We are less than 48 hours away from the Kentucky Wildcats opening the season against Southern Miss down in Hattiesburg, and the buzz in Lexington is palpable.
Whether you want to look at the Shannon Dawson angle, the fact that the Cats are looking for revenge for last season, or just to see if the expectations placed on this team are justified, there are some questions that need to be answered on Saturday. Here are the 4 things that I really need to see from Kentucky against the Eagles of Southern Miss.
1. How short is Stephen Johnson’s leash?
Nobody can dispute the fact that Johnson’s production last season earned him the starting spot at quarterback. However, with a healthy Drew Barker sitting behind him you have to wonder how many mistakes the coaching staff will tolerate.
The hype coming into next season was that Barker was ready to lead and looked like the player they hoped he would be when he was recruited. He lost his job due to injury, but Johnson came in and showed he has what it takes to win football games.
Stoops: Stephen Johnson has worked very hard on his ball security and passing accuracy.— Kentucky Football (@UKFootball) August 28, 2017
Stephen Johnson’s biggest issue last year was letting go of the football. So you have to wonder how many turnovers he will have to have before we see Barker warming up on the sidelines.
With the recent statements by the coaching staff about Barker deserving playing time and their intention to play both of them at different points in the season, could this be more of a fluid situation than we realize? Could we see both quarterbacks rotating regardless of Johnson’s performance? That never seems like a good idea, but anything can happen on opening weekend.
2. Will the offensive line be able adjust to injuries?
If you saw the depth chart earlier this week, you noticed the word “or” in several places across the starting lineup. Specifically, it appeared in several spots on the offensive line. When starting left tackle Cole Mosier went down to a season-ending injury a few weeks ago, that accelerated the timeline for some of the young guys to get ready to contribute.
Especially with the hole being at left tackle, there will be some shifts along the line early and often until the coaching staff finds the combination that is the most effective. Luckily, there is some depth on the line and many of the guys, like Landon Young, seem versatile enough to play multiple positions. But with even one more injury to a key lineman, it may create chaos in putting together a unit that can create holes for Benny Snell.
3. Will the defense be able to maintain its intensity for 60 minutes?
Yes, the offense failed to score a single point in the second half of last year’s fiasco against Southern Miss. However, the defense also gave up 21 points in the 3rd quarter to help Kentucky blow a 35-17 halftime lead. The defense looked solid early, but really crumbled to allow the Eagles to win the game.
While I fully expect Courtney Love, Jordan Jones, and Mike Edwards to be out there causing havoc on Saturday, it remains to be seen if they can put together an effort that is sustained for four quarters. And if there is any hope in winning the SEC East, being able to slow down Southern Miss’s offense should be a reasonable task.
4. Can Benny Snell maintain his momentum from last season?
After not playing at all in the first two games last season, now sophomore Benny Snell racked up 1,091 yards and averaged 5.9 yards per carry last season. Nearly doubling the player in 2nd place (Boom Williams), Snell led the team in touchdowns with 13. He became the workhorse for the Wildcats, even carrying the ball as many as 38 times against Missouri in a crucial conference win.
That means he will be even better this year, right? While many in Big Blue Nation certainly think so, it may not be that easy. Snell no longer has Boom in the backfield to complement the “thunder and lightning” running attack.
Also, you have to consider that opposing defenses will be more prepared to stop him after watching a year’s worth of film on Snell bowling balling his way through SEC defenses. And as if you needed another reason to question his momentum going into year two, go back and read question #2.
How do you think Kentucky will respond to these questions? Will they come out and embarrass Southern Miss, or will the weaknesses of the team once again get exposed?
I sure don’t know the answers. But, as always, Denzil Ware does.