Sometimes you just have to come out and say it. The team with the better players typically wins football games. Upsets happen. Newcomers are better than advertised. Star players have down years. But it takes 11 players at a time to win a game and if you can get all 11 guys to play together and play together well, your team should win. Lets break down each position group to see which team stacks up the best.
Louisville starts young Ted Bridgewater, the Sophomore that picked up his first win in this game last year. Teddy handled the pressure of leading a sluggish offense last year as well as anyone could really ask. He's added a ton of bulk this offseason and he will have an experienced line in front of him. Shawn Watson has raved about his maturity and how hard he studies the game. Teddy has gotten plenty of love from the media also. The video posted the other day of him singing a Temptations song tells me that he is plenty relaxed for this game. I expect a great game from him.
Matchup to watch: Teddy vs. Cartier Rice. Rice is a little undersized and hasn't played much in his 4 years. Teddy might go after him early.
Max Smith earned the starting nod from coach Joker Phillips. Phillips has the luck of having Randy Sanders on his staff to coach his signal callers. Sanders has tutored plenty of really good quarterbacks and Smith has the size and arm strength to be his next one. Smith replaced Newton during the Mississippi State game and completed 79% of his passes on 33 attempts. That number looks great for one game but he only threw for 174 yards in that game and finished the season completing 55% of his passes on 153 attempts. Smith also looked a little bit like the backup quarterback from the movie "Necessary Roughness" in that game. He was uncomfortable in the face of pressure but he did get the ball to his reliable receivers. Smith will face pressure that he really hasn't seen yet on Sunday. We will have to wait to see if coach Sanders' coaching is as good as it has been in the past.
Matchup to watch: Smith vs. Louisville's pressure. It really can't be said enough. Just watch.
"The three-headed monster"? "Hydra backs"? "The three musketeers"? I'm funnier in person. Seriously. Whatever they will be called by midseason, Louisville's top three running backs will all see the field Sunday. And they will put up numbers. The talk of there being a feature back has been a little overblown over the last week or so. We won't have a Bilal Powell type of situation this season. Not necessarily because no one is that good, but because there is too much talent to not play them. I think one back will get the bulk of the carries in each game and Charlie will stay with the hot hand. He will keep the other two backs fresh for the fourth quarter. Louisville has Dom Brown and Jeremy Wright returning with plenty of experience with Senorise Perry coming into the fray with a handful of carries last year. The three of them bring a mix of power, size, and speed that Shawn Watson will shuffle around on Sunday.
Matchup to watch: Dom Brown vs. UK's young linebackers. There's plenty of size at the linebacker position but Tyler Brouse was a quarterback a couple of years ago and Miles Simpson has five career tackles. A physical back should have success when he gets to the second level.
Sometimes it's better to stick with one running back. Kentucky has a stable of backs that are all fighting for playing time. Last season Joker shuffled his running backs all season long after Josh Clemons went down with an injury early on. He probably should have stuck with CoShik Williams. Williams had two 100-yard games last year and he fits their offensive system well because he can catch the ball out of the backfield. He looks like Vic Anderson on film and he runs like a kid that had to earn his scholarship (which he did have to). You can't teach toughness and it's really hard to teach versatility. CoShik has both. The young talent behind him might be really good someday. But Williams should be the feature back Sunday. He's earned it.
Matchup to watch: Williams vs. Hakeem Smith. Smith did a great job last year of reading outside run plays and flying up to cut down runners. Williams does a good job for a small guy running between the tackles, but he's most dangerous Sunday if he tries to break plays outside. Smith has a pretty good test week one.
I think Hector Hernandez just got flagged for another false start. Louisville was flagged 9 times in last years game and the flags were plentiful for the first half of the season. This year Mario Benavides is healthy. He's lost weight to get quicker. And he has three other starters and the top reserve from last year lining up with him. This offensive line has the potential to be on par with the lines we had when Bobby Petrino was here. Not full of stars, but solid. Open holes and keep the quarterback clean. My hope is that John Miller is in the shape he needs to be to be able to pull to his left more often. We relied a lot on Jake Smith to be the pulling guard and that makes the offense predictable. The line gave up a lot of sacks last year but some can be attributed to a young quarterback and inexperienced wide receivers. This year they won't have that excuse. I'm betting they won't need it.
