It is a self-evident truth that one game does not a college football season make. Yet for each of Kentucky’s three FBS football programs, this coming Saturday shapes up as a pivotal moment in determining the arc of their seasons.
When Mark Stoops and the Kentucky Wildcats visit South Carolina on Saturday night, they will seek to do something that no UK football team has achieved since the days when Bear Bryant wore blue: Beat an SEC foe not named Vanderbilt for a fourth consecutive year.
ESPN’s “College GameDay” will be on hand in Louisville as reigning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson and the U of L Cardinals face defending national champion Clemson in a game whose kickoff has been moved by ABC from afternoon to prime time (8 p.m).
Meanwhile, Western Kentucky will meet Louisiana Tech in Bowling Green in a rematch of last season’s Conference USA championship game.
I’m here to guide you through Kentucky college football’s week of reckoning:
Kentucky at South Carolina
What’s at stake for UK: As tepid as Kentucky has looked in wins over Southern Mississippi and Eastern Kentucky, a Wildcats victory over South Carolina would open up a viable path to the “breakthrough season” — more than seven wins in a Cats regular season for the first time since 1984 — for which The Long Suffering UK Football Fans so yearn.
Reason for Kentucky hope: Yes, South Carolina is 2-0 with victories over power-five conference foes North Carolina State and Missouri. Yet UK ranks above the Gamecocks in the SEC team statistics in most major categories: Scoring defense (UK seventh, South Carolina ninth); total offense (10th, 13th); total defense (eighth, 14th); rushing (10th, 12th); rushing defense (third, 9th); passing (seventh, eighth); and pass defense (12th, 13th).
Reason for Kentucky dread: In wide receiver Deebo Samuel, South Carolina has an explosive playmaker who can alter games. The 6-foot, 215-pound junior has already scored five touchdowns, two via receptions, one by rushing and two on kickoff returns.
On the spot: Kentucky offensive skill players. With Jeff Badet (graduate transferred to Oklahoma), Boom Williams (turned pro early) and Dorian Baker (injured) gone, does UK have the playmaking capacity to stress an SEC defense?
No. 3 Clemson at No. 14 Louisville
What’s at stake for U of L: Since the Cardinals joined the ACC (2014), Clemson has been their unrelenting nemesis. U of L is 0-3 against Dabo Swinney’s team, having lost by six, three and six points. With Florida State starting quarterback Deondre Francois (patellar tendon) out for the season due to injury, the winner of Louisville-Clemson should have the inside track to the ACC championship.
Reason for Louisville hope: Lamar Jackson, of course. In the first two weeks, the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner has reminded all what a dynamic force he is. The 6-3, 200-pound junior has thrown for 765 yards and five TDs and run for 239 yards and three scores. Jackson has raised his completion percentage five points (64.7) as compared to the first two games last season (59.7), too.
Reason for Louisville dread: Remember how Houston humiliated U of L’s offensive line last November, sacking Jackson a whopping 11 times in a 36-10 pasting of the then-third ranked Cardinals? Well, Clemson’s defensive front seven is also fearsome. In a 14-6 victory over Auburn last week, Clemson sacked Tigers QB Jarrett Stidham 11 times.
On the spot: Mike Summers and the U of L offensive line. Bobby Petrino rehired Summers, the offensive line coach from his first tenure at Louisville (2003-06), to fix the blocking problems that sank the Cards in 2016. Clemson is an exacting test of how effective Summers, Joe B. Hall’s son-in-law, has so far been.
Louisiana Tech at WKU
What’s at stake for Western Kentucky: After an offensively listless showing in a 20-7 loss at Illinois last week, WKU opens pursuit of a C-USA championship three-peat against the team it beat 58-44 in last season’s league title game.
Reason for Western hope: Nacarius Fant. The former Bowling Green star, Kentucky’s 2013 Mr. Football, caught 10 passes at Illinois and was personally responsible for 110 of WKU’s total offense of 244 yards.
Reason for Western dread: Through two games, WKU (1-1) has looked every bit like a team that lost a 1,000-yards rusher (Anthony Wales, 1,621 yards) and two 1,000-yards receivers (Taywan Taylor, 1,730 yards; Nicholas Norris, 1,318 yards) from last season’s number five total offense in the country (523.1 yards a game).
On the spot: Mike Sanford Jr. After Jeff Brohm led Western to three straight bowl wins while ranking in the top nine in the nation in total offense all three years, WKU backers are used to high-octane victories. The new Hilltoppers head man could do himself a p.r. favor if he gets his offense untracked against Louisiana Tech — which surrendered 57 points to Mississippi State last week.