1. It was thought we'd see two Kentucky QB's this weekend with Stephon Johnson and Drew Barker, but a back injury is going to keep Barker sidelined. Who do you prefer to see taking the snaps for the Wildcats? And, if we're gonna see a heavy dose of Johnson, what are some of his strengths we should be looking out for?
I would have leaned towards Johnson even before Wednesday night's news that Barker would be out the next 3-5 weeks with a back injury. Outside of an amazing first half against Southern Miss, Barker has not played well this season. He was losing his fundamentals when the pocket collapsed, and his mobility seemed somewhat hampered. Barker looked like he was playing injured, and UK needs a healthy quarterback to beat South Carolina. Johnson is both healthy and played a complete game against New Mexico State. The Aggies have a bad defense, but he did put up gaudy numbers against them so what more could he do? He earned this week's start.
Johnson and Barker share a lot of the same strengths and weaknesses. Both players have a fluid throwing motion, and if given a clean pocket are usually accurate passers with short, intermediate, and deep throws. Johnson made some deep throws against the Aggies that I didn't think he was capable of after watching him at the spring game. Johnson is probably a bit more of a scrambling threat than even a healthy Barker, but he's yet to display the ability to make a defender miss in space and pick up another 5-10 yards, but he can definitely get 15 yards scrambling on third down if no receivers are open and defenders have their backs turned.
2. When you give up over 500 yards and 42 points to New Mexico St., something isn't right with your defense. What's been the biggest struggle for the Wildcats defense this year?
Anything and everything. UK lost seven defensive starters last season, and since the spring many UK fans were aware the front seven was going to be a work in progress. What most didn't expect is how much of a step back the team would take. Compounding the issue is the secondary was supposed to be the strength of the defense, but it's play hasn't been that encouraging even factoring in their youth and the impressive number of passes defended after three games.
The biggest issue I'd like to see changed is the front seven sticking to their fundamentals. It really isn't scheme holding the group back, but basic things like: inside linebackers taking poor angles, outside linebackers not following their assignments on zone reads, defensive linemen shooting gaps when they should be two-gapping or high pad levels. A lot of these mistakes are fixable, so it's a frustrating mystery as to why they persist. If they do finally change, and things begin to click, this defense has a shot at improving.
3. Mark Stoops has only won four SEC games as Kentucky's head coach, with two of those coming against South Carolina. Why do you think he hasn't been able to find much success around the rest of the league?
In 2013 and 2014 I would say it had to do with recovering from the mess he inherited. The program took a huge step back under Joker Phillips in terms of roster mismanagement, signing prospects with character flaws, a poor strength and conditioning program, and just an overall culture of accepting losses at face value. That takes a a while to recover from and patience was deserved.
In 2015, specifically, a bad Patrick Towles' interception set up Florida's lone touchdown in a 15-9 win. The defense did its job that night against a pretty bad Gator offense. Tennessee and Mississippi State were just better and a loss was inevitable. At Georgia the defense played well in the first half, but eventually gave in to fatigue as the offense couldn't stay on the field.
The real travesties of 2015 are the Auburn and Vanderbilt games. The defense played much better in the second half against Auburn, that third quarter is the best under Stoops at UK, but the offense was inconsistent. A Patrick Towles' red zone interception, that in fairness was just as much on the receiver, took away at least three points in a game that would be decided 30-27. The Vandy game featured the Commodores scoring on a pick six, UK fumbling the ball on their own five yard line leading to a Vandy score, and Vandy scoring on a special teams trick play seconds before halftime. Vanderbilt won that game 21-17, but if one of those things don't happen, UK probably squeaks out with a win.
The defenses have never been even average under Stoops, but in tight SEC games - at least in 2015 - it was offensive miscues that cost the 'Cats winnable games. If UK beats either Auburn or Vanderbilt, Stoops wouldn't be on the hot seat, Shannon Dawson is probably still the offensive coordinator, and who knows if Patrick Towles transfers.
4. South Carolina's offense isn't exactly a juggernaut. Kentucky's defense isn't exactly a mirror image of the "Steel Curtain." Who do you see winning the day come Saturday?
Probably South Carolina's offense. I think McIlwain will extend drives scrambling and I was impressed with the young A.J. Turner watching the Vanderbilt game. I know South Carolina's offensive line has been a bit of a letdown, but UK's defensive line has issues of its own. When South Carolina's offensive line collides with UK's defensive line in the middle of Commonwealth Stadium, and there's 40,000 people present, does it make a sound?
I think South Carolina picks up a lot of five yard runs, and methodically moves down the field. UK will then try and load the box, and I think South Carolina wins enough of the battles on passing downs to extend their fair share of drives. Once they get to the red zone, and dimensions squish, Roper would be wise to continue running the ball.
5. Is Mark Stoops the head coach for this team in 2017 if they don't make it to a bowl game this season? I feel like a lot of people were expecting this team to be better than the last two seasons, but they haven't been the most glamorous thus far.
I think he's the coach in 2017 regardless of serious player issues or NCAA sanctions, but you're right that a bowl berth was the blanket expectation for 2016. Not only does he have a $12 million buyout if he's fired before December 1st, 2017, but Mitch Barnhart is one of the most patient athletic directors in the country. He trusts in his hires - for better or worse - so he typically gives them a long leash. I do think that if the team wheezes to the four win mark or below, Stoops will be asked to replace his defensive staff. How that goes down will be very interesting.
6. And finally, a prediction and thoughts on how this one will play out.
I don't think either South Carolina or Kentucky make it to a bowl this season, but I do think South Carolina gets one step closer winning in Lexington on Saturday. I think the decisive factor is the Gamecocks come excited and ready to play, and Kentucky has wilted when faced with adversity this year on both sides of the ball. South Carolina scores early, the defense builds on the momentum, and this game stays out of reach after the 10 minute mark of the second quarter. I think UK gets some points as the game goes on, but will have too much ground to make up as their possessions are limited due to the Gamecocks controlling possession.
South Carolina 31 Kentucky 20
Thanks again for all the help from Will and the A Sea of Blue community. Happy football!