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2021 Missouri Football Opponent Previews: Kentucky Wildcats

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Kentucky has long been the “measuring stick” game for the Tigers’ football season and, this year, it happens in Week 2. Hold on to your butts.

Kentucky vs Alabama Photo by UA Athletics/Collegiate Images/Getty Images

Catch up on previous 2021 opponent previews!

Central Michigan

As much as I liked Barry Odom - and it was probably way more than most Missouri fans - even I knew, and admitted, that he was really bad at a lot of the aspects of his job. But the thing that he was objectively the worst at was beating Kentucky.

From 2016...

USA Today

...to the 2017 no-call-kicked-ball...

...to the 2018 offensive pass interference (and subsequent Jim Sterk s-bomb)...

...all the way to this dumb 2019 version of the same ol’ song:

Barry probably knew he was fired at this point, yeah?
Columbia Missouri

But then a guy named Eli Drinkwitz came to town and this happened:

And now that the most annoying losing streak of all time is over, we can finally reassess this game in terms of actual consequences, as opposed to the extra weight of never being able to beat the King of the SEC Middle Class.

The Wildcats slipped a little bit last year, finishing with a losing record (5-6) for the first time since 2015. They ranked 51st overall in SP+, which was good for 9th in the SEC, and truly had about as bland of a season as you could expect. To wit:

2020 Kentucky Wildcats Schedule Results

Kentucky beat teams they were better than, lost to teams they were worse than, and Missouri was the only lesser team to successfully break that trend. The Wildcats were pushed to the limit by Vanderbilt (120th) and held Georgia to 14 points (5th) but, outside of those two results, it was a mostly ho-hum, as-expected finish.

What wasn’t expected, however, was a massively regressed offensive performance despite the incredibly talented and experienced offensive line. Citing last-in-the-league total offense numbers and passing numbers - as well as 11th in scoring offense - Eddie Gran was fired as offensive coordinator, a move met with surprise by the media and glee with the fanbase. But Kentucky has never been about the quarterback, choosing instead to focus on the ground game and a lights-out defense powered by Ohio expats to win the day. With either an inexperienced backup or a freshman at quarterback, that approach probably won’t change for 2021. But until Missouri shows that they can reliably go on the road and win any game away from Faurot - and particularly, against Kentucky - the Wildcats should never be considered a guaranteed win.

Coaching Staff

Belk Bowl - Virginia Tech v Kentucky
Mark Stoops
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Mark Stoops - 9th Year - 49-50 (24-42)

Mark Stoops will most likely be Kentucky’s head coach until he no longer wants to coach football because he has the best contract in college football: every time he wins seven games he gets his contract automatically extended one full year, including a $250k increase, and can do that with a relatively easy goal in the best conference in college football while living in the lovely college town of Lexington, Kentucky. So, we should all just get used to the fact that Stoops will keep operating the Wildcat football team at the same 7-9 win level that will lose to the more talented teams and cannibalize its peers and lesser programs. Being comfortable in your job is a rarity in college football - and especially the SEC - but Stoops has the advantage of having said comfort and the built-in pitches to recruits of, “Yeah, you’re in Ohio, but how about the SEC?” with the full knowledge that, as long as he nabs seven wins and the basketball program continues to suck up 90% of the oxygen, he’ll have the ability to do whatever he wants. We should all be so lucky.

Coach Stoops’ Resume

Assistant Staff

Liam Coen - Offensive Coordinator: Coen played at UMass and bounced around as a quarterbacks coach at the Ivy League schools until young Sean McVay hired him as a wide receivers coach for the NFL Rams in 2018 and ‘19 before becoming the assistant quarterbacks coach for McVay in 2020. And now? Well... now he’s a 35-year old offensive coordinator in the SEC. This seems like a similar move to Ed Orgeron taking a young offensive mind in Joe Brady and sprinkling NFL passing magic on the 2019 LSU Tigers... except Kentucky has no proven quarterbacks and, as previously mentioned, stunk pretty bad at offense last year. Good luck!

