Even after Thursday night’s unexpected results in the SEC, there should be little doubt as to whether Kentucky can handle the challenge UT Martin will present in its season opener Saturday.

The Cats are undefeated in the regular season against non-conference opponents from outside the state of Kentucky since 2009, and have beaten FCS opponents by an average of more than 28 points per contest during that span.

A win Saturday is not all it will take for UK to consider its opener a success. The Cats haven’t beaten an FCS opponent by fewer than 24 points in the last five seasons, proving Kentucky will need some style points to feel good about Saturday’s game.

Here is a guide for determining whether the Wildcats showdown with the Skyhawks can be considered a success:

  1. Kentucky wins by at least 24: However they do it, if UK can reach the 24-point margin as it has against its last five FCS opponents, it could be considered a success. Winning by 24-or-more points shows the victory came down to more than just one or two plays. If the Cats are as improved as head coach Mark Stoops claims, they should be able to dominate UT Martin from start to finish, easily running up a winning margin this steep.
  2. Patrick Towles completes 65 percent of his passes: Towles has had a couple of weeks at practice as the Cats undisputed starting quarterback, and Saturday will be his first chance to show the nation how well he can command this offense. Not only is Towles a new face at quarterback, but he is joined on offense by a handful of brand new, true freshmen receivers. The Cats will need to find chemistry in the passing game early in the season if they want to compete in the SEC East, and if Towles can complete at least 65 percent of his throws against UT Martin it will be a good indicator of the timing and rhythm he has formed with his wideouts.
  3. The defense holds the Skyhawks to 17 points or less: Kentucky has three star defensive ends in Bud Dupree, Za’Darius Smith and Jason Hatcher, all of whom may give opposing quarterbacks nightmares this season. But the Cats defense is also replacing its leading tackler from last season and its top-three defensive tackles on last year’s depth chart. A number of players on the Kentucky defense will need to find a niche in the unit as fast as possible, and if the Wildcats can hold the Skyhawks to 17 points or less it might be a sign that some of their better players are growing comfortable in this year’s defense.
  4. The Cats win the turnover margin: Turnovers can be the great equalizer in college football, balancing an otherwise uneven playing field between two mismatched opponents. Kentucky may be the favorite this weekend, but it will be an underdog in a majority of its conference matchups down the line. If it shows it can force turnovers with a healthy pass rush and improved secondary, it might be able to surprise some teams in the SEC this season. However, if it commits one or more careless turnovers against the Skyhawks, it could be a sign of things to come. Turnovers may not cost the Cats a win this particular Saturday, but they will most of the season.
  5. Landon Foster averages at least 42 yards per punt: Kentucky has been affectionately referred to as “Punter U” in the past, a tongue-in-cheek reference to its doormat status in the SEC and how often its offense must punt the ball away after failed offensive series. The Cats really have been among the conference’s leaders in punting in recent years, salvaging the field position battle even when the UK offenses of years past sputtered. If Foster can continue that trend with a handful of booming punts Saturday, it will be an asset to the Cats all year long.