Scout.com/Jeff Drummond

Breaking down the Kentucky Wildcats' season opener against Southern Miss

This AW feature gives you everything you need to know about the Kentucky Wildcats' matchup with the Southern Miss Golden Eagles in the season opener for both teams on Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium. Drew Barker (pictured above) is expected to begin the season as UK's starting quarterback.

KENTUCKY vs. SOUTHERN MISS

WHEN: SATURDAY, SEPT. 3, 7:30 ET

WHERE: COMMONWEALTH STADIUM (61,000) LEXINGTON, KY

TV: ESPNU  (Anish Shroff & Ahmad Brooks)

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KENTUCKY WILDCATS

Record: 0-0 (5-7 in 2015, SEC)

Ranking: Not ranked

Head Coach: Mark Stoops (Iowa 1989) 4th Year at UK (12-24)

Last Game: Lost 38-24 vs. Louisville on 11/28/2015

SOUTHERN MISS GOLDEN EAGLES

Record: 0-0 (9-5 in 2015, C-USA)

Ranking: Not ranked

Head Coach: Jay Hopson (Ole Miss 1992) 1st Year at USM (0-0)

Last Game: Lost 44-31 vs. Washington on 12/26/2015 in the Heart of Dallas Bowl

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Series Record: UK leads 2-0

In Lexington: UK leads 2-0

Last Meeting: UK won 32-0 at Commonwealth Stadium in 1986

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BIG BLUE KEYS TO THE GAME:

When Kentucky has the ball… The Cats feel extremely confident in the offensive unit they will put on the field to begin the 2016 season. Kentucky features a strong, experienced offensive line, anchored by senior center Jon Toth, and a deep stable of running backs that figure to carry the load in the opener. If the Cats can establish the run early and move the chains with Jojo Kemp and Stanley "Boom" Williams, that will take a great deal of pressure off sophomore quarterback Drew Barker playing his first game under his third offensive coordinator (Eddie Gran) since signing with UK. It will also keep Southern Miss star quarterback Nick Mullens on the sidelines instead of showing off his potent right arm. When the Cats do put the ball in the air, they've got a good group of playmakers at wide receiver, led by senior Ryan Timmons and juniors Jeff Badet and Garrett Johnson. Another pass-catching weapon, junior Dorian Baker, is the most physically-gifted in the corps, but he has been dealing with a strained hamstring muscle for almost two weeks and his status for Saturday is unclear. Look for UK's tight ends -- sophomore C.J. Conrad and junior Greg Hart -- to play a much bigger role in Gran's offense than previous coordinators.

When Southern Miss has the ball… The Cats will be facing one of the best quarterbacks in the country in the form of Southern Miss senior Nick Mullens (4,476 yards, 38 TD, 12 INT) who helped the Golden Eagles average 39.9 points per game a year ago. It's an interesting matchup because USM's offensive strength is the passing game and UK's defensive strength is a secondary that many believe to be among the SEC's best this season. A great subplot is the presence of Shannon Dawson (UK's offensive coordinator in 2015) now occupying the same position with Southern Miss after being released by Stoops just one year on the job. It's no secret that Dawson likes to air it out, so expect the "Air Raid" disciple to have Mullens challenge the talented UK secondary. That unit will need help from the front seven, which enters the season under the microscope after the Cats recorded a paltry 17 sacks last season. No pressure on Mullens will likely mean a long night for the UK defense, regardless of how talented the secondary is. Southern Miss also has a talented running back to watch, junior Ito Smith (5-9, 195) who rushed for 1,128 yards (6.6 ypc) and 10 touchdowns a year ago. He also caught 49 passes for 515 yards and three more scores last season. That could be a challenging test for the Cats' inexperienced linebacker crew.

MILESTONE WATCH:

Ryan Timmons needs just 12 yards to become the 25th player in school history to reach 1,000 career receiving yards. Garrett Johnson needs only 35 yards receiving to join the same group. 

ON THIS DAY IN UK HISTORY:

Kentucky has previously played three times on Sept. 3, holding a 2-1 record. The Cats defeated Louisville 20-14 on this day in 1994, the first game between the in-state rivals since 1924. Damon Hood led UK with 108 yards rushing, while Moe Williams added 52 yards and a touchdown to lead the Big Blue ground attack. Antonio O'Feral connected with Clyde Rudolph on a 64-yard touchdown pass and later scored on a 4-yard touchdown run with 3:18 remaining in the fourth quarter to give UK the lead. Donte Key intercepted the Cardinals on the final drive to seal the win for the Cats. 

NOTES:

  • Kentucky begins its 126th season of college football.
  • The Cats are 11-11 under Stoops at Commonwealth Stadium.
  • UK has one player from the state of Mississippi on its current roster, backup center Jervontius "Bunchy" Stallings. USM features no players from the Bluegrass State.
  • Veterans Jon Toth, J.D. Harmon and Ryan Timmons have the most career games played (36) on the young UK roster.
  • The Cats have won 27 consecutive games when staked to a lead at the end of the third quarter, the longest such streak in the SEC.

https://twitter.com/UKStoopsTroops/status/771739532244897792


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