In this edition of Cats Illustrated's "Four Downs" series, we take a closer look at why Kentucky may have a better chance to win Saturday at South Carolina than many fans believe.
Mark Zerof/USA Today
If you've been following the discussion leading up to Kentucky's SEC opener this weekend at South Carolina, surely you know by now that the Wildcats have virtually no chance to leave Columbia with a win.
A current leaderboard of things with better odds, according to the peanut gallery:
* The Cleveland Indians losing a game
* Apple introducing an affordable, new iPhone
* North Korea abandoning its nuclear program
Although both Kentucky and South Carolina are 2-0, the Vegas spread suggests a close game, and the Cats are riding a three-game winning streak over the Gamecocks, the message has been loud and clear on talk radio and online communities alike: UK should not even bother packing the equipment truck.
It's a puzzling vibe.
If you pressed me for a pick on the game right now - subject to change between now and kickoff on Saturday night - I'd give South Carolina a slight edge. Williams-Brice Stadium is a challenging venue and word out of the Palmetto State is that the Gamecocks are tired of hearing about their losing skid to UK. It's been slated a "Blackout" game, verifying that it's a big deal. So put me down, tentatively, for South Carolina 26, Kentucky 23.
That said, I can also envision scenarios for UK leaving town with a victory. Here are four reasons why:
1. Good Start for South Carolina, But...
A lot of folks are higher on the Gamecocks than UK right now because they've beaten a pair of Power 5 teams in the form of N.C. State and Missouri while the Cats have narrowly slipped past Southern Miss and Eastern Kentucky. That's a fair point.
It's difficult to gauge exactly how well South Carolina is playing, though, if you dig deeper into the analytics. The Gamecocks have been outgained by 322 yards already this season. N.C. State rolled up 504 yards of offense and had 29 first downs against South Carolina, but failed to score on a pair of red-zone trips, gave up a kickoff return for a touchdown and turned the ball over at its own 13 for an easy score.
Missouri also outgained South Carolina (423-359) but, like the Wolfpack, gave up a special teams score and failed to cash in on two red-zone opportunities.
Bottom line: South Carolina is currently 13th in the SEC in total offense and 14th in total defense. When is the last time UK had no chance to win a game against an opponent with those rankings?
2. Kentucky May Have Already Faced A Better Offense on The Road
The Cats' defensive improvement is hard to refute right now, regardless of having an FCS opponent on the slate.
Kentucky is currently eighth in total defense (341 ypg) and third in rushing defense (58.5 ypg) in the SEC. I'd also argue that they've already faced a better offense, Southern Miss, on the road this season than the one they'll see Saturday in Columbia.
Ito Smith is one of the best backs in the nation and Southern Miss has future pros at the wide receiver positions. As talented as players like South Carolina receiver Deebo Samuel and tight end Hayden Hurst are, the Cats have already faced - and succeeded - against similar playmakers.
Is Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley markedly better than Southern Miss' Kwadra Griggs or EKU's Tim Boyle, a talented transfer from UConn who was surrounded by a number of additional P5 transfers? If he is, that could be the difference.
3. The 'Wildcat' Versus The Gamecocks...
One of the big ironies entering this game is that the offensive formation that has been driving Big Blue Nation batty this season, the direct-snap 'Wildcat,' may be one of the big keys to beating South Carolina.
Kentucky has yet to recapture its 2016 magic with the Wildcat, leading many fans and media alike to question why it hasn't been abandoned. But if you look back at the recent history of the UK-SC series, the set is arguably the biggest reason why the Cats have won three straight over the Gamecocks.
UK has rolled up 239, 207 and 214 rushing yards in its last three games against South Carolina. Many of those came courtesy of Jojo Kemp (in 2014 and 2015) and Benny Snell Jr. (2016) in the Wildcat.
We've also been picking up hints that UK's most celebrated newcomer, four-star athlete Lynn Bowden, has been gradually picking up more reps in the Wildcat since he was a late arrival on campus this summer.
Due to the bumpy start to his UK career, nobody has any film on Bowden in the formation. Could it be a secret weapon for the Cats on Saturday? Remember, Bowden also spent time as a high school quarterback, so he brings the potential of throwing the ball out of the set.
4. The Cats Play Better When Expectations Are Lower
This one is much tougher to quantify, but it's been my experience that UK typically plays better when expectations are lower in toss-up type games.
Last season gave us several examples. The Cats were not embarrassed at Alabama. In fact, they delivered, what many Crimson Tide players would later describe, one of the most physical challenges they received all season. Kentucky also beat Louisville and eventual Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson on its own field despite being a 27-point underdog.
I think BBN may have wound up more disappointed in this matchup had UK thumped EKU last week and given the impression that the Cats are further along than they actually are. Instead, the staff has certainly been able to hammer through some shortcomings this week.