It has been a tough first two weeks for the Kentucky Wildcats. They were outgained at Southern Mississippi, and trailed at halftime to in-state FCS foe Eastern Kentucky. But the Wildcats put their noses to the grindstone in both games and gutted out a pair of ugly wins, 24-17 and 27-16. Ugly. But wins.
This Saturday, Kentucky steps out of the kitchen and into the oven as the Wildcats begin Southeastern Conference play at South Carolina. UK has recently had its way in the series, posting three straight wins against the Gamecocks. But Carolina has also started the season 2-0, and their wins, against NC State and conference opponent Missouri, have a more impressive ring to them than those of the Wildcats.
Coming out of Saturday night, somebody will be 3-0 and in the thick of the SEC East division race. Somebody else will take a step back and look at a season where 6-6 is more likely than a division title. This game isn’t the be-all-and-end-all for Kentucky, but it’s an opportunity for the Wildcats to solidify a very good season—and to keep alive the hopes of those who foresaw nine or ten wins, a trip to Atlanta, or a major bowl game. That road goes through Columbia.
Who Carolina Is
The Gamecocks, much like Kentucky, have not exactly been dominant in their two victories. Carolina was outgained by NC State 504-246, but managed to win. Even in beating Missouri, they were again outgained, this time by a 423-359 margin. But there are some takeaways.
Carolina has been efficient. They’ve turned the ball over just once in two games (should sound familiar because Kentucky has done the same). They have capitalized on opponents’ mistakes, forcing five turnovers, which they have turned into 28 points. Carolina has also been good on special teams, with star receiver/return man Deebo Samuel returning a kickoff for a touchdown in each of the first two games.
Offensively, sophomore QB Jake Bentley leads Carolina. He’s completing over 61% of his passes for 402 yards, four touchdowns, and one interception. His top targets are the aforementioned Samuel, who has ten catches for 128 yards and two touchdowns, and sophomore Bryan Edwards, who is more of a possession-type receiver, but who also has ten grabs.
Watch out for tight end Hayden Hurst, who has four catches for 67 yards and a score. He is probably the equal of C.J. Conrad, in terms of tight end receiving skills. On the ground, Carolina has been mediocre, getting just 3.3 yards per carry and no one player has more than 78 rushing yards for the season.
Defensively, linebacker T.J. Brunson leads Carolina in tackles with 22 stops. Defensive end D.J. Wonnum leads them in sacks with a pair and defensive back D.J. Smith has broken up three passes. Carolina has allowed 660 yards passing in two games, and 267 yards rushing. They will surrender some plays, but have keyed off of turnovers and capitalizing on opponents’ mistakes.
Where Kentucky Is
The Wildcats were dealt a major blow when junior linebacker Jordan Jones was ruled out for this game, apparently with a collarbone injury sustained in the EKU win. Rumors are circulating that Jones’s injury may be fairly serious, but at the moment, Mark Stoops has said only that he’s out for this game.
Kentucky’s run defense has been a strength this season (2.0 yards per carry allowed), and even without Jones, Kentucky shouldn’t have much difficulty in the ground game defensively. Jones will be missed in pass defense, both in getting heat on Bentley and in covering targets like Hurst, who could run wild.
Offensively, Kentucky looked much better against EKU when they started hitting big plays, whether passes to Blake Bone or in punishing Benny Snell runs. Can Kentucky gash Carolina for some 20-40 yard gains? If not, it’ll be hard to nickel and dime a way to victory.
Special teams could be key. Austin MacGinnis had an unusually poor week of kickoffs against EKU, and he can’t afford that mistake this week. On the other hand, Lynn Bowden just may have a big play to make for UK.
This isn’t as bad of a matchup for Kentucky as most people think. That said, the loss of Jones is a big one. Winning in the SEC is hard—winning on the ROAD in the SEC is almost impossible. Mark Stoops is 2-14 on the road in the SEC. One of those two came at Carolina. Could he get to 3-14? Sure, he could.
But this is a Carolina team playing at home that is hungry for revenge. Kentucky without Jones has to execute at a very high level to win in Columbia. There’s been a lot more reasons in the first two games to think that doesn’t happen than to think that it does.
South Carolina 28, Kentucky 21