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Young football Wildcats might be better than we think

Big Blue Nation, make your bowl plans now!

They should include a flat screen, recliner, beverage and salty snacks – because your favorite team won’t quite get there this season. But you WILL smile on several occasions over the next three months of football-saturated Saturdays. Here’s what’s going to happen:

UT-MARTIN

The Air Raid won’t exactly produce jet streams; in fact, the call here is that the Wildcats run more than they pass in their season opener, which is why their final point total won’t be outrageous. UT-Martin is no 1-AA juggernaut, but the Skyhawks won seven games last season. They’re miles from the putrid Miami (O.) team that came in here last year and took a beat-down from a weak Kentucky squad.

UK’s defense will struggle at times as it tries to learn what to do when Avery Williamson isn’t there with the answer (and a tackle). But both Za’Darius Smith and Bud Dupree will register multiple sacks or TFLs, and the defensive secondary, strengthened by the return of cornerback J.D. Harmon and the addition of junior college safety A.J. Stamps, will actually make an interception, snapping a streak that dates back to Nov. 3, 2012 (Ashely Lowery, at Vanderbilt). (WIN)

OHIO

This is the team that slipped into Commonwealth Stadium on Homecoming Night, 2002, and pulled off the upset that marked the nadir in the Rich Brooks era. It was a Bobcats team so bad that even the upset of a Southeastern Conference opponent, on the road, couldn’t save the job of Brian Knorr, who was fired at the end of the season.

Since then, Ohio hired former Nebraska mentor Frank Solich and all he’s done is win. In fact, in OU’s first home game under Solich, the Bobcats upset Pitt in overtime. They’ve been to six bowl games in the past seven years.

One of them included a blowout loss to Troy, in the 2010 New Orleans Bowl. The Trojans were running a spread offense, which had been installed by former coordinator (and ex-UK assistant) Tony Franklin. After the game, Solich decided to scrap his power offense and sent his assistants to Alabama, to confer with the Troy staff and learn the spread.

That means the Cats vs. Cats matchup on Sept. 6 in Lexington could be a shootout. It says here, the home team will win because it has more talent, thanks to the last two recruiting classes. (WIN)

@FLORIDA

As these fingers type, the Gators are undefeated. They may have to stay that way to make Florida fans forget about last year’s 4-8 debacle. It’s clear the ones shouting for coach Will Muschamp’s scalp likewise have forgotten about the freakish string of injuries that literally crippled his team.

But Gator Nation never has warmed to Muschamp’s style of an offense that grinds its way to just enough points to let the defense lock things down.

Kentucky has improved its talent level, but asking a young team to win in the Swamp would be something of a reach. (LOSS)

VANDERBILT

Temple 37, Vandy 7 on Thursday night. And Commodores fans had to sit through a rain delay to watch it.

If the ‘Dores make a gift of seven turnovers to the Wildcats, Kentucky will produce a similar result. Not likely to happen, but it says here that Vandy has slipped enough, and UK similarly has risen, to reverse the outcome of last year’s 22-6 snore-fest in Nashville. (WIN)

LOUISIANA-MONROE

Back in the bad old days (I know – there have been so many), ULM, which was known then as Northeast Louisiana, came into Commonwealth Stadium and beat a Kentucky team that would finish 1-10. This happened in 1994, as the season was limping to a close.
The game ended with speedy Clyde Rudolph, the end zone in sight, was tripped up at the two-yard line. NE Louisiana, which had just moved up to the college football big-time, owned its first win over a 1-A team, 21-14.

The Warhawks rang up another memorable victory in their season opener this past Thursday night, by spilling Wake Forest of the ACC, 17-10 in Monroe. It’s another pelt they can hang on their wall, next to the win over the Cats and the shocking upset they pulled off of then-#8 Arkansas in 2012, not to mention a win over Alabama in 2007.

And while a victory over an ACC opponent is nice, it will be tougher to go on the road against a team from the SEC. The ‘Hawks, picked to finish 5th in the Sun Belt, will not repeat the magic of ’94. (WIN)

@LSU

You’ve seen Les Miles, in one of those interminable spots endlessly running on the SEC Network, chugging down what looks like a green-grass smoothie, a nod to his odd habit of chewing on a blade of grass from whatever playing surface his team is on that day (I always wonder what he does when they’re playing on artificial turf). The Tigers coach has fielded another team that’s deep, strong and talented and yet, getting precious little mention from the preseason prognosticators when it comes to the SEC West.

One of the reasons may be Miles’ decision to play it coy when it comes to the quarterback position. Zach Mettenberger was LSU’s trigger-man last year, but he’s moved on and Miles has implied he’ll use a two-QB system, with Brandon Harris and Anthony Jennings sharing the job.

Whoever is taking the snaps, he’ll be surrounded by more talent than the Wildcats have and they’ll be playing in Death Valley. Once again, UK will be asking a tender, young team to pull off an upset in one of the nation’s toughest venues. (LOSS)

MISSISSIPPI STATE (Homecoming)

When UK fans pull out the marking pen and begin checking off teams they think the Cats can beat, inevitably they put an X next to Vandy and whatever Mississippi teams dot the schedule.