Matchup to watch:Louisville's interior line vs. Mister Cobble and Dante Rumph. The two players on UK's defense that will most likely be playing on Sundays in a couple of years will give our line all they can handle. Louisville's task will be to not allow these guys to take up two blockers. That will allow Kentucky's linebackers to be able to fill running lanes and cause problems for Louisville's rushing attack.
Matt Smith missed last years game and I can't help but imagine that it showed. Kentucky's line returned a lot of experience last year but was decimated by injuries early on. I will give them the benefit of the doubt and say that this is why the line was so bad last year. If you look at any highlight video of that game you will see B.J. Butler manhandling Damian Miller. Greg Scruggs taking Chandler Burden to school (yeah I went there). Roy Philon running right past Stuart Hines and All-Sec guard Larry Warford. I honestly couldn't tell if it was communication breakdowns or if the Cats truly underestimated UofL's front four. But it was pretty surprising how bad they played. This year Max Smith will be taking snaps with two second year players manning his blindside and a guard turned tackle protecting him from "rush" ends all season. He can find solace in the fact that his center and right guard are very good players and should help solidify the group as the season progresses. The big question is can Miller and redshirt freshman Zach West handle the blitz packages Vance Bedford will no doubt bring at them.
Matchup to watch: West vs. Philon and Brandon Dunn. Three Kentucky natives going at it all game is one of the better subplots to this game. Roy Philon had a monster game last year and really seemed like he genuinely hated his hometown university. Philon wasn't offered a scholarship by UK. But he is one of the better holdovers from our previous coach. I expect him to really get after it Sunday. West might want to eat his wheaties.
Nate Nord is a player that fans will hopefully get a chance to fall in love with. Guys that fight through injuries should always be revered by fans in my opinion. Some people judge athletes by the fact that they have a scholarship and other amenities. They fail to realize that these guys don't have a ton of free time to be college kids. Add on being repeatedly injured and not being able to reap the benefits of your hard work and it's hard not to root for those kids. Nord has won the starting tight end spot and will hopefully be a prime target for Teddy in the passing game. It's a position for Louisville that doesn't have a ton of production returning, but Nord could have a solid year.
Kentucky has something that I personally think that Shawn Watson wishes he had. A blocking tight end as well as a receiving one. Tyler Robinson is the size of a small offensive lineman and he is known for blocking like one. His downfall is the fact that he is a non-factor in the passing game. I would go in-depth on Ronnie Shields, but just flip Tyler Robinson and you get Shields. Kentucky lives in the "ace" formation, so they don't use two tight ends at the same time. But it's always nice to be able to plug guys in when you need something in particular and that's what Sanders can do. Neither has done a ton in their respective careers, but they fit the need well for UK.
The way a lot of our fans have been talking, I should just give this to Louisville and move on. As excited as I am to watch this talented and deep receiving core. They are still fairly young and haven't put up great numbers yet. But they are so, so , so talented. DeVante Parker was underrated coming out of high school in my opinion. He can't really be covered without help over the top. Andrell Smith has been inconsistent but he still has to be accounted for. Charles Gaines has the speed to shift coverages away from other guys. And let us not forget that our top returning receiver lives in the middle of the field and has been pushed and passed by Scott Radcliff this offseason. Eli Rogers could end up having a great season because of the increased speed on the outside. Any way you look at it, Teddy will have a lot of weapons at his disposal and Shawn Watson might end up feeling like it's Christmas every week. The hope is that these guys progress like we all expect them to.
