Kentucky football: 5 things we have to see in Week 1
The last time Kentucky took the field, the Cats won their 10th game of the season, their biggest bowl victory in at least a quarter century, and showcased a load of veteran stars — most of whom are in the NFL.
Saturday might not present as much of an obvious opportunity for glory … but if Kentucky hopes to prove it is more than a 1-hit wonder, there are some things we need to see Saturday against Toledo.
1. A focused team that’s ready to play
Before last season, the last time Kentucky had a 9-win season (1984), they opened the next year by getting upset by MAC opponent Bowling Green. They went 5-6 that year, and didn’t return to a bowl for 9 years. Mark Stoops’ Kentucky teams haven’t always started like a house on fire, whether it was a 44-35 loss to Southern Miss in 2016 or sleepy victories to open the past 2 seasons. Kentucky can’t stumble in Week 1, and Toledo is a team that could cause a few stumbles.
2. Something in the passing game
Terry Wilson was a game manager for most of the 2018 season. He could dink and dunk, make an occasional scramble, hand the ball to Benny Snell and let his defense win games. Witness Kentucky’s league-worst 161.5 passing yards per game. Well, Snell is gone, and the defense has its own adjustments to make. Wilson has to get more consistent in the mid-range passing game. Nobody is expecting Spurrier-ball … but a balanced Kentucky team needs 200 yards passing and an absence of any back-breaking mistakes.
3. Somebody stepping up in the secondary
Toledo has a high-scoring offense and a dangerous dual-threat QB in Mitchell Guadagni. The bad news for Kentucky is that the Wildcats will feature a team full of incredibly inexperienced defensive backs. The projected starters at cornerback are sophomore Cedrick Dort (6 career tackles) and redshirt freshman Jamari Brown, who hasn’t seen a snap. The backups are a JUCO and a true freshman. The starting free safety and starting nickelback are sophomores and have a combined 18 career tackles.
4. Conversions on 3rd down
One aspect of Kentucky’s game that will be hard to match is how good the Wildcats were with Snell on 3rd-and-manageable. A.J. Rose is a talented back who is superior to Snell on the edge of the defense, but there’s reason to doubt whether he’ll be anywhere near as tough on 3rd-and-short. If Kentucky can’t go with Rose, can they count on Wilson to make 3rd-down decisions to keep drives moving?
5. Whether anybody (or a couple of anybodies) can fill Josh Allen’s shoes
The Kentucky All-American edge rusher was a one in a million type of player. Can his 17 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss be replaced by 1 player? Almost certainly not. Perhaps more directly, can Kentucky cobble together 38 sacks again as a team, which tied them for 3rd in the SEC in 2018?
Particularly given the lack of experience in the secondary, a solid pass rush could camouflage several other defensive issues. Jamar Watson will pick up some of the slack, and inside, T.J. Carter seems poised for an excellent senior season. If the NCAA clears Florida State transfer Xavier Peters, that could be huge. Even if no single player goes off for All-SEC honors, if Kentucky has a statement to make up front, it’s probably that depth will help offset the massive loss of Allen, 1 sack or tackle for loss at a time.