Brad White - Defensive Coordinator: This will be an interesting year for White as he joined the Wildcats in 2018 right when they won 10-wins, powered by the 15th-best defense in the country. Since then, his defenses have still ranked in the Top 50 but 2019 was 34th and 2020 was 41st. Losing DBs coach Steve Clinkscale to Michigan doesn’t help matters and White will be looked to field a competent defense that can help a probably young, probably-still-pretty-bad offense weather the 2021 schedule. Another year of regression might mean a new job in ‘22.

Jon Sumrall - Co-Defensive Coordinator

John Settle - Running Backs

Jovon Bouknight - Wide Receivers

Vince Marrow - Tight Ends

Eric Wolford - Offensive Line

Anwar Stewart - Defensive Line

Frank Buffano - Safeties

Offense

There aren’t many guys who can salvage an offense mid-season by moving a wide receiver to quarterback and just running the Wing-T read option every play, but Eddie Gran was a guy who could pull it off. The fact that he was scapegoated for Kentucky’s offensive woes is both fair and misplaced: yes, it’s true that his offense never cracked the Top 50 in SP+, but they didn’t have to! He did more with less every single year, regardless of negative circumstances or inferior talent. The fact that said offensive talent was inferior, however, and that his quarterbacks never seemed to learn how to throw the ball well was an indictment on his skills (and QB coach/Co-OC Darin Hinshaw, who was also fired), however, and it makes sense to try a refresh after five years. While preaching speed, route-running, and athleticism in spring practices, what new OC Liam Coen is going to actually do when the games are real is unclear: the Rams had a good offense for at least one year but haven’t done much since then, so what concepts he wants to run - and if he has the personnel to do it - will be a bit of a mystery. The good news: ranking 101st in passing SP+, 123rd on 3rd-downs, and 119th in explosiveness means it should be really easy to improve!

Georgia v Kentucky
Joey Gatewood
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Quarterback - Joey Gatewood - Redshirt Sophomore

Joey Gatewood stats

The most experienced guy in the Wildcat quarterback room is a guy who’s thrown 43 passes in his entire career: former Auburn-transfer Joey Gatewood. The blue-chip recruit from Jacksonville’s Batram Trail High School never got much of an opportunity at Auburn before Bo Nix shut down the competition and Gatewood headed north to try and beat out Terry Wilson. Wilson is using his extra year to play for New Mexico and Gatewood used the spring practices to separate himself from the pack. Maybe freshman Kaiya Sheron makes a big impact in fall camp, and it sounds like Penn State-transfer Will Levis is a personal favorite of the new OC, but Gatewood has the most live-fire experience and currently has the job until fall starts. He takes way too many sacks and isn’t super accurate in the small samples we have but there’s just not enough information to extrapolate any further analysis until we see him live.

TaxSlayer Gator Bowl - North Carolina State v Kentucky
Chris Rodriguez, Jr.
Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

Running Back - Chris Rodriguez, Jr. - Redshirt Sophomore

No hyperbole: Chris Rodriguez is the best returning running back in the SEC. 6.6 yards per carry, 785 yards and 11 touchdowns, 0 fumbles on the year. 14% of his carries go at least 5 yards and he averages 3.5 yards before contact and 3.5 yards after contact, preferring to run inside the tackles where he averages 6.9 yards per carry. He’s a workhorse through and through, the type of back that Mark Stoops has deployed every year at Lexington. The interior offensive line will be pretty dang good again so getting him outside - where he averages merely 4.6 yards per carry - will be a tough ask. Expect Rodriguez to get plenty of opportunities to wear down opposing defenses while the offense acclimates to the new system.