Matchup to watch: DeVante Parker vs. Martavius Neloms. Neloms hasn't played corner for a while and has admitted that it feels weird to be back there. However, if there is one player that matches up favorably with Parker it's Neloms. He's a long guy that should be pretty physical from playing safety last year. I can't speak to his speed, but I would imagine that Rick Minter would like to have him shadow Parker to keep him away from the much shorter Cartier Rice.
LaRod King is legit. This needs to be said. With no running game and bad quarterback play last season, King still put up respectable numbers. He caught over half of Kentucky's touchdowns last year and really diversified his game by being able to line up all over the field. King has the size to be a nightmare in the red zone and his touchdown last year shows why. Kentucky has practically no production outside of King coming back this year. Joker put Gene McCaskill and E.J. Fields at the top of their positions on the depth chart but he has said some younger players will play. Daryll Collins and Demarco Robinson will have to make major contributions this year or King will be keyed on all year. Not just Sunday.
Matchup to watch: King vs. Adrian Bushell in the red zone. Bedford seems content not shadowing receivers but I would be shocked if he left five-foot-nine Andrew Johnson or Terrell Floyd on King in the red zone. Bushell isn't that much taller, but he has more experience and he has freakishly long arms.
Easily the deepest position for Louisville, the defensive line has really transformed itself since the arrival of coach Strong. For what the defense needs out of its line we will finally see four guys that can do everything that they're asked of. Marcus Smith and B.J. Dubose will be able to get after the quarterback while also holding their ground against the run. Brandon Dunn will take up blockers while also doing his best to shoot gaps on traps and counters. Roy Philon fits so well at the defensive tackle spot that I think he could be able to push for first team all-Big East. But what is really getting people excited, and rightfully so, is the fact that we should be able to bring in an entire second group and not have a big drop off. Hell, we might even be better with the second group in some situations.
Matchup to watch: B.J. Dubose vs. Damian Miller. Miller was dominated by B.J. Butler last year. Butler used his brute strength to overmatch a kid that was straight out of high school. I was under the impression that Miller started every game last year but he only started two. He played in every game so he's earned some experience but he's still a little on the light side. Dubose will be just as big of a test as he had last year. It's like he failed and had to retake the class.
Kentucky only uses three true defensive lineman in their defense. Based on the production they put up last year, it seems like they didn't really have that great of a season. Sometimes stats get overblown and this is a pretty good example of why. The job of the defensive line in a 3-4 defense is to plug holes and occupy blockers. It is a defense meant for good linebackers and UK had really good ones last year. Mister Cobble and Donte Rumph are huge bodies that are built to stuff the run. Collins Ukwu made a handful of plays behind the line last season and is the leader of the defense. This position should probably be a push because the talent gap isn't really that big. However, UK was flat out awful against the run last year. Having two 300-pounders doesn't mean much when they're getting pushed five yards off the line of scrimmage each play.
Matchup to watch: Mister Cobble vs. Mario Benavides. Mario has dropped about 15 pounds this summer and it's obvious when you look at him. Mario is a great center but he had a handful of moments when guys were just too quick off the ball for him. His weight loss will be tested early with Cobble. Cobble is a stocky nose tackle that uses short build to try to get leverage. Mario will have to do a good job of getting to the point of attack first to try to open holes for the running game.
EDGE: UOFL (It shouldn't be)
Both teams will be making adjustments at the linebacker position this year. Louisville we see Preston Brown move to the middle and take over the leadership role. George Durant will also be a new face. The former walk-on held off talented freshman Keith Brown and others to earn the starting spot. Durant will team with Preston and Daniel Brown to form a solid group of linebackers with a good amount of playing time between them. Dexter Heyman did pretty much everything for the defense last year. It's up to Preston to fill a major void. Look for Deiontrez Mount and B.J. Butler to get minutes in the 3-3-5 when Bedford goes to it. They can all cover short routes while also being able to get after the quarterback.
Matchup to watch: I wanted to go with Mount/Butler vs. Kevin Mitchell but I think that when Smith gets rattled he tends to look to the middle of the field. So I'm looking for Preston Brown to be able to show blitz a time or two then drop back in a zone and maybe get a pick.
