The last time the Kentucky Wildcats played on the football field, they put on a dismal showing against Iowa, losing in a 21-0 shutout in the Music City Bowl. That capped off what was overall a disappointing season, especially on the offensive side of the ball.
After nine long months, the Wildcats will have an opportunity to put a much better product on the field this season, starting with the Ball State Cardinals this Saturday.
Both teams are coming off of seasons that didn't end well, losing four of their last six games, and are looking to improve this season. However, Kentucky has a clear talent advantage, which is why they are favored by nearly four touchdowns.
Given this is Week 1, there is a lot to be seen from each team. With that said, let’s preview the matchup.
Big Offensive Day
Bringing back Liam Coen as offensive coordinator, Kentucky is looking to rebuild an offense that finished last in the SEC a season ago. Combine Coen’s (re)addition with an overhauled offensive line, running back depth, a top transfer quarterback, and arguably the best-receiving core of the Mark Stoops era, and they are expected to do just that.
Looking at Ball State’s defense, they were average last season, ranking 70th in team defense and giving up nearly 400 yards per game. They do return a lot up front and have one of the best 1-2 linebackers punches in the MAC, in Clayton Coll and Cole Pearce. However, they did lose three pieces from the secondary to the NFL.
Given the level of competition, don’t expect to see Coen open up the playbook much, but there are a lot of new pieces, and there is a need to establish a foundation in a game. Look for players like Izayah Cummings and Tayvion Robinson, who are here to play for Coen, to get some targets early and get comfortable.
Also, this will be the first year since 2015 that there is no Chris Rodriguez Jr. or Benny Snell in the Kentucky backfield. The Wildcats do have depth and versatility at RB, highlighted by Vanderbilt transfer Ray Davis and NC State transfer Demie Sumo-Karngbaye.
Kentucky is also hoping to get good production out of fourth-year back JuTahn McClain and sixth-year back Ramon Jefferson coming off his ACL Tear.
Has the Offensive Line Improved?
One of the biggest questions for Kentucky Football coming into the season is, how improved is the offensive line? Allowing 47 sacks last year, 5th most in the FBS, the Wildcats clearly needed an overhaul, and they used the transfer portal to do just that. Bringing in five offensive linemen, headlined by OT Marques Cox, things should be better, but they have yet to be tested.
As said above, Ball State has experience on their D-line, returning every starter. The Cardinals will be at a size disadvantage, but they will be solid and should give Kentucky a baseline. Especially when considering Kentucky’s O-line struggles against inferior opponents early last season.
Set the Tone for the Season
Last year, Kentucky entered the season ranked in the AP Top 25 for the first time since 1978. The Wildcats were able to rise as high as 7th in the polls before injuries started to take a toll, which was compounded by scheme issues, specifically on offense.
This year, Mark Stoops and Co. are returning to much familiar territory, outside the Top 25, and have reestablished themselves in the “underdog” spot. At SEC Media Days, Kentucky was a team that was not talked about much, positively or negatively. Things have picked up of late in the eyes of some national analysts, such as Kirk Herbstreit and Josh Pate, who are expecting good things from the Wildcats.
Favored by 26.5 points, there are not a lot of expectations for Saturday. That said, with a fanbase hungry for positivity, if Kentucky can come out with a dominant and fun performance, they can capture the attention early and set the tone for the season. That will be needed with home games against the likes of Alabama, Florida, and Tennessee on the schedule.
Kentucky Wildcats (0-0) vs. Ball State Cardinals (0-0)
Time/Date: 12:00 pm ET on Saturday, September 2nd, 2023
Location: Kroger Field in Lexington, Kentucky.
TV Channel: SEC Network
Radio: Tom Leach and Jeff Piecoro have the UK radio network call on the UK Sports Radio Network.
Replay: WatchESPN and SEC Network (check local listings).
Predictions: TeamRankings has Kentucky coming away with a 38-10 win.
Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.