Wide Receiver - Josh Ali - Graduate Student

Wan’Dale Robinson, the recent Kentucky acquisition via Nebraska’s transfer portal, is getting a ton of spring buzz as possibly becoming the de facto big-play threat, but Josh Ali has been ol’ reliable in Lexington for what feels like his 16th year in the blue and white. His numbers never blow you away - 54 catches, 473 yards, 1 touchdown - but his 6.2 yards per target and 71% catch rate are pretty dang good. Robinson is almost exactly a clone of Ali’s production so it’ll be interesting to see how this duo are utilized in Coen’s new scheme.

Defense

Mark Stoops’ defenses usually thrive on eliminating big plays and forcing college offenses to do the thing that they’re not good at doing: taking 10-12 plays to methodically move down the field and into scoring position. The ol’ bend-don’t-break certainly isn’t a new concept, but it’s certainly one that Stoops and DC White had perfected... until last year, anyway. The problem wasn’t that they started allowing big plays— far from it! It’s that they were so bendy on 1st and 2nd down that they didn’t force enough 3rd downs or passing situations to take advantage of their strengths. 92nd in opponent success rate, 101st in 3-and-out percentage, 85th in yards per drive... and what’s most damning is that they ranked 106th against the pass. And now half of their secondary is getting replaced while the front seven tries to find someone to create some havoc (they were 116th in havoc rate).

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 29 Music City Bowl - Kentucky v Northwestern
Josh Paschal
Photo by Jamie Gilliam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Defensive Line - Josh Paschal - Redshirt Junior

Paschal was the most productive of the defensive linemen, finishing with 24 tackles and 3 tackles for loss. Wildcat defensive linemen are mostly there to eat blocks and free up the linebackers so this is an expected stat line for a 3-4 defensive end. The problem was that no other lineman came close to his production and, outside of two linebackers, no one else really performed to that level either. A few more pressures on the QB and a few more TFLs will go a long way to getting Kentucky’s fearsome pass defense back in action.

DeAndre Square
WKYT

Linebacker - DeAndre Square - Junior

Here’s an oddity: Square, a veteran Kentucky linebacker, had the fourth-most snaps for the Wildcat defense but only managed 15 tackles and 1 TFL. The elder statesman just was not in a position to make a play much last year despite his reputation as the go-to volume tackler. His battery mates, Jamar Watson and Jordan Wright, however, combined for 43 tackles and 12 TFLs from their outside linebacker positions. Expect Square to bounce back in production, especially since Watson is now a Pittsburgh Steeler.

Ole Miss vs Kentucky
Yusuf Corker
Photo by UK Athletics/Collegiate Images/Getty Images

Defensive Back - Yusuf Corker - Redshirt Junior

Corker seemingly never left the field, playing for 708 snaps - 83 more than the next highest-usage player - and made 29 tackles with 2 tackles for loss, 2 passes broken up, and 2 interceptions. He will be looked to steady the new faces in the secondary and back up the new linebackers as well. He won’t be able to do it all, but he should effectively dissuade most quarterbacks from running plays to his side of the field.

So what does it all mean?

2021 Kentucky Schedule

Breaking the streak was great. Starting a winning streak of your own is better. Both Kentucky and Missouri open with a feisty-yet-beatable G5 opponent at home before squaring off at vaunted Kroger Field. It is of my opinion right now, four-ish months away from this game kicking off, that it would be best to get this particular Wildcat squad early: They have a new OC with a new scheme, focused around an inexperienced quarterback who doesn’t have a great track record of passing the ball. The defense was super vulnerable through the air and is replacing a good chunk of the secondary and its most productive linebackers. Missouri is not without its own faults and setbacks, but the quarterback, starting running back, receivers, and line will be in the second year of the system while the strength of Missouri’s defense is geared towards stopping the (perceived) strength of Kentucky’s offense. It’s been 8 years since Missouri has won in Lexington, but this would be the best opportunity in a while to break that streak as well. Pounce fast, pounce early, and make a young, inexperienced coordinator find ways to beat the grizzled, experienced Tiger defensive coordinator. This is a tough test but will be an excellent match up.