As we saw Thursday night, it’s just as well that Ole Miss is not on the worksheet this season (Rebels 35, Boise State 13). But Mississippi State is one of Kentucky’s permanent opponents from the western division and lately, the Dogs have owned the Cats. MSU has beaten UK five straight times and is one victory away from evening the series at 21 victories apiece.

Twice during the Rich Brooks era, a decision over the Bulldogs made the difference in the Wildcats snagging a bowl bid. An upset this year could launch Kentucky toward post-season play. But it’s not likely to happen.

Quarterback Dak Prescott started seven games last year in relief of the injured Tyler Russell. Prescott himself had come into the season off an injury and the word is, his passing is worlds better now than it was last season. Add to that the fact that he led State in rushing with 751 yards – the guy is a load.

Folks in Starkville say MSU’s defense is the deepest it’s been since Mullen took over; it needs to be, if it’s going to compete with the likes of Alabama, LSU and Auburn – 36-3 against State since 2000.
It says here, the Bulldogs will overpower the younger, thinner Cats in what could be one entertaining game. (LOSS)

@MISSOURI

The last time Kentucky visited the Tigers, Joker Phillips and his staff were coaching for their jobs. It was a Mizzou team that had suffered some key injuries and was ripe for a homefield loss, but the Cats just couldn’t get it done.

Missouri followed up that season, its first in the SEC, with last year’s remarkable run – a 12-2 record, the SEC East title and a win over Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl.

Quarterback Maty Mauk came off the bench for the injured James Franklin and led the Tigers to an impressive win over Georgia, then proceeded to go 3-1 as a starter, with wins over Florida, Tennessee and the Wildcats. He’s back and ready to direct the offense, although Mizzou lost considerable talent from its defense, including defensive linemen Kony Ealy and Michael Sam, both NFL draft picks.

It’s not as daunting a challenge as the trip to Baton Rouge, but it says here, these Tigers also survive a visit from the Wildcats. (LOSS)

GEORGIA (Senior Day)

Kentucky has pulled off a couple of pleasing upsets (aren’t they all?) against the Bulldogs over the past few years, knocking off Matthew Stafford’s UGA team in 2006 en route to Brooks’ first bowl game with UK, and then again in Athens in 2009, on the way to Joker Phillips’ only bowl appearance as the Cats’ head coach.

What’s key here is the fact that those were the only two victories in a span of 17 seasons. Georgia has a strong program and annually contends in the SEC East. This year will be no different. In fact, A&M did the Dawgs a huge favor by whipping the Head Ball Coach and the Gamecocks, hanging a home SEC loss on the Eastern division favorites.

By the time Kentucky and the Bulldogs hook up, Georgia could be playing for a slot in the SEC championship game. And it’ll be a UGA team featuring Heisman darkhorse Todd Gurley at tailback and a defensive front seven that could be the best in the SEC, operated by new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.

Senior Day, it says here, will sting. (LOSS)

TENNESSEE

This is why the sting will fade quickly.

Butch Jones is trying to return the Volunteers to the glory days, when UT football was a national brand, not unlike Notre Dame, Southern Cal and their arch-rival, Alabama. He has a long way to go, but he started the right way – with recruiting. And that’s a good thing, because the Vols lost all their starters from both their offensive and defensive lines. When they line up at Neyland Stadium with Utah State Saturday, it will be the first taste of college football for more than half their starters.

Mix in a brutal schedule and it could be another tough season on the banks of the Tennessee River. Two weeks after the opener, the Volunteers visit Oklahoma, then Georgia; then it’s a home date with Florida. After a non-conference game they get successive matchups with Ole Miss, Alabama and South Carolina.

There may not be much left of the Orange by the time the Wildcats come to town. That’s why the prediction here is for the first victory for Kentucky in Knoxville since 1984. (WIN)

LOUISVILLE

As much as I’ve espoused the virtues of this game happening on Opening Weekend, this would have been a great year for it to come in Week 3 for the young Wildcats, as well as the Cardinals, who are in their first season of Bobby Petrino 2.0. And it’s their first year minus QB Teddy Bridgewater.

Even so, this one would favor Louisville and may come down to which team is healthier after a long grind. If Patrick Towles has the kind of season Neal Brown is hoping he produces within the Air Raid offense, the Kentucky aerial attack could produce enough points to pull the upset.

On the other hand, if new starting QB Will Gardner, a strong-armed, 6-foot-5 sophomore, blossoms under Petrino, UK’s defense could have a long day ahead of it. The only Kentucky team to beat Petrino was the 2009 Wildcats, when he was in his first season at Arkansas and had not yet brought in the type of players that fit his offense.

This could be a game that separates Kentucky from a bowl game and an off-season of “what if?” Home field advantage could make the difference. (LOSS - and a tough one)

That’s how it looks from here. Victories in four of their first five games will galvanize Stoops, his troops and the Big Blue Nation. It also will help launch Vince Marrow and the rest of the recruiting staff on another productive treasure hunt for talent.

The win total will include that upset victory in Knoxville, which could make a loss at Louisville easier to swallow. And another upset somewhere (perhaps at U of L) would send the Wildcats and their fans to a bowl game – the kind that probably shouldn’t even exist, but would be a welcome sight to the Big Blue Nation in December.

(Dick Gabriel is in his 25th season with the UK Radio/TV Network. He can be heard Monday-Friday on the Big Blue Insider at 6 pm on 630 WLAP-AM.)


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