It's finally upon us: college football, ladies, and gentlemen of the Big Blue Nation. The Kentucky Wildcats will open their season at Commonwealth Stadium by taking on the Golden Eagles of Southern Mississippi.
Last season the Golden Eagles ended with a record of 9-5 (7-1 in Conference USA) with a bowl appearance vs. the Washington Huskies. Southern Miss lost that game 44-31.
They return a high-powered offense led by senior Nick Mullens, one of the most proficient passers in all of college football. There's no doubt that the 'Cats will have their hands full on September 3rd, but this isn't a game they should be expected to lose.
Keys to Victory:
1. Get to Nick Mullens- This has to happen early and often. The biggest concern for Kentucky is the front seven. It is a unit full unproven and inexperienced players. Mullens is a senior that threw for 4,476 yards and 38 touchdowns last season. If Mullens gets comfortable, he can do some major damage with his accuracy. DJ Eliot has to find ways to put pressure on Mullens, or he will sit in the pocket and likely pick Kentucky apart. The Wildcats have one of the best secondaries in the SEC, but they can only do so much if there is no pressure on the quarterback. If the front seven can't get to Mullens, Eliot can use blitz packages to incorporate the nickel, likely Blake McClain. If Mullens and his receivers develop a rhythm, it could be bad news.
2. Ease Drew Barker into the Game- Drew Barker's stats last season weren't great. He threw 70 times and completed 35 of those passes. That's 50% in passing and that's not what you want to see from your starting quarterback. He threw for 354 yards, one touchdown, and one interception. Again, not great. But Barker wasn't asked to be the man until late last season. And even then, he was yanked in favor of Patrick Towles against Louisville. Now there is no question that he is the starting quarterback of this team, and he will remain so unless he completely falls apart or is injured. To get him comfortable in the game, Eddie Gran is going to rely heavily on the stable of running backs and the offensive line. If Boom Williams, Jojo Kemp, and the rest can get going, the field will open up for Barker and his talented receivers. If Barker does pass early, short passes to CJ Conrad or Ryan Timmons would be the best options. For the first game of the season against what should be a lesser opponent, Barker doesn't need to do too much, just manage the game and allow his playmakers to do all of the work.
3. Don't Get Cute- I would rather not see any trick plays. I would rather Kentucky not try to pump up Barker's stats or those of his receivers. I would be completely happy if on offense the 'Cats would line up and ram it down the throat of the Golden Eagle defense. Keeping Mullens and his offense off the field while keeping the defense rested will be crucial to the game plan. Southern Miss is undersized on the defensive front, and if the Kentucky offensive line is as improved as we are led to believe, there should be no problem with this strategy.
4. Hold Southern Miss to 23 Points or Less- In their victories last season, the Golden Eagles averaged 50 points per game. In losses, they averaged 23 points per game. It's no secret that their offense can put up big numbers, but whenever they played Mississippi State, Nebraska, Marshall, Western Kentucky, and Washington, they were held way below their winning average. Obviously, the level of opponent was higher in these games. Shouldn't Kentucky be considered a higher-level opponent?
5. Play Like You're Playing for a Bowl Bid- In essence, that is what they are playing for in game one of the season. The way their schedule sets up, six wins will be difficult to come by if the Wildcats cannot beat Southern Miss at home. The 'Cats are facing a Conference USA team that didn't have a win over a power-five team last season. A loss to them would be devastating to the morale of the team, of the fan base, and the coaching staff. They have to set a tone of dominance in this game, not flash. This is the type of game that, pardon the cliche, you bring your lunch pail and go to work. There are no extra points for winning in style, but losing could be devastating. If they 'Cats play to overwhelm with strength and take care of business, then a victory will be easy to come by.
I think the 'Cats pull this one out 27-17. I won't feel comfortable if this is a shootout. The game should be close early, but the talent and strength of Kentucky's o-line and running backs will wear out the Golden Eagles.