Coming off perhaps the greatest season in recent memory, the Kentucky Wildcats open their 2019 season in the friendly confines of Kroger Field against the Toledo Rockets Saturday afternoon in Lexington.
For the Cats (10-3 in 2018), 2019 couldn’t come at a better time as UK sets out to prove that 2018 was no fluke and that the program is ready to continue its upward climb both nationally and in the shark tank known as the SEC.
However, if the casual Wildcat fan expects an easy opening game against the Rockets (7-6 in 2018), they have another thing coming.
Toledo averaged 40 points per game and over 500 yards per game last season and doesn’t expect to take much of a step back this season, returning 14 starters and 50 letter winners from last season’s squad.
So without further adieu, please let me introduce the Rockets as well as the Cats' keys to success in a little thing I call the Rules of Three.
Three Things to Know
The Rockets are very explosive offensively. In 2018, Toledo’s run/pass yardage was pretty balanced (216 on the ground and 228 through the air.) The Rockets have a playmaker in sophomore running back and UK transfer Bryant Koback. Koback rushed for nearly 1,000 yards last season and is a Doak Walker Award nominee this season.
Toledo is the typical MAC football team: tough. Don’t think for a second the Rockets will roll into Lexington starry-eyed. Quite the contrary. The Rockets will come in quite confident and expecting to win as the early favorite to win the MAC West Division and play for a conference title.
The Rockets are consistently successful. Again, this isn’t Toledo’s first rodeo against a Power Five school. Last season, the Rockets moved the ball well against Miami, Fresno State, Nevada, and Florida International. Toledo will expect to do the same against a UK defense that has to replace All-American Josh Allen and most of its secondary. Over the past nine seasons, Toledo is one of nine teams in the FBS to have a winning record each season, joining such perennial powerhouses like Alabama, LSU, Oklahoma, and Stanford. The Rockets also rank 12th in total wins over the previous five seasons (46).
Three Areas the Cats Could Exploit
Toledo has a logjam at quarterback. As many as five different signal-callers have a chance to start the season opener. Although all have their strong suits, the old football adage that says “if you have too many people for a spot you don’t have a starter for the spot” might carry into the game. Something to watch.
The Cats' depth continues to get deeper and more talented. Although the Cats are replacing starters on both sides of the ball, the quality of the newcomers for those spots has never been better in Lexington. The new starters can play and their backups are solid.
If UK has ever entered a season with momentum, this is it. Look, I've been around as a Cat fan since 1983 (ask my buddy John Cornett.) I cannot recall a season where the Cats have the entire fanbase behind them from the jump. Should the Cats win their first two games, the Big Supermarket will be jumping when the Florida Gators visit in Week 3.
Three Predictions for Saturday
Terry Wilson proves why he is the man for the job. Touchdown Terry has had the entire spring and summer as well as last season as a starter to become polished in coordinator Eddie Gran’s system. I think Wilson looks much more confident in the pocket Saturday and makes great decisions with the ball in his hands.
AJ Rose stakes his claim as the Cats' main back. After waiting patiently behind all-time leading rusher Benny Snell Jr., Rose gets the first crack as the primary bell cow in UK’s backfield. Rose showed flashes of brilliance last season and should take the bull by the horns and succeed. Should Rose struggle, though, the Cats have Kavoisey Smoke and Christopher Rodriguez in reserve.
The Cats defense makes a statement. Even with the losses to graduation and NFL early entry, UK has some nice pieces along the line, in the secondary, and an All-SEC linebacker Kash Daniel. There will be struggles and growing pains, but the defense will still have the heart and swagger that were its 2018 calling cards.
I expect a firefight in Lexington Saturday. Toledo and Kentucky will get after each other. Wilson has a big game with both his legs and arm and Rose breaks 100 yards in his opening game as a starter to help the Cats open 2019 with a bang (pun intended).
Prediction: Cats 38, Rockets 28
Shane Shackleford is a regional sportswriter from Speedwell, Tenn. You can follow Shane at KySportsStyle.com Magazine, A Sea of Blue, and various local media outlets.