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Looking ahead: Ole Miss at UK

The Wildcats, rejuvenated after a 41-7 thumping of Division I-AA Texas State, look to do something they haven't done in 19 years on Saturday: open SEC season 1-0.

I'm still not sure how you manage to lose every single conference opener except that it seemed the guys played Florida all the time, since the late 1980s a sure-fire recipe for losing. In any event, this year's opener is (a) at home and (b) against a beatable opponent (at least in theory).

Perhaps my suggestions are getting through, because Kentucky will try to continue its newfound air assault against an Ole Miss Rebels defense that has been swiss cheese to passing games thus far in 2006.

Mississippi is 1-1 with a win over bitter nemesis Memphis (28-25 at home) and a 34-7 shallacking at the hands of a not-very-good Missouri Tigers team. Coach Ed Oregron is trying to instill a newfound toughness in the perennial SEC West punching bags (pretty funny that anyone associated with UK can call anyone else a football punching bag, but I digress ... ), but the early returns are mixed.

In some ways, Ole Miss is a lot like Kentucky in football, with talented skill players, an extremely suspect defense and little chance of upward mobility in the nation's best top-to-bottom football conference.

There's athletic quarterback Brent Schaeffer, multi-purpose back freshman Dexter McCluster and backfield mate BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who comes as a transfer from football powerhouse Indiana. Ellis leads the Rebels in rushing yards with 196 (on 42 carries) and touchdowns, while McCluster tops all Rebels in receiving yards with 123.

The Ole Miss defense is anchored by all-everything linebacker Patrick Willis. You may remember him as the guy who stuffed the Cats last season despite playing with a broken arm. So much for a lack of toughness.

For Kentucky's part, the newfound attention to star wideout Keenan Burton and the air game should continue, as the Rebels have shown little ability to slow either Memphis or Mizzou in the air. It helps to have the versatile Rafael Little keeping defenses run-honest. Steady improvement from Christian Johnson (left guard) and the offensive line would be nice, allowing QB Andre' Woodson to continue his maturation in the pocket. Johnson, along with his brother, the stud freshman linebacker Micah, got some good news from home this week, so maybe they'll play even better.

Kentucky's 34.5 points a game average looks nice, but it's padded by the pasting of Texas State and the defensive ambivalence of a Louisville team up a gagillion points. But the offense is still UK's best weapon. Look for (hopefully) coach Rich Brooks and offensive coordinator Joker Phillips to open up the throttle again early, thereby grabbing some running room for Little and Tony Dixon.

Woodson, for his part, should be able to maneuver, assuming the aforementioned O-line can give him some time, as the Rebels' defensive backfield is not intimidating.

All in all, it's a winnable game for the Cats. Whether they win, of course, remains to be seen. But a 1-0 league start is a nice carrot to dangle, and confidence is high after a patsy limped out of Commonwealth Stadium last week. Building on that confidence with SEC heavyweights Florida looming is a must.

* SIDELINES: ESPN has picked up the UK-Florida tilt, slated for 7:45 p.m. ET on Sept. 23. It will be broadcast live nationally on ESPN.