A prevalent theme of Kentucky football’s preseason has been the narrow margin of error to achieve six wins. There can be no sleep-walking as at least 10 of the 12 games will be competitive, and a handful of those games will be ulcer-inducing.
For most, the season hinges on going at least 3-1 against the likes of Southern Miss, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, and Missouri. If the Wildcats finishes 2-2 against those four teams, a bowl game is almost certainly out of reach.
Even accomplishing the task of finishing 3-1 against this competition, itself a new mark of consistency, means UK must pull-off an upset somewhere down the stretch.
The importance of those four games makes it worth the time to examine them closer. Below is a list of the most important players on those teams for UK to contain.
UK’s competitive lodestars. These aren’t necessarily the best players on those teams, but the ones projecting the biggest match-up problems.
If the ‘Cats can contain the following players, their odds for victory increase, and in some cases, probably substantially. You’ll notice that in the past, UK has held two of them in check, and it has led to UK victories.
Ralph Webb - Running Back - Vanderbilt
Key Mismatch: UK’s rushing defense
The junior Webb finished the 2015 season as the seventh most productive running back in the SEC last season finishing with 1,152 rushing yards. This was a moderate increase over his 2014 tally of 952 rushing yards.
UK has held Webb in check the last two seasons. In 2014, the ‘Cats held Webb to 3.38 yards per carry which was under his 4.28 yards per carry season average. In 2015, Webb carried the ball an amazing 33 times against UK, but held him below his season average of 4.16 yards per carry (held him 3.42 yards per carry).
In 2016, Webb will once again be Vanderbilt’s best offensive weapon. He’ll likely have another season of nearly 300 carries, and against UK’s projected front seven, he’ll get his chances.
Charles Harris - Defensive End - Missouri
Key Mismatch: UK’s offensive tackles
The junior Harris is just another stud in the long line of Mizzou defensive linemen. He was one of the more prolific defensive ends in the conference last season tallying 18.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks. That’s a tad better than Bud Dupree’s senior season for perspective.
Against UK last season, the ‘Cats largely held him in check. He finished the game with six tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, and zero sacks. This season, Harris be matched up against UK’s left tackle which currently Cole Mosier, Tate Leavitt, or true freshman Landon Young.
Nick Mullens - Quarterback - Southern Mississippi
Key Mismatch: UK’s lack of pass-rush
There’s nothing new I can add to what you’ve already read elsewhere. This is probably the best quarterback UK will face this season, and while he lost two of his top three receivers, he still poses a threat.
This is especially true considering UK’s noted lack of proven pass-rush. If Mullens has all day to throw the ball, or if UK is forced to blitz to generate pressure, he can pick apart UK’s solid secondary.
Will Muschamp- Coach - South Carolina
Key Mismatch: Taking away UK’s game plan and motivation
South Carolina doesn’t project to be very good in 2016, but they will have a very good defensive coach overseeing their game plan. Given UK and South Carolina play each other in the fourth week of the season, Muschamp will have three weeks of game tape to identify UK’s offensive weaknesses. He gets a bad rap as a head coach, but his defenses have always been good.
This year he’ll have stud defensive linemen Marquavius Lewis and Dante Sawyer at his disposal along with most of the defense from 2015 with the notable exception of linebacker Skai Moore. Muschamp can play up the angle that South Carolina is every bit as good as Kentucky, and losing three years in a row to the ‘Cats isn’t going to happen.