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Opponents Preview: Kentucky Wildcats

The battle for 3rd place in the SEC is going to be a rock fight.

Kentucky v Tennessee Photo by Eakin Howard/Getty Images

Missouri won against South Carolina by outclassing them in every way imaginable. Missouri’s defense wrecked an unstable Gamecock offense that had their best player injured for the majority of the game while the Tiger offense finally had the ground game clicking with some good passing added in.

That’s not going to happen this week.

Kentucky’s defense is currently 9th in SP+. Missouri has faced two Top 10 defenses so far this year and both ended up in losses. Mizzou managed 12 points against Kansas State’s 8th-ranked defense while putting up 22 against Georgia’s 2nd-ranked defense. But, points aside, the success rates against both of those teams tells the real tale:

  • Missouri offense against Kansas State: 33.8% success rate (26.7% passing, 40% rushing)
  • Missouri offense against Georgia: 26.4% success rate (30.3% passing, 20.0% rushing)

And while Mizzou’s offensive line looked like world-beaters against South Carolina’s defense — the 126th-best rushing defense that barely managed a 7% havoc rate against a Tiger offense that is averaging 20+% — that’s more a commentary on South Carolina than it is on Missouri.

But Kentucky’s offense has really slumped as of late. And for all the NFL accolades laid upon quarterback Will Levis, his offensive line has been surprisingly terrible this year. Add on the fact that All-SEC running back Chris Rodriguez’s availability is somewhat in question for this game, we could be in a rock fight where the victor is the first to ten points.

This is the preview I wrote over the summer. After a brief stint as an air-raid team last year, the Wildcats are right back to running the ball on standard downs and throwing the ball on passing downs and hope to win with elite defense. Yup: they’re a better version of this Missouri team. We’ll look at who the better team on Saturday is and look at the keys to the game.

When Missouri Has the Ball

Missouri’s Offense vs. Kentucky’s Defense

Kentucky does its best recruiting on defense and the results show. Mark Stoops has fielded elite defenses consistently in his time at Lexington and this year is no different. All those efficient running plays and 4-yard gains from last week are not going to come as easy this week. Based on this, here are the goals Missouri should shoot for in hopes of beating this dreadnaught Wildcat defensive squad:

Explosive Plays

Vanderbilt v Missouri Photo by Jay Biggerstaff/Getty Images

Kentucky ranks 11th in defensive success rate, 17th against the run, 12th against the pass, 15th in standard downs, and 26th in passing downs. So how do you beat them? The same way Tennessee did: wear ‘em out with big plays. The Wildcats rank 48th in defensive explosive plays, including 92nd against rushing explosive plays. However, they are 29th in limiting explosive plays through the air so Cody Schrader is going to have to find some daylight and hit it quick. As viewers this is going to be a very frustrating time watching plays get stuffed or passes get swatted away, but just realize it's all in hopes of connecting on some haymakers. Missouri will need at least 9 explosive plays to get the job done.

Hold on to the dang ball

Vanderbilt v Missouri Photo by Jay Biggerstaff/Getty Images

Here’s the only real weakness that Kentucky’s defense has: turnover luck. Thanks in part to their offense, the Wildcats suffer from the 122nd best expected turnover margin in the country and the 118th actual turnover margin (currently -7 on the year). It’s true for most teams, but certainly for Missouri: win the turnover battle, win the game. The Tigers did that last week and need to repeat here; let’s shoot for +2 turnover margin.

Finish your dang drives

NCAA Football: Abilene Christian at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Our big, beautiful Thiccer Kicker (patent pending) ain’t dead, but he certainly ain’t as reliable as he used to be. As I said in my Beyond The Box Score for South Carolina, Harrison Mevis should cease to exist as a 100% guaranteed asset for scoring once the Tigers cross the 40-yard line. Because of that, the tactics need to switch to have more urgency in scoring touchdowns rather than not screwing up field position for a field goal. Besides, Kentucky is one of the best at limiting scoring opportunities and points obtained per opportunity so Mizzou needs to maximize the chances they get. 6 scoring opportunities, 4 points per opportunity is the goal.

When Kentucky Has the Ball

Missouri’s Defense vs. Kentucky’s Offense

Despite having sure-fire NFL 1st-round quarterback Will Levis and punishing-baby-rhino running back Chris Rodriguez, this Kentucky offense is shockingly barely better than Missouri’s offense. Why? The same ailment fells both the Tigers and Wildcats: offensive line. On November 12th, 2020, long-time offensive line coach John Schlarman passed away at the age of 45 and he was widely considered one of the best offensive line whisperers in the game. Almost all of his recruits and development projects have washed out of the program and the players and coaches there now are a far cry from the excellent work Schlarman had been doing. They get stuffed at the line at a worse rate than Missouri does, gain 4-yard rushes at nearly the same clip, and allow a slightly better havoc rate than Mizzou does. We all know how tough it is to run an offense with a liability offensive line and Kentucky is getting a crash course in that phenomenon this year.

Bottle Up the Run

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 01 Georgia at Missouri

It’s actually a fairly straight forward strategy to stop the Kentucky offense and it starts with limiting the run. Chris Rodriguez may or may not be playing - and is possibly injured? - but regardless of starter, the Wildcat run game is its best weapon, ranking 55th with a 45.7% success rate. They don’t hit big plays (118th in rushing explosiveness) but like to consistently gain 3-5 yards. Stop that first and foremost; a 40% success rate or less rushing the ball is a good win.

Limit Explosive Plays

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 08 Missouri at Florida Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Wildcats are fairly bad at executing in standard down situations (87th) but come alive in passing down situations (50th). Why? Because that’s when they allow themselves to throw the ball and hope that their 15th-best passing explosiveness rate kicks in to gain big yards or score. There will be big plays occurring, that’s just how Missouri’s defense works, but the hope would be to keep Kentucky under 7 explosive plays.


This is the spider man pointing at another spider man meme. Both teams have excellent defenses. Both teams have limping offenses undone by inconsistent offensive lines. Both like to run the ball. Both are overly reliant on big plays. This could be a totally boring slugfest or, if the big plays connect, ten rounds of nothing but haymakers. I have no idea how it’ll shake out, but it would be helpful for everyone’s mental health of Missouri wins this one to make bowl eligibility that much each, that much sooner.