Welcome back to Rock M Nation’s annual opponent preview series of the upcoming season. Each week we will break down one opponent from the schedule in chronological order. Given that rosters are ever fluid - and this is done by a hobbyist rather than a pro - there could be some errors in history and current roster makeup. All mistakes are done on purpose and with ill intent because I don’t like you or your team.
Catch up on previous 2023 opponent previews!
Between opponent previews and podcasts I’ve said it time and again: Kentucky is the bellwether of the SEC peloton. If your favorite team beats Kentucky you’re a top-half (at minimum) SEC team and, likewise, if your favorite team loses to Kentucky you’re a bottom-half SEC team.
In case you need a reminder, Missouri has beaten Kentucky once in the past eight games during a run of seasons that would be remembered as “mediocre”.
But as much as Kentucky has been the death knell on promising Missouri football seasons, it also provides a beacon of hope for future seasons to come:
Find a coach, keep him happy and in place for a long time, and let him operate as he sees fit while shielding him from any potential boo-birds and calls for his immediate firing.
Up until last year, Kentucky had seemingly embraced its status in SEC football; an open spat between Wildcat football and basketball coaches was an odd, public schism in that façade but at least from an investment standpoint Kentucky knows what its doing with its football program. It’s a model that’s tough to follow but the long-term benefits are great. Just ask Missouri fans about Gary Pinkel!
Of course, Kentucky just came off one of its most immemorable, blasé seasons of all time:
I don’t even know how to make the Kentucky 2022 season interesting. 5-3 at home, 2-2 on the road, 3-2 in one possession games, and every win came against a team outside the SP+ Top 25 while every loss came to a team inside the SP+ Top 25 (and, randomly, 79th-ranked Vanderbilt). Rich Scangarello was a poor offensive coordinator replacement for Liam Coen, Will Levis did everything he could to tank his draft stock while still getting picked in the 1st round, and Brad White’s defense was awesome. Just a typical Kentucky season (for someone not invested in the team, anyway).
Mark Stoops - 11th Year - 66-59 (32-50)
This is the fifth year that I’ve been doing this opponent previews and it’s the fifth year that I’m writing about Mark Stoops. I won’t repeat myself here so let me summarize: the dude is a great football coach and tremendous program builder and would have probably done well at Missouri but he’s at Kentucky and constantly beating Mizzou. Boo.
Liam Coen - Offensive Coordinator: Liam Coen was an NFL guy for most of his career until Mark Stoops took a chance and brought him on board for the 2021 season. By doing so, Coen blended Kentucky’s ground-and-pound style with NFL passing concepts that helped Wan’Dale Robinson become a New York Giant and get Will Levis 1st round NFL Draft hype. Apparently Coen felt obligated to return to his mentor, Rams coach Sean McVay, for the 2022 season but missed being able to call plays and run the show. And since now-former Kentucky OC Rich Scangarello was a terrible replacement for Coen - Kentucky’s offense fell from 21st in SP+ to 97th - it seems everyone involved with this move is pleased with the return of their wunderkind offensive coordinator. Great for Kentucky! Terrible for everyone else!
Brad White - Defensive Coordinator: Last year I put down a question in writing that, looking back, seems silly. The question: “can Brad White make a defense better by himself?”. The answer, at least last year, was an overwhelming “yes!”. Powered by multiple sixth-year players and some key freshman phenoms, Kentucky’s defense rose from 35th to 4th, doing what they’ve always done under Mark Stoops. So, good on you, Coach White.
Jay Boulware - Running Backs
Scott Woodward - Wide Receivers
Vince Marrow - Tight Ends
Zach Yenser - Offensive Line
Anwar Stewart - Defensive Line
Mike Stoops - Inside Linebackers
Chris Collins - Defensive Backs
Frank Buffano - Safeties
Take everything you knew about Kentucky’s offense last year and throw it away. Despite being branches off of the same tree, Rich Scangarello ran an imperfect version of Liam Coen’s pro-style offensive concepts that was compromised by one of the worst offensive lines Kentucky has produced in Stoops’ 10-year career. And yet, despite losing All-SEC running back Chris Rodriguez and prized quarterback Will Levis, hope still springs in Lexington. Why? Because Liam Coen is back, baby!
Coen’s offense isn’t hard to understand: every play starts out looking like a run - either play action or RPO - and if its a pass the quarterback is probably looking to go deep. An offense doesn’t have to be good at running the ball to have this style of offense work...but Kentucky tends to have a really good running game, regardless of the pieces on the field. With their favorite OC back and a shiny new quarterback fresh from the portal, there’s a lot of hope and positivity but little proof of concept that things will magically go back to 2021’s golden run.
Quarterback - Devin Leary - Graduate Student
Is Devin Leary an elite quarterback? Maybe? He was certainly courted like one from the second he announced his transfer away from NC State. He did break Phillip Rivers’ single-season school record for touchdown passes and has NFL buzz around him. But 40% of his total games played, 45.7% of his total passes thrown, 50.4% of his total passing yards, 56.4% of his passing touchdowns, and 33% of his total rushing yards happened in one year: 2021. Since 2018 he’s only been on the field for 30 games and wasn’t all that great when he was out there. And then he suffered a season-ending injury on October 8th of 2022 and we haven’t seen him since.
