I'm not including Louisville in this because they deserve a special preview since they are, right now, our biggest rival. You know the drill: SEC vs ACC. Instead, I'm covering the other three of our non-conference foes.
University of Tennessee-Martin
This will be our first game of the season and our annual FCS game where wealth is redistributed to a smaller school. Mitch Barnhart has publicly stated Kentucky will continue to play Louisville and a FCS team even if the SEC goes to a nine game conference schedule. He feels an obligation (Noblesse oblige?) to help FCS teams with a big paycheck.
Mark Stoops, on the other hand, thinks we should schedule teams from the Big Five Power Conferences. Personally, I don't care one way or another. I can see either argument being legitimate. I do think that right now Kentucky needs these kinds of games. My only argument with playing FCS teams is that we should give the big beat-down check to FCS teams from Kentucky on a rotating basis.
This game will open the season for both schools and should be a Kentucky blowout. I'll be very disappointed if this game isn't a blowout. Last year, UTM finished with a 3rd place finish in the Ohio Valley Conference and a 7-5 record. They have six starters returning on offense and 4 returning on the defense. Four offensive linemen return. Their quarterback, Jarod Neal, returns as a RS-JR. Last year he threw for 1,529 yards, had 9 touchdowns and 7 interceptions.
You can read their Media Guide for more information.
Ohio University Bobcats
When Kentucky meets up with the Bobcats, both teams will have a game under their belts. According to their schedule, they will have already played at Kent State. Let's be honest, Kentucky is expected to win, and should win this game.
Ohio is not a team, however, that is to be taken lightly. In 2012, they beat scandal riddled Penn St., and they earned a Top 25 rating after winning their first seven games. They went on to win their second straight bowl game. Last year they were expected to win the MAC East and faced Louisville in their opening game. They were no match for the Bridgewater-led Cards and left Louisville with a 49-7 loss. You can read about last season and how it ended here. For those who don't like to click on links, the Bobcats made it to the Beef O'Brady Bowl where they lost 37-20 to East Carolina after leading going into the 4th quarter. They finished with a 7-6 record with fans complaining that the season was a failure. I don't ever recall Kentucky fans complaining about a 7-6 record being a failure.
I've been unable to find a media guide for Ohio, so we'll have to go with what we have from SBNation's Husltebelt, a MAC website. Here is the Ohio U. preview for this season. You will gain knowledge if you listen to the blogtalk radio. The bottom line is that the Bobcats return 11 starters: 3 on offense and 8 on defense.
The last time Ohio and Kentucky played was 2004 and the Bobcats beat the Wildcats 28-16, but Kentucky leads the series 5-3 with our last win in 2003 (35-14). What this tells me is that Kentucky should never overlook any opponent. That being said, Kentucky's defense should dominate the inexperienced Bobcat offense and the game will allow Neal Brown's offense the chance to do a little fine tuning before going into the Swamp. Ohio could be the toughest game of the three opponents in this write-up.
Comparing the 2013 seasons:
Total Offense: Ohio 379.4 yds/game (83rd), Kentucky 341.2 yds/game (107th)
Total Defense: Ohio 408.5 yds/game (67th), Kentucky 427.2 yds/game (91st)
University of Louisiana- Monroe
Of these three non-conference games, ULM will most likely be the toughest. Kentucky will have to be concerned about a let-down game. The Cats will be coming off the South Carolina game and could be looking towards the trip to Baton Rouge the week after ULM comes to town.
The Warhawks play in the Sunbelt Conference and they went 6-6 last year. They are projected to win the conference title this year. The Warhawks started off by losing to Oklahoma 34-0, then beat Grambling 48-10. In the third game ULM beat Wake Forest 21-19 and followed that with a 70-7 loss to Baylor.They followed that with a loss to Tulane 31-14 and then had a bye week. They beat Texas State 21-14, Georgia State 37-10, lost to Arkansas St. 42-14, lost to South Alabama 36-14, and beat Louisiana Lafayette 31-28.
Passing Offense: ULM 237.5 yds/game (58th), Kentucky 193.5 yds/game (98th)
Rushing Offense: Kentucky 147.9yds/game (85th), ULM 122.8 yds/game (105th)
Scoring Offense: ULM 22.3 ppg (100th), Kentucky 20.5ppg (107th)
Passing Defense: Kentucky 229.8 yds/game (64th), ULM 237.6 yds/game (74th)
Rushing Defense: ULM 189.3 yds/game (87th), Kentucky 197.3 yds/game (93rd)
Scoring Defense: ULM 30.2 ppg (T-83rd), Kentucky 31.2ppg (85th)
Comparing the teams statistically doesn't mean much since there is a vast difference in the quality of the schedules. The Wildcats played the 14th toughest schedule last year, according to Jeff Sagarin. Kentucky's SEC schedule far surpasses any of these three teams opponents with the possible exception of Baylor. I only show the stats to remind us of how bad we were the last two years.
Kentucky will win this game, and should win by 20 if our team has improved over last year.
Beating UL-Monroe will guarantee three wins; four if we beat Vanderbilt. The schedule gets very difficult after the ULM game and we may not win another game. Or.... We could beat Mississippi St. and/or Georgia at home, but I'm not convinced we can win a road game.
Whatever else happens, Kentucky absolutely must win these three games. Otherwise, I see our recruiting going into the tank.