Southern Mississippi at Kentucky (7:30- ESPN)– If there is one constant with the Kentucky football program over the years it is nothing is ever easy. Anytime something looks like a sure thing it turns out to be anything but. A prime example is the season opener against the Golden Eagles. Originally this game was supposed to be against the University of Alabama-Birmingham but when the school disbanded the program, the Cats suddenly had a hole in their 2016 schedule.
Last summer a deal was worked out where Southern Miss would come to Lexington this season and Kentucky would go to Hattiesburg to play in 2017. At the time this series was signed the Golden Eagles were coming off a 4-32 record over the previous three seasons, sounds like an easy win. In a season where Mark Stoops needs to get to six wins and a bowl game Cat fans will take any win they can get.
Southern Mississippi at Kentucky Preview and Prediction
As Kentucky luck would have it Southern Miss was one of the surprise teams in college football in 2015 going 9-5, making the Conference USA title game and a berth in the Heart of Texas Bowl losing to Washington 44-31.
As usually happens when mid-majors have a great season, there has been some turnover for Southern Miss, with Head Coach Todd Monken leaving to take the offensive coordinator job with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Alcorn State coach and former USM assistant Jay Hopson is the new man in charge. Adding another layer to this game is the new offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson, who held the same position for Kentucky in 2015 before being let go after the season. Stoops and Dawson seemed to never be on the same page and for True Blue Fans his play calling was quite frankly sometimes baffling. Dawson made waves two weeks ago when he commented to the media “I’m a good coordinator when I have a good quarterback to work with” which was a perceived slam towards former Kentucky quarterbacks Patrick Towles, who transferred to Boston College and current signal caller Drew Barker.
If Dawson’s words are true then he certainly has a good quarterback to work with in Nick Mullens. The senior is the pre-season Conference USA player of the year after setting school records last season with 4,476 yards passing and 38 touchdowns and is on every quarterback award watch list. The strength of this Wildcat defense is the secondary so the match up of them versuse Mullens will be very interesting. USM also returns running back Ito Smith, who had over 1,600 total yards and 13 touchdowns last season. The Wildcats are quite inexperienced on their front seven so keeping Ito from having a big game will be key.
On the other side of the ball, Southern Miss lost three of their top defensive players from last season. Barker and his talented group of running backs and receivers led by Boom Williams should be able to move the ball and score on USM. Kentucky fans are very interested to see how the offense works under new coordinators Eddie Gran and Darrin Hinshaw and how much more involved tight end CJ Conrad will be after being almost an afterthought last season.
This has the potential to be one of the more exciting games of the first weekend. Stoops needs a win in this game and he will get the last laugh over Dawson and Southern Miss.
Time to take a look at the rest of the games in what is a huge first weekend for the SEC and we begin in Knoxville.
Appalachian State at Tennessee- (Thursday 7:30 SEC Network)–
The SEC East favorites start the season with what could be a tough test from the Mountaineers. Led by quarterback Taylor Lamb Appy State will score some points. However behind Jalen Hurd and Joshua Dobbs Tennessee will score a lot more.
South Carolina at Vanderbilt- (Thursday 8:00 ESPN)–
The Commodores have hopes of making a bowl game in Derek Mason‘s third season. The Gamecocks start a new era under coach Will Mushchamp but will more than likely struggle in 2016. Vandy’s defense is one of the league’s best while their offense is not. This one won’t be pretty and first one to 20 points wins.
South Alabama at Mississippi State- (NOON- SEC Network)-
The Bulldogs begin life after Dak Prescott and Coach Dan Mullen may play both Nick Fitzgerald and Damian Williams behind center. Fortunately the Jaguars are not good so this should help them gain confidence.
Mississippi State 35-17
Missouri at West Virginia- (NOON- Fox Sports 1)–
Barry Odom takes the reigns in Columbia and faces a tough first game going into Morgantown. The Tiger defense is really good and should be able to keep this game close.
West Virginia 31-14
UCLA at Texas A&M- (3:30- CBS)-
Quarterback Trevor Knight will have quite the challenge in his debut for the Aggies facing one of the best secondaries in the Pac 12. Bruins quarterback Josh Rosen will face the nation’s best pass rusher in Myles Garrett. Playing in College Station in front of a national television audience Kevin Sumlin‘s club will pull out a close one.
Texas A&M 28-24
LSU at Wisconsin- (3:30 ABC- Game Played in Green Bay)–
The last year has certainly been an interesting for Les Miles where he went from certain firing to being back for another season. Leonard Fournette is one of the favorites for the Heisman Trophy but is recovering from an ankle injury. The Badgers have one of the nation;s best run defenses but their defensive coordinator is now at LSU. The Tigers pull one out in the fourth quarter.
Louisiana Tech at Arkansas- (4:00 SEC Network)-
The Razorbacks rallied after a 1-3 start to finish 8-5 and a win over Kansas State in the Liberty Bowl. Austin Allen will be the new man under center and the Hogs should be able to take advantage of a Bulldog team who are rebuilding after a 9-4 season in 2015.
North Carolina vs. Georgia- (5:00 ESPN- Game played in Atlanta)-
It has been quite the off-season for new Bulldog coach Kirby Smart and he is probably happy to finally start the season. Georgia has many question marks including the health of running back Nick Chubb and breaking in a new quarterback in Jacob Eason. The Tar Heels have a great back of their own in Elijah Hood and even playing in Atlanta Gene Chizek’s club will spoil Smart’s debut.
North Carolina 27-23
Massachusetts at Florida- (7:30 SEC Network)-
In what seems to be a recurring theme in the SEC, the Gators will have a new quarterback in Luke Del Rio. Coach Jim McElwain has suspended a few players for this game but it really won’t matter. The Minutemen have won only eight games in the last four seasons.
USC at Alabama- (8:00 ABC- Game played in Arlington)–
The defending National Champs open the season with questions under center as Nick Saban has said both Cooper Bateman and Blake Barnett will play. There are plenty of interesting match ups on both sides of the ball and the Trojans have the players to pull the upset. Saban is 9-0 in openers at Bama and 6-0 aginst teams from Power Five conferences. Expect a close game with Alabama winning late.
Clemson at Auburn- (9:00 ESPN)-
The Tigers from the ACC lost to Alabama in the championship game but return Heisman favorite Deshaun Watson. The Tigers from the SEC have struggled the last couple of seasons and it doesn’t appear on paper that Gus Malzahn’s club will be able to stop Watson and company.
Ole Miss vs. Florida State- (8:00 ESPN- Game played in Orlando)–
The last game on the opening weekend could be one of the best. Chad Kelly returns for Hugh Freeze’s club and hopes to build on his record setting season in 2015. The Seminoles with counter with Dalvin Cook, the ACC’s leading rusher but will have a new quarterback in Deondre Francois. With the Rebels missing three first round draft picks from last year’s team Jimbo Fisher’s club should have a few more weapons and will win.
Florida State 38-31
LEXINGTON, KY – SEPTEMBER 26: Mark Stoops of the Kentucky Wildcats calls out instructions during the second half against the Missouri Tigers at Commonwealth Stadium on September 26, 2015 in Lexington, Kentucky. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)