Our fifth opponent of the 2013 season is the Kentucky Wildcats. Last year, the Gamecocks rode a strong second half to beat the 'Cats 38-17 in Lexington. Kentucky finished the season 2-10 and 0-8 in the SEC, which led to Joker Phillips's ouster. Florida St. DC Mark Stoops was hired to replace Phillips.
The good news for Kentucky is that Stoops has done everything right early on. He signed a strong first recruiting class, drew a record crowd to Kentucky's spring game, and has another great recruiting class in the works, even beating out our own Gamecocks for the services of highly touted QB Drew Barker. Stoops also brings in a reputation as a top-notch defensive coordinator, having turned around defenses at Arizona and Florida St. prior to taking the Kentucky job. He's put together a good staff in Lexington, too, although one a bit more noted for recruiting efforts than x's-and-o's.
The only problem for Stoops? He's yet to coach a game, and while it appears likely that UK will improve under his tutelage, that improvement is going to take time. This is not a good team right now, and the regime change will likely in fact exacerbate that problem in the short term. The 'Cats are readopting the Air Raid on offense after popularizing the approach under Hal Mumme in the late 1990s/early 2000s. That's a big departure from their approach under Phillips, and it will take time to grow into it. Even if one of Kentucky's QBs, likely Jalen Whitlow or Max Smith, and RBs grow into the system quickly, Kentucky's offensive line is a bit of a mess and may be the offense's Achilles heel. There are also concerns about what will be an extremely inexperienced group of wide receivers, again learning a new offense.
The defense looks a bit stronger. It's also going to be inexperienced, but Stoops and his staff brought in some talented defenders who can make an early impact, including some JUCOs. These players should form the basis for what should eventually be a solid SEC defense at Kentucky. Stoops's success thus far in bringing in quality defensive lineman has been particularly impressive. Defensive line oftentimes separates the haves from the have-nots in the SEC, and in the past those players haven't always chosen Kentucky.
In any event, while Kentucky should be improved this year, we should still win this game handily, particularly in Williams-Brice. One thing to note about the matchup is that while Carolina has a reasonably tough game against UCF the week prior, Kentucky plays Louisville and Florida in the weeks prior to their trip to Columbia, and they play Alabama the following week. What happens if they come into their game against us having been blown out by their in-state rivals and the Gators? Will they have anything left emotionally?