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Countdown Q&A: Kentucky

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 28 Tennessee at Kentucky Photo by Jeff Moreland/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Another season is upon us, and therefore it’s time to embark on the whimsical journey of the weekly opponent Q&A. Sometimes we only gain a little insight, but often our football brethren from across the country share a wealth of knowledge about their respective teams and what we may see when they roll the ball out there in the next few days.

The Cards next opponent is the Wildcats of Kentucky. Coming out of the gate hot, Kentucky took a 5-0 record into Georgia, and like most every other team in the country, got brought back down to earth a bit. What was somewhat surprising is that UK never seemingly recovering from that loss, and dropped four of the next five heading into this week. We know records mean very little coming into rivalry week, so what can we expect from the team up the road the last week of the regular season? To learn more about the Cats I reached out to our friends over at ‘A Sea of Blue’ and talked with Jason Marcum to learn more about Kentucky and what to keep an eye out for on Saturday. Lets get it.

I’ll be the first to raise my hand and say I haven’t watched much Kentucky football this year, but every time I go to prep for this one (especially in the last 5-6 years) I typically expect to see a stout defense and an excellent running game leading the charge. While stats can only paint part of the picture it looks like those aren’t exactly two strong suits for the Cats this year, hanging out near the bottom of the SEC in rushing offense and middle of the pack in scoring defense. So what’s the identity of the 2023 Kentucky Football team?

Kentucky v Mississippi State Photo by Michael Chang/Getty Images

That’s a good question. The truth is they don’t really have one. Early on in the season, it was a strong running game and good defense. Problem is that it was against the cupcake teams and Florida, who may not even make a bowl. Once the schedule got tough, Kentucky had to pass more on offense, which has been pretty bad outside of the Tennessee game. I’m not sure if it’s the step-up in competition (ACC to SEC) and/or the lengthy injury history Devin Leary has, but he just isn’t it. And when you don’t have a real QB in the SEC, it’s hard to have even a .500 team, which is ironically where Kentucky will be with a loss at Louisville.

And the defense, it has good players in the front seven, but the secondary is a weakness that just hasn’t been able to find any real consistency this year. Maxwell Hairston has been a great starting cornerback, but the rest of the secondary has left a lot to be desired, partly due to injuries. It’s probably one of the worst secondary's Mark Stoops has had in Lexington if you take out the early years when he rebuilt the program from scratch.

So yeah, can’t pass and can’t defend the pass is a recipe for bad football.

In years past I usually look to the leading rusher for UK to see who is going for 100+ consistently each week, and what the Cards can try and do to limit that attack. This year it appears Vandy transfer Ray Davis is that guy, inching closer to a 1,000 yard season. What has he brought to the team, and how has the O-line (usually one of the stronger units for Kentucky) contributed to that success?

Davis has been a miracle worker for Kentucky. Without him, there’s no doubt in my mind this team is already out of the bowl mix and could be looking at a 4-8 regular season. And the offensive line has been improved from last year, though it’s still not good enough to overcome the passing game not being more consistent. Teams can stack the box with ease and overwhelm that unit, and I’d be shocked if Louisville doesn’t do the same and make Devin Leary beat them.

Tough to ignore some of the chatter about Stoops underperforming a bit this season, and dropping some games many expected Kentucky to win. What’s the pulse check of the fan base right now with this staff? Does the outcome of this game move the needle significantly one way or the other, and do you think Brohm's quick success also plays a factor?

Stoops has been great at beating the .500ish teams and not much else as of late, so that’s where a lot of frustration comes from, especially after losing to a South Carolina team that could have finished 4-8 if Kentucky held on and then they lost to Clemson this week. That’s the kind of game Stoops has been money in, so when that falters, it’s easy to wonder if the program hasn’t capped out with him in charge. But a win over a ranked Louisville team would certainly help things. And Brohm’s success does make it easier to complain about. Me personally, I’m a little more jealous that Louisville got such a favorable schedule compared to playing top-20 teams every other week like Kentucky has. But it actually reminds me of when Kentucky/Stoops went 10-3 in 2021 largely beating teams that finished with losing records. That schedule wasn’t much better than what Louisville has this year (arguably worse if you include Florida State in the ACC Championship and the impending New Year’s Six opponent). So I guess both programs have been blessed with favorable schedules in the post-COVID era.

While this may sound like rivalry banter, one of the things which has annoyed me in years past is the outside the lines stuff from Stoops, having players attempt to pick fights in pregame warmups, the obvious targeting of Lamar Jackson to try and get him ejected in 2017 (trash can fight), and so on. I thought maybe Stoops had moved on from that stuff but then I saw more of it during the UK-Tenn game earlier this year. You think we see more of this “intimidation” stuff this year before/during game? What’s your take on it?

Oh no that’s another good reason why people are so quick to get fed up with Stoops. Most, if not all of us hate it. The childish antics get old as soon as they happen, even when Kentucky is winning. Things like trash-talking Jordan Watkins after Kentucky beat Louisville in 2019 while he was still a high school recruit is just petty. I get he’s often trying to get into opponent’s heads, but grow up, dude.

Cats defense has had some highlights this year and has shown up a few times to help win games. Who are some of the guys we should be circling on gameday to avoid? What has helped them in continuing to play above-average in the run defense, an area UofL will try to attack?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV. 05 Kentucky at Missouri

I mentioned Hairston above. He’s really good and can help take away whoever Louisville matches up with him, so the Cards would be best served to throw away from him. Trevin Wallace is an athletic sideline-to-sideline backer who can rush the passer effectively. But the real menace is Deone Walker, one of the best interior defensive linemen in college football. He will absolutely wreak havoc in the backfield if you can’t consistently get a hat or even two on him. He’s also coming off a very strong performance vs. the Gamecocks, though it should be mentioned they have an abysmal offensive line. Louisville’s unit will be a significant upgrade, so it will be interesting to see if they can consistently keep him away from the ball carrier.

This game has been pretty-one sided for years now. Louisville points to Satterfield not taking the game seriously, Kentucky points to separation in talent. I think both things could be true. In year one of Jeff Brohm this staff has not shied away from noting what big games are, and placing an importance on them during the year. While it appears the teams are heading in opposite directions the last six weeks of the season, we’ve seen before records rarely matter when the whistle blows. How do you think this plays out on Saturday?

As you said, both teams are heading in opposite directions. With the perfect amount of chaos over the next two weeks, there’s still a chance for Louisville to sneak into that last playoff spot, so just having that to play for should ensure Louisville brings its A+ game this week, rivalry or not. And since these players have never beaten Kentucky, they’ll be playing with a revenge factor of sorts to finally get the Governor’s Cup back to the Ville.

For the Wildcats, they seem to have lost their edge and are just waiting for the season to end. I’m sure they’ll play hard for at least a few quarters in this one, but if Louisville can pounce early, Kentucky may fold up shop and start planning for Cancun or worry about whatever cryptic social media posts they’re going to write as soon as the game ends like they’ve got some deadline from J. Jonah Jameson to beat.

Final score: Louisville 33, Kentucky 24

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A big thanks to Jason for his time and solid info about the 2023 Cats. Feel free to check out Jason and ‘A Sea of Blue’ on TwitterX right here, for news leading up to the game.

I went back to August to see where I thought we would be when this game rolled around and here’s what I said way back then....

The 8-3 prediction was wrong for Louisville, the 8-3 prediction was wrong for Kentucky, the second-tier bowl prediction was wrong...and the final score prediction....was WRONG. Cards, lead by a staff that understands the significance of the rivalry, finally gets over the hump and brings the Cup back to it’s rightful home. Cards 31-20.