Kentucky is a two touchdown favorite over Eastern Michigan heading into tomorrow afternoon's game in Lexington, but let's take a closer look at the two teams position by position to determine who has the edge at different spots on the field.
Stephen Johnson might have been recognized as a winner and a game manager last year but through four games of 2017 he's starting to earn the reputation of a much better player and rightfully so. Johnson's completion rate is up to 64.1-percent, he has five touchdowns and only one interception, he hasn't fumbled this season (that was a problem last year) and he's been either the best player on Kentucky's offense or the second-best (to C.J. Conrad).
EMU's Brogan Roback has comparable numbers but has only thrown two touchdown passes through three games. He's averaging more yards per game and has completed 60.5-percent of his passes.
Neither quarterback has been what you would call spectacular, but both have placed their team in positions to win games and they haven't lost games. And both are playing some of the better football of their lives.
Benny Snell's numbers haven't been quite what a lot of people probably expected by this point (85 carries, 331 yards, 3 TD) but he has been a workhorse making the most of what he's been able to get behind an offensive line that has not been dominant. But lately Sihiem King has started pick up his production as Kentucky's No. 2 and he's up to 152 yards on 24 carries (6.3 YPC).
EMU is not an accomplished rushing team and Shaq Vann (186 yards, 3.8 YPC) is the Eagles' leading rusher. EMU has rushed for less than 100 yards per game and only 2.77 yards per carry through three games.
Kentucky's receivers have shown consistent improvement throughout the 2017 season. After struggling to get involved against Southern Miss, Blake Bone had a strong game with several big catches against Eastern Kentucky and over the last two weeks, against South Carolina and Florida, the entire unit has played mostly sound football and sprinkled in big plays. Garrett Johnson (12 catches, 161 yards), Blake Bone (5 catches, 116 yards) and Charles Walker (9 catches, 100 yards) have been among the team's more consistent receivers.
Eastern Michigan's wide receiving corps is a veteran group. The top three pass-catchers (Sergio Bailey II, Antoine Porter and Johnnie Niupalau) are all seniors although there are some younger players behind them who are also making contributions. Bailey has been EMU's most consistent contributor at receiver and had his only touchdown catch of the season last week in a 27-20 loss to Ohio.
The receiver units for these two teams have combined for only four touchdown receptions in a combined seven games played.
Simply put, C.J. Conrad has been one of the nation's best tight ends through four games. He is Kentucky's leading receiver (9 catches, 195 yards, 3 TDs) and is averaging close to 20 yards per target after another quality game against the Gators.
Bryce Kemp is not a big part of EMU's passing game and the tight end is not a huge focal point of the Eagles' offense.
The Cats are averaging a modest 3.85 yards per carry with five rushing touchdowns and short yardage situations haven't been as sure a thing this year as last. Kentucky has allowed nine sacks through four games. The unit is not as deep as it was a season ago and the tackles struggled to slow down Florida's pass rush last week. Poor snaps have also plagued the unit.
Eastern Michigan's offensive line has only allowed four sacks through three games and opponents have only tackled EMU ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage 12 times (compared to 24 TFL's allowed by Kentucky). However, the Eagles are averaging a woeful 2.77 yards per carry on the ground and are not getting push up front.
Kentucky's defensive line is one reason the run defense has improved in 2017. Even after Florida rushed for close to 200 yards against Kentucky, the team is allowing just 3.13 yards per carry on the season. However, this is just not a defensive line that makes a lot of things happen in terms of getting into the backfield or creating havoc plays. Matt Elam has more tackles than any other defensive lineman but he ranks 13th on the defense in that category.
Eastern Michigan's defensive line has been much more active. Jeremiah Harris, Luke Mclean, Maxx Crosby, Chris Hendricks and Dion Dawson are all defensive linemen with at least two tackles for loss and the Eagles have 19 as a team. Maclean, Harris, Hendricks and Crosby all have sacks. The Eagles have not been quite as stout against the run as Kentucky but they have allowed just one rushing touchdown this season.
Edge: EASTERN MICHIGAN
Kentucky is leaning heavily on its linebackers for big plays. The Wildcats' linebackers are well above the national average in terms of havoc plays. The team's linebackers are disproportionately ranked among the team's leaders in sacks, tackles for loss, tackles and almost every production metric and that's with Jordan Jones missing the last two games. Courtney Love (30 tackles) and Josh Allen (24 tackles, 4 sacks) have been especially active through four.
Converted defensive back Jason Beck is Eastern Michigan's best linebacker and he leads the unit (but not the defense) in tackles (15). Kyle Rachwal has three tackles for loss. But this is a team that doesn't play a lot of linebackers and leans heavily, opposite Kentucky, on its defensive line for much of its production in the havoc categories.
Kentucky's secondary has had a quality season thus far although the numbers haven't always looked that way. They struggled with tackling and 50/50 balls against Southern Miss and were picked apart at times by EKU's quarterbacks but have been okay in conference play. Darius West (31 tackles, INT), Mike Edwards (23 tackles, 2 INT) and Derrick Baity (22 tackles) have been among Kentucky's most active defensive players.
Eastern Michigan's secondary has been stingy, allowing just 509 passing yards and three touchdowns through three games, but Charlotte, Rutgers and Ohio are not the kinds of opponents that will put severe strain on a secondary. They will be tested by Kentucky more than any prior opponent to date. The Eagles are allowing just 49-percent completions on pass attempts and have picked off five passes.
By the numbers Kentucky's special teams unit is the best on the team. According to the stats ESPN uses to measure offensive, defensive and special teams efficiency, the Cats' offense ranks middle of the pack to slightly lower nationally, but the special teams unit is Top 25. Both the kicker and punter have been solid, Charles Walker has emerged as a very good return man, and the coverage has been mostly solid.
EMU kicker Paulie Fricano has been solid on field goals (6/7) while Jesse Kelly has basically duplicated what Austin MacGinnis has done on kickoffs. EMU's primary punters, Ivan Oraha and Jake Julien, have struggled (35.67 and 38.7 YPP respectively) but quarterback Brogan Roback has seven punts for a 44.9 yard average himself. EMU's return game has not been dynamic and they have not been great in coverage.