The Wildcats and Wolfpack are two comparable programs and, truthfully, he’s working with a better OC and better skill position players at Kentucky than he was at NC State. But is he the guy we saw in 2021 or the guy we saw in 2019, 2020, and the first part of 2022? I’m assuming Coen can get him to ‘21 levels but it’s hard to know until you see it.
Running Back - Ray Davis - Senior
Ray Davis was unquestionably the best running back for Vanderbilt’s offense last year as he was asked to carry the ball 232 times for 1,042 yards and 5 touchdowns. His average yardage was nearly the same running outside (4.4) as it was running inside (4.6) but suffered from getting hit early (1.7 yard average gained before contact) and wasn’t the most reliable at getting 1st downs (22.4%). But Kentucky needed an experienced running back and what better place to get your usage maximized than the school that always has a stud runner ready to go? Senior JuTahn McClain and third-year La’Vell Wright are still on the team and will once again round out the trio rotation.
Wide Receiver - Barion Brown - Sophomore
In a surprise break of character, Kentucky fielded two blue-chip freshmen receivers last year in Barion Brown and Dane Key. Scangarello committed workplace malpractice by utilizing them in the short passing game instead of letting them loose on intermediate and deep routes, but that’s something I’m sure Coen rectifies this year. Kentucky returns six of their seven top receivers and every single receiver that had more than 11 targets on the year. This Wildcat receiving corps should be excellent and they’ll have an OC and QB who should thrive in the system. I can’t believe I’m saying this but Kentucky’s passing game might be one of the best in the SEC and certainly better than its ground game.
Last week I cited LSU’s incredibly consistent, elite defenses over the past 20 years as the reason why - regardless of coach - they are regularly near the top of the SEC and the nation as a whole. Well, after a three-year breaking in period, Stoops’ defenses have never finished worse than 40th in the country, and topped out as the 4th-best defense in SP+ during the 2022 season. And while they only return 58% of their defense - good for 78th in the country - it’s hard to imagine a Stoops defense being a liability, especially now that recruiting on the defensive side of the ball has been kicked up a notch.
Defensive Line - Deone Walker - Sophomore
I love a gigantic dude who wears a single digit number and former blue-chipper Deone Walker fits the bill. 6’6”, 248 pounds, and rocking the number zero, Walker was the second-most utilized pass rusher from his nose tackle position...which, traditionally, tends not to be the greatest pass rushing dude on the team. He only generated pressure on 5% of his pass rushes but tied for first on the team in run stuffs (10) and was third on the team in tackles for loss (5.5). Again, he did this from a position that, traditionally, exists to eat up double teams. The line does lose Justin Rogers but returns everybody who logged more than 150 snaps on the line. They might be a bottom-ten havoc unit but the Kentucky defensive line is hella experienced and talented.
Linebacker - D’Eryk Jackson - Senior
Kentucky utilizes a 4-man linebacking rotation in the nominal sense, anyway, as they designate inside and outside linebackers on their roster. D’Eryk Jackson is an inside man, one who was second on the team in tackles with 70 (fellow inside backer Jordan Wright led the team with 71 tackles but is currently trying out with the Chicago Bears). Jackson will be joined by all but two linebackers from last year’s unit that finished with over 34 snaps; as the most havoc-inducing unit on the field there should be plenty of options to field another terrifying linebacking corps in 2023.
Defensive Back - Jordan Lovett - Sophomore
Kentucky defensive backs under Mark Stoops have a reputation of being able to wipe out all those wimpy bubble screen and short crossing pattern crap that coordinators love to utilize to get their playmakers in space...at the cost of getting burned to a crisp on the occasional big play. This version of the Wildcat secondary adds the extra difficulty of losing three of their top four DBs, although Jordan Lovett was the best at providing run support from his safety position. There’s plenty of experience guys who have been itching to see the field but if the “better” options were prone to getting lit up last year, what does that say for the guys inheriting their positions this year?
So what does it all mean?
Somehow, Kentucky has enough familiarity to give them the benefit of the doubt and yet enough questions to made you hedge your bet.
On the one hand, they got arguably the best transfer quarterback, brought back the most dynamic play caller they’ve ever had, and have the best receiving corps that Lexington has fielded in the past 20 years.
On the other hand, the offensive line was dreadful last year with no promise of improving, the running game has both potential and question marks, and the calling card of a Stoops defense is getting a reset.
Missouri has to go to Kroger Field this year and the Tigers have never won on that grass with that name (it was named Commonwealth Field up until 2017). Eli Drinkwitz is 3-11 on the road at Missouri and the Tigers haven’t beaten the Wildcats in their home stadium since 2013.
But this game tends to be close - or at least it has for the past three matchups - and Kentucky will be coming off a road trip to defending National Champions Georgia the week prior. I have no idea who will come out victorious in this iteration but history tells us it’ll be no fun to experience and come down to the wire.