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Kentucky Football Season Opener Preview

A breakdown of Kentucky's first game of the 2016 season, where they'll face Southern Miss.

Joshua Lindsey-USA TODAY Sports

When Kentucky suits up for the first game this season it'll be doing so against a very talented team with a familiar coach on the opposite sidelines.

The fact that Shannon Dawson is now the offensive coordinator at Southern Miss. is the main story of this game. Whether that will turn out to be that UK squandered their opportunity with this young talented coordinator or that Shannon Dawson was the wrong choice last year and it's good we parted ways with him. Aside from that drama, we do have a football team that has some talent to worry about.

Southern Miss

The quarterback for the Golden Eagles, Nick Mullens, had a great year last year totaling 4476 yards with a 63.5% completion rate. The 38 touchdowns versus 12 interceptions is pretty impressive as well. Mullens will be playing his last  year for the same school that Brett Favre played for and has been named to multiple watch list (Dave O'Brien Award, Maxwell Award, the AllState AFCA Good Works Team and the Wuerffel Trophy).

Last year when Southern Miss opened up against a tough SEC opponent at home, they stayed close in the first half and if they could have cashed in during their red zone opportunities things could have been a lot different.

Ito Smith is another standout player that will be facing the Cats on September 3rd. The 5'9" junior running back shared the load with Jalen Richard who signed with the Raiders after not getting drafted. This year it is expected that he'll do the same but with redshirt junior George Payne who is recovering from a knee injury and redshirt freshman Patrick Brooks.

Ito Smith had 1128 yards rushing last year and 10 touchdowns on the ground. He finished 4th on the team in reception yards with 515 yards and 3 touchdowns. Smith ended up last year 18th in the nation in all-purpose yards.

The Golden Eagles do have a new Head Coach and, like I noted above, a new offensive coordinator. Jay Hopson, the former Alcorn State coach and now the head man for the Southern Miss squad. He is a defensive minded coach who brought the Alcorn St. team from a 2-10 team to 9-4 and two straight conference championships.

Then there is Shannon Dawson, the man that replaced Neal Brown after he left for Troy. He was a very likable guy until the season started and Patrick Towles looked like a handcuffed lost sheep. I'm not saying the guy was the reason we struggled to get going on the offensive side of the ball but I think there is a reason he didn't remain in his position at UK.


Kentucky

The Drew Barker era will officially begin on opening day. That will be the big story of the season, barring any injury of course. Last year we got a peek into what Barker could look like as our starter but without a full off-season of getting first team snaps. I believe that having Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw there everyday in practice will help Barker play closer to the way he likes to play.

Having a "happy" quarterback under center will be something that we really didn't see much of last season. Patrick Towles just seemed, from a fan standpoint, to be handcuffed all season and that proved to hold him back all season. The success of UK's quarterback should lead to a "successful" season. The struggle of Drew Barker could lead to another "disappointing" season.

Kentucky does have some widely known strengths like defensive backs, running backs, and wide receivers. Now, before everyone goes crazy about our wideouts dropping balls, let me say this, our receivers are really talented and very deep. Coach Lamar Thomas has said that dropping balls is all mental and if we have an issue with that, he has guys behind those starters that are talented and ready to step in and play.

One thing we won't have any criticism over is our defensive backs. Westry and Baity will give opposing quarterbacks nightmares leading up to game day. Mike Edwards has stepped up to overtake Marcus McWilson on the depth chart and Blake McClain has been a very experienced nickel for Kentucky.

Boom, Jojo, King, and Horton along with some newcomers AJ Rose and Benny Snell will provide a steady weapon for Stoops to rely on.

Boom opened up the season last year with a huge run to christen the new CWS, I selfishly would love to see another run like that on the first play of the season.

Breakdown

Quarterback - Southern Miss

I am going to give Southern Miss the edge here due to the fact that Kentucky doesn't fully know what they are getting with Barker. If they were to be even I could see giving the edge to Drew and the Cats because it looks like his receivers and tight ends will be head and shoulders better than the crew Southern Miss will be working with.

Running Back - Kentucky

I talked about Ito Smith and his success early on in this article. That is great and all for this kid but when I look at him and his running back teammates, I do not see them having the kind of success that they've had in a tougher conference. The core backs for UK have proved that they can run against the big brutes of the SEC and that gives them the edge here.

Wide Receivers - Kentucky

Baker, Juice, Badet, and Timmons have been good at Kentucky. This year I'm calling it now, they will be GREAT!

Tight Ends - Kentucky

Speaking of great, CJ Conrad will have a season that resembles those of Jacob Tamme this year. He's got quality back-ups behind him and I can see Gran using some multiple tight end sets. Conrad is a superstar in waiting and barring injury will enjoy a great season this year.

O-Line - Kentucky

The Wildcats have exactly what you want on the offensive line. They have experienced starters and they have super talented newcomers. That combination will provide Stoops with a strong force up front that will help give Barker time and the backs holes.

D-Line - Kentucky

When looking for a defensive lineman that could be talented on the Southern Miss squad, I couldn't find anything that should cause the Wildcats trouble. The Southern Miss defense allowed an average of 151 yards per game rushing last year with two games that stand out. Against Louisiana Tech they allowed -2 yards on the ground and Nebraska tallied up 242 yards against the Golden Eagles. It looks as though inconsistency could be a problem for our opponents. Matt Elam and crew should be able to keep Ito Smith to a respectable total and help give Kentucky the rushing advantage.

Linebackers - Kentucky

We will see some new faces including Courtney Love, who has been a leader despite being a first year player for the Cats. One thing that has been pretty consistent at Kentucky is the linebacker crew. The Wildcats have placed several linebackers in the NFL in the last decade and Courtney Love could be the next one to follow that path.

Defensive Backs - Kentucky

This one is a no-brainer. Needs no explanation.

Special Teams - Kentucky

This is the area that Southern Miss could find some luck but by the stats Kentucky has the edge here.

Prediction - Kentucky 38 - Southern Miss 21


Read more here: http://www.sunherald.com/sports/college/conference-usa/university-of-southern-mississippi/article89561937.html#storylink=cpy