The 2016 college football season is FINALLY upon us, and in just a few days Southern Miss will head north for their opener with the Kentucky Wildcats. The two are set to square off with a kick-off at 6:30 CST and the game will be televised by the ESPN Network (ESPNU). In our weekly feature of "know the foe," we'll look a little deeper at the Southern Miss opponent for the upcoming weekend. We talked to All Wildcats Scout.com publisher Jeff Drummond to get a feel for what to expect from the Big Blue this season.
Southern Miss and Kentucky History:
You don't have to dig very deep to find out the history between Southern Miss and Kentucky, as they've only played twice. Those match-ups haven't been pretty for the black and gold either. In 1949, Kentucky demolished Southern Miss 71-7, and when they met again in 1986 it was once again Kentucky winning in a blow out 32-0. Both of those games were played in Lexington. Southern Miss has played an SEC opponent in 49 of the last 53 years, and they are 3-14 on the road against SEC opponents in openers.
Kentucky On Offense:
Kentucky and Southern Miss are very similar on offense in philosophy and style, and not just because they have Shannon Dawson in common. Kentucky has opened up the offense since Mark Stoops arrived in Lexington (12-24, 4th season).
Starting QB Drew Barker has won the job and will make the start for the Wildcats. Barker is 6'3, 225 and is in his sophomore season and he's also home grown from Burlington, KY. Barker was in a bit of a QB battle in the spring but according to Drummond, has clearly become the go to guy.
"Barker is the unquestioned starter," he said. "They may use (Stephen) Johnson in certain situations to mix things up with the run, but I don't think we'll see him in this first game because it's expected to be so competitive."
At Running back, Kentucky is deep and talented, and according to Drummond may even play five in the opener.
Senior Jojo Kemp returns and is listed as the starter on the depth chart. Kemp has plenty of experience, and at 5'10, 200 is like a bowling ball that is difficult to bring down and can really run with authority. Kemp rushed for 555 yards last year but shared a lot of the load with electric "Boom" Williams who also returns as the #2 back. To quote Drummond in an article on the Kentucky rushing situation, "In addition to Kemp and Williams, UK also has plans to use junior Mikel Horton, sophomore Sihiem King and freshman Benny Snell." LINK
The WR Core is deep and talented, led by Junior Jeff Badet.
Also returning is senior Ryan Timmons, and Juniors Garrett Johnson and Dorian Baker. Also keep an eye on explosive redshirt freshman Tavin Richardson, who is expected to get some touches and opportunities to make plays in Eddie Gran's offense. This group is unselfish and Drew Baker certainly will have plenty of weapons at his disposal. Last season Kentucky threw for 2,512 yards total, and an average of 209 per game. Under Eddie Gran, the Wildcats are going to turn it loose and display a very up tempo, spread attack.
Kentucky on Defense:
When you traditionally think of Kentucky football, you think of some explosive offenses that have put up a lot of points and created nightmares for defensive coordinators. Names like Jared Lorenzen, Randall Cobb, and Tim Couch quickly come to mind.
While Kentucky hasn't traditionally been known for defense, the secondary this year hopes they can leave that same mark on the minds of Kentucky faithful.
Chris Westry and Derrick Baity are the CB's, and though they are only both sophomores, they've got a lot of fans excited about their elite cover skills. They'll certainly need it against the potent attacks they'll be facing this season. They are also anchored at safety by senior Marcus McWilson.
"If there is a player group the staff is most confident in this season, there would be two," Drummond informed us.
"Kentucky is really deep at RB and the secondary is the best I've ever seen in more than 30 years of following the program. If you had to pick just one, it would be the secondary, which some feel may be the best in the SEC this season."
As we all know, however, the secondary is only as good as its front seven, and that is an area that has some question marks according to Drummond.
"If there is an area of concern it's inexperience in the defensive front seven," he said.
"There is plenty of talent in the mix, but nobody has any idea how it will perform when the lights come on. They need those guys to play well in order to let the secondary shine."
Stoops, a defensive coach, must find guys to step up immediately as they lost three of the top five tacklers from a year ago, and the LB's lost their top four tacklers. Certainly concerns, but Stoops has made this area of recruiting a priority, so there will be talent, although inexperienced. Depth is an issue along the defensive line for Kentucky as well.
Make no mistake about it, this is the area where the Wildcats will need some young guys to grow up quickly.
Coaching and Expectations:
Everyone knows the rich basketball tradition at Kentucky, but head coach Mark Stoops came in wanting to prove you can win consistently in football in Lexington, too. He's got his work cut out for him. Last year, the Wildcats started off very strong. They were 4-1 before losing 6 of 7 and missing out on a bowl game. Kentucky is 4-20 under Coach Stoops in the SEC, and that simply won't cut it.
Expectations are tempered for the Wildcats this season.
"They are not expected so much to compete for the East, but the fans are very much expecting him to get over the hump to a winning season and a bowl game," Drummond said.
"They've just narrowly missed at 5-7 two years in a row."
The time is certainly now for the Kentucky football program, as Stoops needs to make a bowl game this year to keep some momentum of the highly rated recruiting classes. He's got an eye popping recruiting class coming through, and people are cautiously excited that the surge in talent may begin to shows some dividends in the win column.
Here is Coach Stoops speaking on Southern Miss and facing Shannon Dawson again: