference the last few seasons, so there is a standard to reload on the defensive side for the ball. While that may be easier said than done, the Bulldogs do have some redeeming pieces coming back especially in their secondary.
The bulldog secondary might be one of the best in the conference with upperclassmen Cam Danlzer and Maurice Smitherman patrolling the air attack for the Bulldogs, but as a team that relied upon run defense last year, it will be interesting to see what this defense looks like going into to their October matchup with the Cats.
While it’s not for certain what their defense will look like this season, one thing is for certain, and that is their offense is atrocious. As of right now, they have no QB1 and even with Nick Fitzgerald at the helm last season the Bulldogs could barely muster 200 yards in their first two conference games last season.
With Kylin Hill being the big name returning for the Bulldogs, I can’t foresee Mississippi State getting any sort of explosive plays against Kentucky’s front seven, despite the Bulldogs having one of the best O-lines in the SEC.
This game is on the road, which doesn’t help, even though Mark Stoops has somewhat eradicated the fear of losing every game played on the road in conference. However, he has never won in Starkville. This season would be a good time to do it.
Missouri will be an interesting team to keep an eye on in 2019. Even though they are serving a bowl ban, this team still has some talent all through their roster and let’s not forget the Tigers finished inside the top 20 last season. Missouri’s schedule is backloaded, so there is a real chance the Tigers can waltz into Kroger Field at 6-1 in late October.
The Tigers did lose Drew Lock, but they brought in highly-touted Clemson transfer Kelly Bryant, who is the second-best quarterback Kentucky will face this season. However, Bryant’s play makes him a glorified game manager more or less, and with Missouri returning 1,000-yard rusher Larry Roundtree, it could be the case that Missouri is very run-heavy which only plays into the strength of Kentucky’s defense.
On defense, Missouri returns a lot of their production. Most notably linebacker and leading tackler Cale Garrett, along with two studs in the secondary; Demarcus Acy and Christian Holmes. While this defense allowed 388 yards a game, this was a defense that had Kentucky’s number in that wild finish in Columbia last season. Kentucky’s supposedly more prolific offense going against the defense that shut them down last year will be an interesting watch at Kroger Field. You have to know Lynn Bowden will at the top of every scouting report for the Tigers.
Believe it or not, the second-toughest game on Kentucky’s schedule is VERY winnable. The weight for Kentucky to beat Florida is finally off their shoulders. Kentucky should come into a packed Kroger Field feeling loose and ready to start their own streak against the Gators.
However, Dan Mullen offenses tend to rely on the play of his quarterback, so the young secondary will have a big test early. Personally, I have never been huge on Franks, but he improved a lot towards the end of last season as he led the Gators to their first New Years six bowl since its inception. Throwing for 24 touchdowns and six interceptions last season, Franks will be much scarier this time around in Lexington.
If Kentucky wants to beat the Gators for the second straight year, the defensive backs will REALLY need to step up for this game.
On defense, the Gators will be much improved in year two with Todd Grantham. The Gators return two studs in the secondary with CJ Henderson and Marco Wilson and have some beasts on the front seven like David Reese, Jabari Zuniga, and Adam Schuler. However, Stoops has had Grantham’s number over the last few seasons, just point to Louisville in 2016 and Florida last year. There’s a big question mark at linebacker for the Gators this season which can make the middle of the field susceptible for opposing offenses.
If Kentucky involves the tight ends as they have in fall camp, they could have a field day against the Gators over the middle. Incorporate some more RPOs and Kentucky will be in a slobber knocker with the Gators in week three.
1. at Georgia
This one should come as no surprise. Since Kirby Smart took over in 2016, Georgia has quickly become the Alabama of the SEC East. This year will be no different. The Dawgs return Heisman darkhorse Jake Fromm – who is arguably the best quarterback in the East – and a slew of running backs including junior D’andre Swift who led the Bulldogs in rushing with 1,049 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Fortunately for Kentucky’s young secondary, they return virtually nothing at wide receiver, but as it was proven last year, Georgia’s rushing game can dismantle any team. Surely a Bulldog will emerge on the outside for Fromm this season, presumably senior Tyler Simmons, but if Kentucky wants to have a chance to beat Georgia between the hedges, their defense must play to their strength and shut down the run. It’s no easy feat though.
It’s okay to be pessimistic for this one.
All in all, Kentucky has a chance to 11 games on their schedule. Will they win all 11, surely not, but knowing there is an opportunity for another seven-win season on the table is huge for a team going in the right direction.
Enough guessing games, can we just kickoff already?