Let’s start the week off with a question:
Who are these 2017 Kentucky football Wildcats?
Are they a resourceful team that has found ways to win its first two games, and thus on track for another bowl-bound season and a possible step up the steep SEC ladder?
Or are they an overrated team that struggled to subdue two weaker opponents, thus lucky to be 2-0 and on track for a rude awakening once it encounters the savage beasts of the SEC?
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Saturday night in Columbia, S.C., 7:30 p.m. kickoff on the SEC Network, Mark Stoops’ troops will begin the process of finding the answers to those questions, and many more, when they face the South Carolina Gamecocks in the conference opener.
South Carolina won four its last six regular-season games a year ago to earn a trip to the Birmingham Bowl. The Gamecocks have opened this season 2-0, beating North Carolina State 35-28 at a neutral site (Charlotte) last week and Missouri 31-13 on the road (the other Columbia) on Saturday.
Plus, the Gamecocks have lost three straight to Kentucky. Steve Spurrier’s last two South Carolina teams came up short against UK — probably one of the factors that caused the Old Ball Coach to choose retirement — 45-38 in Lexington in 2014 and 26-22 in Columbia in 2015. Spurrier’s successor, Will Muschamp, lost 17-10 to Kentucky at then-Commonwealth Stadium last season.
Muschamp’s second edition is improved. The coach has found a quarterback in sophomore Jake Bentley, who has thrown for four touchdowns with just one interception. He has a home run hitter in Debo Samuel, who returned the opening kickoff against N.C. State 97 yards for a touchdown, then caught two touchdown passes.
Muschamp’s forte is defense. “Coach Boom” made his name as a defensive coordinator at Auburn and Texas. Though a lack of offensive firepower earned Muschamp the pink slip after a four-year stint (28-21) at Florida, his defenses there were more than formidable.
Last year, South Carolina ranked 66th nationally in total defense. This year, Muschamp has Skai Moore back after the star linebacker missed 2016 after herniated disk surgery. Saturday, the Gamecocks held a Missouri offense that scored 72 points on Missouri State in the opener to a touchdown and two field goals.
ESPN’s Peter Burns tweeted afterward, “Great win by Georgia on the road. However, I’m still not sure the most impressive team in the East hasn’t been South Carolina so far.”
Kentucky has been, well, less than impressive. At least if you go by the final scores. The UK offense sputtered in Hattiesburg on the way to a 24-17 victory over Southern Miss. In Saturday’s home opener at Kroger Field, Kentucky trailed FCS member Eastern Kentucky 16-10 late in the third quarter before pulling out a 27-16 victory.
Turnovers have saved UK’s bacon. The Cats are tied with South Carolina at fifth nationally in turnover margin, plus-2.0 per game, after finishing 107th in that category a year ago. Since Benny Snell’s red-zone fumble in the first quarter at Southern Miss, UK has gone seven straight quarters without turning over the football.
“That’s huge,” said offensive coordinator Eddie Gran on Saturday.
Gran’s offense improved against EKU, gaining 436 yards as compared to 254 the week before. Snell rushed for 103 yards on 19 carries. Quarterback Stephen Johnson settled the ship and completed 15 of 22 passes for 224 yards. Wide receiver Blake Bone came up with three important catches for 93 yards.
“It’s hard to tell, I think, until you get into SEC play,” said UK assistant Dean Hood on Saturday. “It’s hard to gauge (against) a Conference-USA team, an FCS team.”
South Carolina is a good SEC team and getting better. Kentucky is, well, a team with plenty of question marks. Starting Saturday, we start getting some real answers.
Kentucky at South Carolina
7:30 p.m. (SEC Network)
Kentucky-South Carolina last 10 meetings