Rarely has an off-season seemed quite as long as this one for Kentucky football.
Mostly because by Thanksgiving of most seasons, Kentucky is stumbling down the stretch toward a well-deserved rest. In 2016, the Wildcats faltered out of the game, but righted an 0-2 season to a healthy 7-5 mark, featuring an upset of No. 11 Louisville on the road. Kentucky lost the TaxSlayer Bowl to Georgia Tech, but still enters 2017 with more positive momentum than in a decade or more.
That momentum could be enhanced on Saturday, Sept. 2 at Hattiesburg against the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles. Or it could take a precipitous drop. Kentucky came a long way in 2016, but that long way began after the Wildcats opened the season by gagging up a 25-point lead at home to the same team. They open on the road as a 10-point favorite, according to the Vegas oddsmakers.
If the Wildcats’ dreams of contention in the SEC East are to become more than dreams, they cannot afford a stumble on Saturday. The last time played at a non-Power 5 opponent (aside from in-state rival Louisville, who wasn’t always at that level of competition)? 1996, when the Wildcats dropped a 24-3 decision to Cincinnati. Big Blue Nation is certainly hoping that piece of history doesn’t repeat itself.
Where the Wildcats Are
For Kentucky, the identity which emerged down the stretch of 2016 was a power-running philosophy, which saw the Wildcats gain 234 yards per game. The previous high mark for the 2010s was 163 yards per game. With Stanley Williams gone to the NFL, sophomore Benny Snell (1,091 yards, 13 TDs) will carry the load for UK in 2017. Snell will be aided by one or all of a group of speedy backs who will try to fill Williams’s shoes: junior Sihiem King, redshirt freshman A.J. Rose, or true frosh Bryant Koback.
UK’s offensive line was a strength in 2016, and despite the loss of senior Jon Toth and injured tackle Cole Mosier, interior line play still figures to be a team strength in 2017. The passing game is a bit more doubtful, as inconsistent dual-threat QB Stephen Johnson will look to continue his Louisville game production, when he outplayed Heisman winner Lamar Jackson, and to forget games like Vanderbilt, when he passed for a total of 49 yards. Johnson lost deep threat Jeff Badet, but returns senior Garrett Johnson, tight end C.J. Conrad, and adds a group of talented freshmen, including superb athlete Lynn Bowden.
Defensively, the Wildcats will be anchored by a hard-charging secondary, including safety Mike Edwards, who had 100 tackles and eight passes broken up in 2016. Edwards may be the most underrated player in the SEC, and rangy cornerbacks Derrick Baity and Chris Westry add talent and experience to the unit. The front seven is a bit more hit and miss, although middle linebacker Jordan Jones is a star (109 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss in 2016), and pass rushers Denzil Ware (70 tackles, 5.5 sacks) and Josh Allen (62 tackles, 7 sacks) both have big-play ability. How well the interior line can hold may foretell the rest of the season.
Kentucky allowed 500 yards three straight times to open the 2016 season, but did so just twice the rest of the way. Senior kicker Austin MacGinnis was a pivotal weapon in close games, and should be even better this year. Transfer punter Matthew Panton could help juice up the rest of Kentucky’s special teams.
The Scoop on Southern Miss
Southern Miss will be led by senior running back Ito Smith, who ran for 1,459 yards and 17 touchdowns last season, which included gashing Kentucky’s line repeatedly in the second half in Lexington. The Golden Eagles did lose several starters from their offensive line, including all-CUSA center Cameron Tom. USM also returns some excellent receivers, in particular senior Allenzae Staggers (63 receiptions, 1165 yards, 7 TDs in 2016).
However, all-time leading passer Nick Mullens (11,994 yards, more than 4,000 more than some other Southern Miss QB named Favre) is no longer in town, and coach Jay Hopson is being cagey about whether Sophomore Keon Howard and/or senior Kwadra Griggs will take the snaps on Saturday. Neither has much experience.
Defensively, Southern Miss’s top returning tackler is DB Picasso Nelson. Their best returning pass rusher is defensive end Xavier Thigpen (five sacks in 2016), and they’ll be breaking in a pair of new safeties. Junior kicker Parker Shaunfield was 12/14 on field goals in 2016, but the Golden Eagles will be breaking in a new punter.
A single key to this game is probably turnovers. Kentucky’s minus 7 turnover margin last year was bad—comfortably the worst such mark in the SEC. Southern Miss turned in a minus 17 margin. Southern Miss was outgained in yardage only once all season, but they only had two games in which they ended up on the positive side of a turnover battle.
This is the kind of game that Kentucky has lost numerous times in my lifetime. Southern Mississippi will be talented in some spots, but pretty deeply inexperienced in others. The thought here is that this isn’t your grandfather’s Kentucky Wildcat team. There will be some hiccups, particularly in the defensive line, but as the game goes on, Kentucky will wear down Southern Miss. Benny Snell will have a good day, a couple of the freshmen will shine, and Kentucky will avoid a momentum-crushing upset. UK 38, Southern Miss 24.
Joe Cox is contributing editor for KySportsStyle.com Magazine. He grew up in Letcher County and Bell County, and has written five books, and his most recent, Almost Perfect (a study of baseball pitchers’ near-miss attempts at perfect games), is available on Amazon or at many local bookstores. Joe is an attorney and lives in Logan County with his wife and children. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.