There’s a lot on the line for both the Gamecocks and the Wildcats as South Carolina’s date with Kentucky draws closer. We sat down with Jason Marcum over at our sister site, A Sea of Blue, to gauge how Big Blue Nation is feeling about things.
Mark Stoops has had some ups and downs with the Wildcats, but is still searching for that breakout season. With a 4-0 start and all the excitement, do you think 2018 is the best chance for that?
You could argue 2016 was his breakout year, especially since they beat a top-15 Louisville team in their own building as a 28-point underdog, but like you said, it’s been very rocky, and that was evident in even that year when they got handled by Southern Miss, destroyed by Florida/Tennessee, and finished .500 in the SEC.
So, in terms of being good from beginning to end and possibly breaking that slump of not finishing above .500 in SEC play, this is absolutely his best chance to have his best season in Lexington, and maybe as a college coach. If they can beat South Carolina, a 9-3 finish should be the expectation.
Kentucky hasn’t won nine games since 1984, and they won nine total games from 2012-14. The schedule does set up nicely next year for another 7-to-9 win season, but this team will lose a lot to graduation and the NFL Draft (Snell) this offseason, so they need to strike now while they have a favorable schedule the rest of the way and a roster that can go toe to toe with anyone left on it outside of Georgia.
I’m just going to go ahead and rip the band-aid off and ask about the streak. What do you think has been the biggest difference for UK during these past four years?
It’s so weird to talk about ‘streaks’ and it be actually good for Kentucky. No offense to the Gamecocks, but they’re a big reason why Stoops still has job. He may have very well been fired in 2016 if they lost that home game to South Carolina and dropped to 1-3 and then 1-4 after the beatdown at Alabama the following week.
Heck, Stoops may have not even made it to 2016 if not for the wins over South Carolina in 2014 and 2015. Those were the highlights of those seasons, and the 2014 win helped Stoops land a contract extension soon after. So year, if that four-game winning streak was a four-game losing streak, there’s no doubt in my mind that Stoops wouldn’t be here right now.
Maybe this is why Stoops and Muschamp are such good pals...
We’re all very aware of Benny Snell at this point. Who else should Gamecock fans keep an eye out for?
Josh Allen has become the Benny Snell of the defense. It’s impossible to quantify what Allen does in a box score, as evidenced by last week’s win over Mississippi State when he had a ton of pressures on Nick Fitzgerald and helped cause several false starts and holding penalties on Bulldogs linemen.
But I think the Gamecocks neutralize him with Jake Bentley and a quick passing attack. Bentley gets the ball out faster and more accurately than any quarterback Kentucky has faced this year, not to mention their receiving group is one of the best the Wildcats will defend in 2018 (maybe the best).
As good as Snell and Allen are, Terry Wilson has shown he can impact a game as much as them. His performance at Florida was arguably the best game a Kentucky quarterback has had under Stoops. His ability to stretch the field with his arm and outrun even SEC-level defenders on the perimeter makes him a very tough player to defend.
And the threat of Wilson running also opens up more running lanes for Snell. While the offensive line gets most of the credit for getting Snell those holes, defenses trying to account for Wilson is also making life easier on Snell, even when Wilson has a bad game like he did in the rain and Mississippi State last week.
What do you think is Kentucky’s biggest strength entering this matchup, and what concerns you the most about the Gamecocks?
The ground game. Between Snell, Wilson and the offensive line, there isn’t a more dangerous ground game in the SEC other than Alabama and Georgia. Even the receivers are blocking well on the perimeter, as this team has fully bought into pounding teams into submission. That’s what they did last week to one of the most physical front sevens in college football, and it’s the biggest reason why these Wildcats are 4-0 and ranked for the first time since 2007.
The Gamecocks don’t have the kind of physicality and talent in their front seven that Mississippi State had, but they do have a lot of speed and athleticism that will prove to be a unique matchup. South Carolina isn’t going to out-physical this Kentucky team, but they could be fast and quick enough to get around Kentucky’s lineman and hit Snell and Wilson in the backfield.
Then, South Carolina has arguably the best secondary Kentucky has faced so far, so if they force Kentucky into a lot of 3rd and longs, they could make life hard for Wilson to get anything going.
On the other side, as mentioned above, South Carolina’s passing game is balanced enough to negate Kentucky’s pass rush, and their receivers will get open down the field when Bentley does have time. Deebo Samuel and Shi Smith have become one of the best SEC’s receiver tandems, and Kentucky had a lot of trouble last year holding up against good passing attacks. I think that game at South Carolina last year would have been a lot different if Deebo didn’t get hurt, as he had already burned Kentucky for a long score before being knocked out of the game.
Finally, care to make a prediction?
I’m going with a 27-23 Kentucky win that comes down to the wire and could easily go either way. I actually feel better about Kentucky since they feed off doubters and the early games lines had them being a home underdog. Had Kentucky been a 3-4 point favorite like I thought they would, it would have been a lot easier to overlook a team they’ve beaten four straight years, but that “disrespect” is what this team has fed off, and that helps keep them sharp in a narrow win.
Thanks again to Jason for taking the time to answer our burning questions and give us some food for thought. Be sure to swing by A Sea of Blue for GABA’s Q&A!