It’s hard to believe when the calendar says August and the thermometer is still up there in the 90s, but college football is almost here.
If you watched my preseason predictions on video, you’ll know I’ve got UK ending up 6-6 and 4th in the SEC East. (And if not, look around on our Web site and/or YouTube and check those out.) But Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium, the rubber will meet the road. Kentucky will be tested by a Southern Miss Golden Eagle team that won nine games last season and is a prohibitive favorite in Conference USA this year. If the fire needed any additional fuel, offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson is a familiar (reviled? Disliked?) face for many UK fans from the offense’s uneven 2015 performance. If Kentucky is indeed going to return to a bowl for the first time since 2010, then one of the six wins almost must come Saturday. So let’s break down the Cats and the Golden Eagles.
WHERE WE ARE Year four of the Mark Stoops reign begins the Drew Barker era. The sophomore QB was so-so in limited 2015 duty, but he has been handed the keys to the offense following the offseason transfer of QB Patrick Towles. Barker has plenty of weapons to work with, from veteran running backs Stanley “Boom” Williams and Jojo Kemp to a stable of established options at receiver and tight end. Kentucky has something of a patchwork offensive line, as true freshman Landon Young is trying to earn his way onto the field. But UK figures to put up some points in 2016.
Defense is a little tougher for Kentucky. Junior defensive tackle Regie Meant left the team and safety Darius West suffered a season-ending injury in fall camp. Kentucky is thin up front and inexperienced both on the defensive line and in the linebacker corps. A solid secondary is a strength, if Mark Stoops can patch together a front seven that can stop the run and bring some heat on opposing quarterbacks.
Kentucky will break in a new punter, but returns veteran field goal kicker Austin MacGinnis, who may become the school’s all-time leading scorer. Various kick and punt return candidates have the skills to make a big play here and there, as well.
WHO THEY ARE Southern Miss won nine games and a division title last season, but lost head coach Todd Monken to the NFL, where he’s the offensive coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. New coach Jay Hopson is from Alcorn State, and is a defensive mind. Which is probably why he called fired UK coordinator Shannon Dawson to run his offense. Dawson has weapons—senior QB Nick Mullens threw for almost 4,500 yards last year and 5’9” running back Ito Smith had over 1,000 rushing yards. Dawson has downplayed the significance of returning to UK, but rest assured that he certainly would like to put up some points on his former boss.
Southern Miss is undersized on the defensive line, but promises to play an aggressive defense designed to wreck Barker’s timing in just his third start at UK. There is also some uncertainty in the kicking game for the Golden Eagles, which could be a turning point in the game.
WHAT TO EXPECT This game looks like a shootout. Vegas favors the Cats by around a touchdown and has an over/under of around 63½, meaning the expectation is for a 35-28 type of game. Kentucky’s potential to field an excellent running game is rarely matched within recent memory. Drew Barker has plenty of weapons, if he can stay upright and in command of his team. Skeptics point at the Kentucky defense, but this should be within Mark Stoops’s wheelhouse. He seemed quietly confident at his weekly press conference, and remarked on the maturity and focus of his team. Southern Miss will test that focus, but I think Kentucky’s offense will win the day, with a big assist to some youngsters up front on defense.
UK 38, Southern Miss 28
AROUND THE CONFERENCE In case you missed it, my preseason predictions:
SEC West Alabama LSU Ole Miss Texas A&M Arkansas Auburn Mississippi State
SEC East Tennessee Florida Georgia Kentucky Missouri Vanderbilt South Carolina
Starting next week, I’ll do a 1-14 ranking of the entire conference.
My picks for the weekend:
Vanderbilt 17, South Carolina 14 Tennessee 48, Appalachian State 24 Alabama 38, Southern Cal 17 LSU 31, Wisconsin 10 Florida State 36, Ole Miss 35 Texas A&M 42, UCLA 21 Arkansas 45, Louisiana Tech 17 Clemson 38, Auburn 13 Mississippi State 42, South Alabama 17 Florida 49, UMass 3 Georgia 34, North Carolina 24 Kentucky 38, Southern Miss 28 West Virginia 31, Missouri 21
Joe Cox is contributing editor for KySportsStyle.com Magazine. He grew up in Letcher County and Bell County, and has written five books, with his most recent, Almost Perfect, to be released in February 2017. Joe is an attorney and lives in Logan County with his wife and children. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.