For most of Kentucky’s football history, the end of the season leaves a fairly bad taste in the mouth of the Big Blue Nation. Wildcat backers usually can’t wait for fall, for another shot at the big season that seemingly never comes. But then, last year, the big season came. Kentucky’s 10-3 campaign, complete with the National Defensive Player of the Year, Josh Allen, and the school’s leading rusher, Benny Snell, could be savored not just for an off-season, but for a decade or a generation. And no doubt it will be.
But Saturday marks time to officially put last season into the rearview mirror and move on, with the home opener against the Toledo Rockets. A word of warning—if Kentucky fails to put last year into the rearview, the current season might go quickly toward the trash can.
Toledo is one of those programs that makes its name by playing well as an underdog. In the 2010s, the Rockets have won eight, nine, nine, seven, nine, ten, nine, eleven, and seven games in each successive season. In 2015, Toledo began its season playing at No. 18 Arkansas as a 21.5 point underdog. They won 16-12 in the game that started the bottom falling out of the Bret Bielema tenure in Fayetteville. Last year, the Rockets scored 40.4 points per game, rushed for 216 yards per game, and broke the 50-point barrier six times.
Kentucky can’t sleepwalk in this game.
The Rockets have a veteran quarterback, senior Mitchell Guadagni, who passed for 1,053 yards and 13 scores last year while also rushing for 428 yards and three touchdowns, despite missing roughly half the season with injuries. The tailback is a familiar man—sophomore Bryant Koback was a Kentucky Wildcat until some family health issues caused him to return to Toledo. He rushed for 917 yards and 14 touchdowns last season.
Defensively, the Rockets did allow over 30 points per game last year, and did lose their top two pass rushers. Still, make no mistake. This is a solid team, capable of giving Kentucky all it can handle.
For the Wildcats, much of the opener will be about seeing how new faces fit in, and how old faces can step up their game. Instead of backing up Benny Snell, Jr. running back A.J. Rose (442 yards, five touchdowns in ’18) must emerge as the primary back. QB Terry Wilson will need to produce more than the 161 yards per game passing (last in the SEC) that he did last year. Somebody not named Lynn Bowden needs to catch a few passes.
Defensively, all eyes are on Kentucky’s secondary. Toledo can throw, and a starting group of corners with six career tackles between them (sophomore Cedric Dort and freshman Jamari Brown) will be tested early and often. UK can make its life easier if the pass rush picks up where it left off, although coming up with 38 sacks against without Josh Allen will be difficult.
This is a game in which Kentucky needs to demonstrate maturity and depth. The guess is that they will. An off-season of hearing about how they’ll slip back to being the same old Kentucky should keep the motivation high. The guess here is that Toledo hangs around for a half, but that Kentucky’s line play will make the difference in the second half.
UK 41, Toledo 21
Other SEC predictions:
Texas A&M 61, Texas State 7
Alabama 51, Duke 10
Ole Miss 42, Memphis 31
Mississippi State 51, Louisiana 14
South Carolina 29, North Carolina 28
Tennessee 49, Georgia State 13
Arkansas 56, Prairie View 10
Georgia 41, Vanderbilt 14
LSU 38, Georgia Southern 21
Oregon 38, Auburn 31
Missouri 45, Wyoming 17
Joe Cox is contributing editor for KySportsStyle.com Magazine. He grew up in Letcher County and Bell County and has written eight books. His most recent, "A Fine Team Man: Jackie Robinson and the Lives He Changed," was released in February 2019 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 email@example.com.