Kentucky football: Checking the pulse after an odd, unbeaten start
Kentucky football is 3-0. That really is the most important fact. There have been plenty of years, some not so long ago, when Kentucky started 1-2 or 0-3, and the hopes of a trip to even Memphis or Shreveport were set aside for a countdown until Big Blue Madness. 2021 is not that year. Kentucky is 3-0. So is it weird that much of Big Blue Nation isn’t happy?
Will the real Kentucky stand up?
Is it the team that passed for 400 yards in Week 1, that ran the ball down Missouri’s throat in Week 2 and that won 3 games? Or is it the team that has had next to no pass rush in the last 2 weeks, that has displayed a talent for costly and untimely turnovers and that was substantially outrushed by FCS Chattanooga in Saturday’s 28-23 win? From week to week, and sometimes from quarter to quarter, it’s hard to tell which Kentucky will appear. The good news is that the good Kentucky is very good — 2nd in the East, 9-3 or 10-2 good. The bad Kentucky is Joker Phillips Kentucky with a couple of athletes tacked on.
Who has emerged?
The most consistent standout for the Wildcats has been Nebraska transfer Wan’Dale Robinson. Robinson has 3 consecutive 100-yard receiving games, something UK hasn’t seen since Derek Abney in 2001. In fact, Robinson is the first Wildcat ever to open a season with such a trifecta. He has also rushed for 73 yards, is a constant threat on special teams and has generally been everything he was expected to be.
Quarterback Will Levis has been good but much spottier than Robinson. Three games have yielded 800 passing yards and 7 touchdowns through the air and a nose for the 1st-down marker on the ground. But Levis has thrown 4 picks and has missed some makeable plays that could be much more damaging against Florida or Georgia than against UL-Monroe or Chattanooga.
Running back Chris Rodriguez Jr. had an ugly Week 3, but so did most of the team. But on the season, his 369 yards and 6.3 yards per carry have been a strength, although he has struggled at times with ball security.
Who has disappointed?
Kentucky’s offensive line hasn’t been bad, exactly, but watching the Wildcats get outrushed by Chattanooga was perplexing. It’s probably also not a great sign that Levis has been sacked 7 teams, considering that one opponent was an FCS school and one was one of the half-dozen worst FBS squads. The talent is plainly there, but it will have to ramp up the consistency over the rest of the season.
Kentucky’s defense has been more than a little flat. UK has committed 8 turnovers and forced just 2. In the last pair of games, Kentucky’s pass rush has been nonexistent. As disappointing as anything, the UK group has just been very vanilla. It plays back on receivers and concedes underneath passes, and it lets opposing backs grind for extra yardage. It hasn’t mattered much yet, but Florida, LSU and Georgia in consecutive weeks will be a different story than UL-Monroe, Missouri and Chattanooga.
What kind of team is this?
That might be the most frustrating thing — it’s not clear. Levis can throw, and Robinson and senior receiver Josh Ali can make big plays down the field. That said, the Missouri game saw UK leaning on Rodriguez and passing just situationally. The Chattanooga game saw a flat ground attack, with Levis having to strike through the air.
Similarly, the run defense was stout in Week 1 and decent in Week 2. The pass defense has struggled since the porous UL-Monroe offensive line left town.
At this point, the biggest players on this team prominently include 3 transfers — Levis, Robinson and Ole Miss linebacker transfer Jacquez Jones, who is UK’s leading tackler and has 1 of its 2 defensive takeaways. Without those guys, it would have been a long September.
It will enter November with a 5-3 record
The next 5 games will tell the tale of Kentucky’s season. The Wildcats figure to be a slight road favorite at both South Carolina and Mississippi State. They seem like a mild home underdog to LSU and a decent home underdog against Florida. And Georgia on the road is a tall task for anybody. When UK was threatening to go up 28-7 on Missouri, there were plenty in Big Blue Nation who would have said that only Georgia and perhaps 1 more game would be losses … for the season. That said, if the UK squad from the Chattanooga game shows up for the rest of the year, the Wildcats would likely go 5-7.
Winning at South Carolina is critical. A split of the home series with Florida and LSU is a reasonable albeit ambitious goal. For now, it seems likely that UK grabs 2 of the 4 winnable games. Winning 3 of the 4 will have UK in the Top 25 and looking at a 9-3 type of season. Winning just 1 of the 4 leaves UK coasting into the Music City Bowl. We’ll hedge our bets until we’re sure which UK team is the real one.