Four new starters is four new starters. You can't sugar coat that even if you brought in our three stud linebacker recruits. The position is responsible for a lot of different things. The middle linebacker typically calls the play. The weakside backer is responsible for contain. The strongside backer is usually the first man to plug the running lane. And someone from the group is responsible for making sure people are in the right place. When you have to entrust those responsibilities to a group of guys that have never played together, it's hard to be comfortable.
Matchup to watch: Alvin "I'm not calling him Bud" Dupree vs. Jamon Brown. Potential vs. potential. Dupree is the big hope for UK fans. His name is mentioned in every article, post, and conversation about UK's young defense. He really got after the quarterback late last season when he took over for Ridge Wilson. These two guys could either have a great battle Sunday, or someone could get exposed.
EDGE: UOFL (Easily)
Two all-conference defensive backs is pretty rare with the size of most conferences. Having both players returning to school is even more rare. That's the case with Hakeem Smith and Adrian Bushell. They join true sophomores Calvin Pryor and either Andrew Johnson/Terrell Floyd in Louisville's now deep defensive backfield again this year. Smith is a field general that has developed from a lanky wide receiver recruit into the best strong safety in the big east. Smith has improved his coverage skills while still being an absolute missile when attacking the run game. Bushell has all the tools one needs to be a shutdown cornerback. Reading his interview with C.L. Brown a little while ago was pretty refreshing. He owned his mistakes and talked about the fact that his dedication level has gone through the roof. I personally think that Calvin Pryor will leave here as the best safety we have ever seen. It's early in his career but they just don't make guys his size that can actually cover ground and pick off passes. The depth we have now should be on full display against UK Sunday. They like to keep three receivers on the field and Louisville doesn't have linebackers that can really keep up with slot receivers. Gerod Holliman should be on the field a lot Sunday and hopefully he can show why he was a top rated safety coming out of high school.
Matchup to watch: Calvin Pryor vs. space. I expect coach Bedford to blitz heavily while using Hakeem as a blitzer or a robber. Smith might sit in the middle of the field and try to take away the quick crossing routes. This leaves Pryor in a deep zone with a ton of space to cover. If you want a somewhat similar situation, watch Parker and Andrell's touchdown catches from last year. A safety is trying to get there on both plays. Pryor has really good speed for a big guy, but if we don't get to the quarterback Pryor might be left looking like the goat.
Kentucky had a very good pass defense last year. They finished twenty first in the country in yards allowed per game. To be able to do this with almost no pass rush says a lot about their secondary. They went through their entire season without giving up a big game to any opposing player, which is hard to do in the SEC. Unfortunately for Kentucky fans, three of the five of those starters from last year are now gone. Along with that, Mikie Benton didn't make many plays last year even though he started and Martavius Neloms has been forced to move back to cornerback due to an injury to Marcus Caffey. There are a lot of issues for UK in the secondary and we haven't even gotten to the four freshman backups.
Matchup to watch: Ashley Lowery vs. Rogers/Radcliff. Lowery got some playing time last season when Neloms went down with an injury. He is an athletic kid that might have success playing against our slot receivers. He played some corner in high school and isn't a bulky guy. Time will tell if he is the tackler that Neloms was at that spot last year.
I don't want to break this down too much because I already have. But there will be a lot of new faces for both teams Sunday. Two spots that are overlooked all of the time are the long snapper and the holder. Well Kentucky has freshmen at both spots. Including a guy whose position is literally "Holder". Which has to be an absolute first. If the weather is an issue Sunday this could play a bigger role than it ever should. With that being said, I still think Kentucky has the edge because of their kicker. The weather could make it a bigger one.
Matchup to watch: Landon Foster vs. Louisville's punt block team. I don't care what Joker says. You can't simulate pressure in practice and this kid will be in for something he hasn't experienced before. He was at prom five months ago, bro.
EDGE: UK (So there's that...)