JOE COX: Can Football Wildcats Handle South Carolina Saturday Night?
Kentucky’s Week 3 had a predictable result, as the Wildcats, favored by around 21 points, won their game with New Mexico State by 20. But the result was the only thing that was predictable. From Drew Barker being injured or reinjured on the game’s third play, to the UK defense again being mauled for over 500 yards and 40 points (third straight week for each), to backup QB Stephen Johnson II passing for over 300 yards and leading the UK offense to almost 700 total yards, there were a bevy of surprises on tap on Saturday in Commonwealth Stadium.
WHERE WE ARE The good? Johnson looked smooth, rolling to 310 passing yards on 17 for 22 throws, including a bomb to Jeff Badet, a dump pass that CJ Conrad took 72 yards for one of his three scores, and some nice work on the run/pass option. Boom Williams ran for 181 yards, and true freshman Benny Snell got some work and showed a nose for the goal line as he ran for 135 yards as a north/south runner who pulled through contact, racking up a record-tying four rushing touchdowns.
The bad? Defense, defense, defense. Kentucky’s front four was awful and middle linebacker Courtney Love has been slow and mechanical. For the second time this season, UK’s secondary got burned in the last minute of the first half on a deep pass. New Mexico State QB Tyler Rogers looked a lot like Lamar Jackson when he ran the read-option, and it’s pretty certain that the only resemblance is that Kentucky couldn’t tackle either of them.
WHO THEY ARE This Saturday’s home contest with South Carolina is the biggest game of the Mark Stoops era. South Carolina plays a true freshman QB, Brandon McIlwain, is led by a freshman running back, A.J. Turner, and their best receiver, Bryan Edwards, is a true freshman. Their best player, LB Skai Moore, suffered a season-ending injury in the summer. Carolina has averaged 16 points and 287 yards per game against Vandy, Mississippi State, and East Carolina. They’re running for 3.1 yards per carry. If UK can’t handle the Gamecocks, who can they hope to handle?
On the other hand, a third straight win over USC, and Kentucky still has a possible path to a respectable season, possibly one ending in bowl eligibility.
WHAT TO EXPECT It looks increasingly like Stephen Johnson will get most or all of the snaps at QB, in which case UK will probably look to establish the run and hit some play-action throws off of the run. Turnovers are pivotal in this game, and so is getting off of the field occasionally. Carolina’s offense is as bad as Kentucky’s defense, so somebody has to get better.
Mark Stoops has often indicated that Kentucky is falling short because they’re still learning how to finish games. It would be a fine time to figure that out. Somehow, my guess is that they do. UK 24, South Carolina 21
AROUND THE CONFERENCE My current power rankings. 1. Alabama (3-0) 2. Texas A&M (3-0) 3. Georgia (3-0) 4. Arkansas (3-0) 5. Tennessee (3-0) 6. Florida (3-0) 7. Ole Miss (1-2) 8. LSU (1-2) 9. Auburn (1-2) 10. Mississippi State (1-2) 11. Missouri (1-2) 12. South Carolina (1-2) 13. Kentucky (1-2) 14. Vanderbilt (1-2)
In week 3, I ended up 9-1, with only Carolina messing me up… and I had them to lose 22-21 and they instead won 20-16. So it was close. 28-7 for the season brings me back to respectable numbers after an awful first week.
My picks for the weekend: Alabama 51, Kent State 10 LSU 24, Auburn 21 Georgia 36, Ole Miss 35 Texas A&M 31, Arkansas 24 Mississippi State 34, UMass 7 Florida 21, Tennessee 20 Missouri 55, Delaware State 3 Kentucky 24, South Carolina 21 Western Kentucky 38, Vanderbilt 10
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.