Mark Stoops’ biggest step forward in his tenure as Kentucky football coach came in 2016. A bowl berth and a win over a ranked Louisville team and eventual Heisman winner Lamar Jackson punctuated a 7-6 season.
It didn’t start off so well, however.
On Saturday, Kentucky looks for revenge against a Southern Miss team that upset the Wildcats in Lexington to start the 2016 season. That 44-35 loss to the Golden Eagles was followed by a 45-7 setback against Florida.
From there, the Wildcats went 7-3 in their final 10 games to take Stoops off the hot seat.
Ahead of Kentucky’s 2017 season opener, SEC Country predicts what will happen on Saturday.
Benny Snell rushing touchdowns: O/U 2.5 TDs
Kyle Tucker: Over. Snell didn’t play against USM last season (or in the next game against Florida). Then he rushed for 4 touchdowns in his first college game on his way to a UK freshman-record 13 scores and almost 1,100 yards in 11 games. The Golden Eagles allowed 3-plus rushing touchdowns five times in their final eight games last fall.
Joe Mussatto: Over. Snell was on the sidelines against Southern Miss last season, but Kentucky’s offense heading into Week 1 is a lot different this season. Drew Barker started at quarterback in last year’s game and Snell didn’t get a touch. Eddie Gran had to change the offense when Stephen Johnson took over, and that’s about the same time Snell emerged. He’s one of the most underrated running backs in the SEC, and he’ll get his season started with 3 rushing touchdowns.
Stephen Johnson rushing yards: O/U 100 yards
Kyle Tucker: Under. I can’t imagine Kentucky wants to expose its slightly bigger but still-slender QB to significant punishment in Week 1, especially after he hobbled to the finish line last season. Johnson’s biggest rushing total of 2016 was 83 yards against Louisville.
Joe Mussatto: Under. Johnson has the ability to take off when plays collapse, but he doesn’t get many runs called for him. Johnson might keep on a few reads, but Kentucky has to protect him. Not only that, but the coaching staff needs to make sure the fumbling woes are behind him.
Drew Barker passing yards: O/U 75 yards
Kyle Tucker: Over. OK, now we’re having some fun here. While Johnson is the starter, coaches have been sure to keep Barker’s name in the mix throughout the offseason and preseason. Lest we forget, he threw for 287 yards and 4 touchdowns in the first quarter-and-a-half against USM last season, building that 25-point lead before a back injury (that eventually required season-ending surgery, opening the door for Johnson) on the first drive of the second half. Whether it’s because the Wildcats build a big lead or because Johnson falters early, I think we’ll see Barker in this game — and he’ll air it out.
Joe Mussatto: Under. I’m just not buying Barker’s chances of playing. Maybe he sees a series or two if Kentucky blows the game open, but the Wildcats won’t be airing it out by that point. I don’t believe Kentucky has a quarterback controversy. I don’t even think it’s a true competition. Johnson’s leash is longer than most think. He was under center for a seven-win season and Barker hasn’t played in almost a year. The quarterback questions could be over after Week 1 if Johnson plays well.
Kentucky forced turnovers: O/U 1.5
Kyle Tucker: Over. The Wildcats forced three against the Golden Eagles last season and averaged three over the final four regular-season games. Oh yeah, and only three FBS teams in the country had more turnovers than Southern Miss’ whopping 32 last season.
Joe Mussatto: Over. Kentucky and Southern Miss have something in common: Both teams turned over the ball a ton last season. Kentucky turned over the ball 28 times and Southern Miss turned it over 32 times to rank 121st and 124th, respectively, in turnovers lost. Yikes. Maybe Southern Miss will solve its ball-security issues, but the safe bet says probably not.
Kentucky (-10) at Southern Miss (+10)
(Game spread provided by MyBookie.ag)
Kyle: Kentucky (-10). The Wildcats cover, despite last season’s stunning loss at home to the Golden Eagles and having to open the 2017 schedule in Hattiesburg. Remember, UK led by 25 in the first half before the wheels came off a year ago. Mark Stoops’ team won’t take its foot off the gas this time. Kentucky 38, Southern Miss 24.
Joe: Push. I don’t know if I’m allowed to pick a push, but I have to stick to my preseason picks for at least the first week. Kentucky avenges last season’s loss to Southern Miss, but not in blowout fashion. Starting on the road won’t be easy, but the Cats are the better team. Kentucky 38, Southern Miss 28.