JOE COX: How Will The Football Wildcats Handle Success?
After four weeks of the 2018 college football season, the Kentucky Wildcats find themselves in a relatively unfamiliar place—undefeated in SEC play, ranked 17th in both of the major college football polls, and one of the surprise teams in all of college football.
What will the Wildcats do for an encore? On a week when major college football statisticians are giving Kentucky an excellent chance of nine or ten regular-season wins, how does Kentucky handle this newfound success? Can the Wildcats keep that healthy chip on their shoulder this Saturday against South Carolina, or will it all slip away?
A sold out Kroger Field figures to be rocking again on Saturday night as the 2-1 South Carolina Gamecocks come to Kentucky as a very slight underdog. Kentucky has won the last four games in the series, and has a chance to put two very important fives into place Saturday, securing both a fifth straight win over Carolina and a 5-0 start to the season.
Meet South Carolina
The Gamecocks are one of the most complete teams in the SEC, and figure to give Kentucky an excellent challenge. Carolina is led by junior QB Jake Bentley, who has completed over 68 percent of his passes while throwing for 780 yards, six touchdowns, and three interceptions so far this season. Carolina has averaged 5.6 yards per carry on the ground, led by back Rico Dowdle, who has 235 rushing yards. The Carolina passing game is strong, with a trio of big play receivers in Deebo Samuel (20 catches, 145 yards), Bryan Edwards (14 catches, 211 yards), and Shi Smith (11 catches, 191 yards).
Defensively, Carolina is in the middle of the pack in the SEC. They have 21 tackles for loss, while allowing only nine. Carolina has sacked opposing QBs seven times, led by Javon Kinlaw with 2.5 sacks. Carolina has forced only four turnovers in three games.
Where Kentucky Stands
The Wildcats ran the football down the throats of Mississippi State and also led one of the most impressive defensive performances seen in many years in Lexington. State was held to 201 total yards, when it had averaged 310 rushing yards per game coming into town.
UK won the ground battle, 229 yards to 56, with Benny Snell’s four touchdown scores leading the way. QB Terry Wilson struggled through the air, completing 8 of 14 passes for 71 yards, although he did hit a pair of big throws to Dorian Baker and C.J. Conrad which set up Snell touchdowns.
Defensively, Josh Allen was a beast for Kentucky, totaling six tackles, a pair of tackles for loss, a sack, a pass break up, a quarterback hurry, and a lot of camera time making MSU QB Nick Fitzgerald’s life miserable. Kentucky had two other sacks of Fitzgerald, and freshman Tyrell Ajian had a crucial second-half interception.
With Kentucky ranked in the nation’s top 25 teams for the first time since 2007, motivation and crowd support should be ample. That said, Kentucky will likely have something of an emotional hangover from last week. Carolina will present a different defensive challenge, and it would not be surprising if the Gamecocks can gain an early advantage.
But where previous Kentucky teams found reasons to fold, this team has so far shown only reasons to create optimism. Can Carolina slow Snell with the game on the line? That’s a tall task.
Everything in this game feels destined to come down to a single big play. The pick here is that it’s a short Miles Butler field goal.
UK 28, South Carolina 27.
Other SEC Predictions
Alabama 56, Louisiana 0
Georgia 41, Tennessee 0
Texas A&M 31, Arkansas 14
Auburn 41, Southern Mississippi 10
Vanderbilt 38, Tennessee State 6
Mississippi State 34, Florida 20
LSU 31, Ole Miss 28
Joe Cox is contributing editor for KySportsStyle.com Magazine. He grew up in Letcher County and Bell County, and has written seven books, with the eighth to come in 2019. His most recent, "The Immaculate Inning," was released in February 2018 and can be ordered 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.