It’s finally here. The moment we have all been waiting for. The 2018 college football season begins for the University of Kentucky today against the experienced Central Michigan Chippewas.
The Wildcats are coming off of back-to-back bowl seasons in 2016 and 2017, finishing last season with a loss in the Music City Bowl to a very talented Northwestern team. Kentucky has several starters returning this season, like Benny Snell and C.J. Conrad on the offensive side and Mike Edwards and Josh Allen returning on the defensive side.
Terry Wilson will be filling the big shoes of Stephen Johnson, and many expect Gunnar Hoak to get reps in the first couple games as well. After having a disappointing end to last season, this Kentucky football team has a chip on its shoulder and is looking to prove all of the critics wrong.
Central Michigan is coming off of a 8-5 season and they finished second in the MAC West Division at 6-2. If the Cats are going to start out the season with a home-opening win, here are the five things they need to do:
1. Control the offensive line.
With a new quarterback lining up for the Cats and Landon Young being injured last week and now out for the season, the offensive line is going to need to play a huge part in the offense in order to win games.
The Cats are returning six key linemen from last season (not counting Young). If guys like Logan Stenberg and Bunchy Stallings can step it up from last season, UK should be fine. In 2017, the offensive line was able to help get Benny Snell to his second consecutive 1,000 yard rushing season and lead the league in touchdowns with 19.
The offensive line is anchored down by sophomore Drake Jackson, who became the starting center in the middle of the 2017 season. Jackson is a very quick and strong player at center, but he brings a lot to the offensive line with his smarts. Many people believe Jackson will be a really big help to this offensive line with Landon Young being out for the 2018 season.
If UK is going to start their season off 1-0, Jackson and the offensive line need to control the line of scrimmage.
2. Contain Central Michigan’s quarterback
Central Michigan is not a terrible football team. They have a very experienced offensive line, and a very athletic quarterback to go along with the experience up front.
Tony Poljan is a 6-7 quarterback who weighs 238 pounds. He is very athletic and he is actually a former tight end turned quarterback. Last season, Poljan was 13 for 21 passing and throwing for 78 yards. Many people believe where Central Michigan will have success is with Poljan using his strength in the run game.
Out of high school, Poljan was ranked the No. 13 dual-threat quarterback in the country and was a three-star recruit according to 247 Sports. In 2017, Central Michigan had 31 turnovers, so If Kentucky’s defensive line can get some push and collapse the pocket onto Poljan, they should be able to win big.
3. Stop the running game
Junior star running back Jonathan Ward is back for his third season at Central Michigan after a great 2017 season. Ward had no respect for Benny Snell, when asked what he thought about him saying he doesn’t know who Benny Snell is. With that being said, I think UK will have a big chip on their shoulder because of that.
In 2017, Ward was able to rush the ball for 1,024 yards on 179 attempts. Ward was also able to rack up 10 touchdowns and 475 receiving yards. The talented running back is a very dynamic back; he’s fast, strong and has great hands as well.
With Central Michigan having an inexperienced quarterback, it’s a really good thing that four of the five offensive line starters are seniors. And the one player that’s not a senior?Well, he’s a junior.
Between all of the starting lineman on the Chippewas, they have over 100 games of starting experience between them. Kentucky has a very athletic and explosive line, and they are truly a lot bigger than Central Michigan’s line. If Middleton and Bohanna can step it up on the interior line, the Cats should be fine.
4. Get out front fast
In the past three years, Kentucky has given up over 60 points in the second half of the first game. In 2016, UK blew a 35-17 lead to Southern Miss, and Southern Miss went on to win the game 44-35 at Commonwealth Stadium (Kroger Field).
Kentucky has a lot of weapons this year at receiver, like Dorian Baker who is back after an injury and several people are looking for him to be a big-time receiver for the Cats. You also have C.J. Conrad who is also coming off of a broken foot and Tavin Richardson is back after a big sophomore year. Between the three players, they have been able to rack up over 120 receptions and over 1600 receiving yards in their careers.
With a new quarterback, things will need to be quick for UK. Terry Wilson has a really big arm and C.J. Conrad says Wilson could be, “The fastest player on the field”. Just going off of history, UK will need to jump out to an early lead to hold on for the win.
If the defense plays the way I think they can and the offense keeps their foot on the gas, the Cats should be good to go for win number one.
5. Win the field position battle
Kentucky has been known as Special Teams U, really since Tim Masthay almost a decade ago. With a new punter, and Central Michigan having an inexperienced quarterback, UK will need to win the field position battle.
Max Duffy is a former Australian Rules football player who decided to turn into an American football player and many people think he’s a major under-the-radar player. With Ward being an amazing running back and being able to run the ball almost every play for the Chippewas, field position will be huge.
If you can pin them up on the one or two yard-line, you have a good chance at getting penetration on that offensive line and stopping Ward or making Poljan, the inexperienced quarterback, rush and make a bad pass for an interception or take a sack.
In this game, watch special teams closely. It will be a huge part of the game and possibly the difference maker.