Quick, now: Who’s going to win – UK or Western Kentucky? Wildcats or Hilltoppers? Big Blue or Big Red?
If you’re made of Big Blue Nation timbre, you likely are picking Your Heroes. And that’s understandable, given the hype surrounding the new head coach and the schemes he has installed. And let’s not forget, it’s a Southeastern Conference team versus a team from the Sun Belt.
Of course, that was the same matchup in last year’s season opener and it didn’t work out so well for the Cats, who fell at home, 32-31 in overtime.
But even on a neutral site in Nashville, you’d have to think Kentucky would be the favorite over the upstart from Bowling Green. Only consider this:
The best offensive player on the field, based on pre-season accolades, could be wearing red. Same for the top man on defense. And the best offensive lineman could be a ‘Topper. So could the best defensive back.
Still like your chances?
The aforementioned UK coaching staff will feature a rookie at both the top spot and the defensive coordinator position, although the head coach is a seasoned veteran when it comes to making decisions under fire on the defensive side of the ball. And UK’s offensive coordinator is a proven commodity. But when it comes to players, it’s obvious the Hilltoppers have good ones.
Football is a numbers game and by all accounts, the Wildcats are deeper, especially on the defensive front. They’ll need to find ways to shut down WKU tailback Antonio Andrews, a third-team pre-season All-American according to The Sporting News and a member of four different award watch lists. It was Andrews who executed the throwback pass to quarterback Kawaun Jakes in overtime last year to score a two-point conversion and pull off the upset of the Cats at Commonwealth Stadium. It capped off a night that saw him rush for 125 yards and three touchdowns.
One of his blockers once again will be center Sean Conway, a fifth-year senior currently on the Rimington Award watch list. Donte Rumph, Mister Cobble and company need to make sure he has a miserable evening in the Music City.
On defense, whoever is starting at quarterback for Kentucky will be staring at a middle linebacker who is on five different award watch lists, including the Butkus Award – senior Andrew Jackson. Behind him will be safety Jonathan Dowling, on the watch list for the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the nation’s top defensive back. Dowling picked off UK QB Max Smith three times in last year’s game.
Also in WKU’s defensive backfield is Tyree Robinson, a first-team All-SBC pick, giving Western Kentucky two all-stars at a position that will be tested by Kentucky’s new Air Raid attack.
Throw in six other ‘Toppers who garnered some sort of pre-season ink, and you can see why this is a dangerous matchup for UK’s new coaching staff (by comparison, Kentucky had only two players, linebacker Avery Williamson and defensive end Bud Dupree, who showed up on any sort of pre-season all-conference squad. Punter Landon Foster is on the Ray Guy Award watch list).
Of course, WKU has a new staff as well, only the Hilltoppers’ head man knows something about season openers. Bobby Petrino is 8-0 in that department, and as the head coach at Louisville, was 4-0 against the Wildcats. Kentucky fans do have sweet memories of the last time their team faced a Petrino-coached ballclub: Oct. 18, 2008, when quarterback Mike Hartline twice found wide receiver Randall Cobb with touchdown passes in the closing minutes, giving the Cats a 21-20 victory over Arkansas.
The Cats can not afford to fall behind Western Kentucky, as they did that frigid October night against Petrino’s Razorbacks. Nor can they let the ‘Toppers hang around, as they did last year, thanks to a porous defense and four turnovers, which allowed WKU to dominate time of possession (36 minutes to 24 minutes).
Last season, the Big Red showed that if you give it enough opportunities to win, it will seize one and make you pay. And that it has the personnel to do it. Kentucky can not make that mistake again.
(Dick Gabriel is in his 24th year with the UK TV and Radio network, and can be heard each Monday-Friday at 6 p.m. on The Big Blue Insider, on 630 WLAP-AM. )