Highly Anticipated Season Gets Underway
Heading into the 2021 season expectations are as high as they’ve ever been at Kentucky. The Cats are coming off five straight bowls games and three consecutive bowl wins. As a result, big things are expected in Mark Stoops‘ ninth season in Lexington. With a new-look offense and plenty of returning players on defense Kentucky’s strong on both sides of the ball. They kick off 2021 with the first of three straight home games. Let’s get you ready for Saturday with our Louisiana-Monroe at Kentucky preview.
Unveiling The Offense
At the end of 2020 Stoops parted ways with co-offensive coordinators Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw. This after ranking near the bottom in many offensive categories. As a way of “modernizing” the offense, Stoops looked to the pros for a new coordinator. Liam Coen, the assistant quarterback’s coach for the Los Angeles Rams, is the new man in charge.
In addition for the first time since 2017 someone other than Terry Wilson will start under center. Former Penn State signal-caller Will Levis won a three-way battle for the job. Beau Allen is the backup and the third man in the mix, Joey Gatewood transferred to Central Florida. In 14 games in “Happy Valley,” Levis threw for 615 yards and three touchdowns. In addition, he ran for 473 yards and six scores.
Behind Levis is one of the best running backs in the nation Chris Rodriguez. Despite missing two games due to COVID the junior ran for 785 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also led the league with a whopping 6.6 yards per carry. One area where the Big Blue Nation expects great improvement is the receiving corps. A big part of that is Wan’Dale Robinson who transferred to Kentucky after two years at Nebraska. The former Mr. Kentucky football did a little of everything gaining nearly 1,500 yards and 11 touchdowns. In addition to Robinson, Josh Ali is back for a sixth year after taking advantage of the NCAA granting an extra season. Ali led the Cats with 54 receptions a year ago.
An Experienced Defense
On the other side of the ball, Kentucky could start as many as 10 seniors. That’s an area where the Cats want to improve after giving up 381 yards per game, ranking 45th in the nation. However, while they gave up yards they were very opportunistic leading the league with 16 interceptions. The only player who isn’t a senior listed as number one on the depth chart is cornerback Carrington Valentine. He’s a player we’ve talked about who’s really impressed the coaching staff. The ULM offense should be tailor-made for the UK defense.
Speaking of the opponent as we continue our Louisiana-Monroe at Kentucky preview let’s turn to the Warhawks.
If it could go wrong for a team then it did for ULM as they went 0-10 overall and 0-7 in the Sun Belt. As a result, the school brought in Terry Bowden in hopes of changing the fortunes. The former Auburn coach went 47-17-1 down on the Plains. However, in his previous coaching stop, he struggled to go only 35-52 at Akron. Not only did they bring in Bowden but also Rich Rodriguez as offensive coordinator. Rodriguez had great success at West Virginia and now famously turned down the Alabama job. Some guy named Nick Saban took the position. Whatever happened to him anyway?
One of the biggest questions heading into Saturday is who will be the quarterback. Incumbent Colby Suits threw for over 1,500 yards last year. However, Bowden announced Rhett Rodriguez, son of the offensive coordinator, is the starter. During his years at Arizona, he completed 51 of 100 passes for 578 yards. In addition, he has four interceptions and three touchdowns. As mentioned earlier this seems to set up well for the Kentucky defense. Perry Carter is the favorite target with 22 catches for 312 yards and three touchdowns in 2020.
On the other side of the ball, the Warhawks’ defense gave up 465 yards and 42 points a game. As if those numbers weren’t bad enough they also ranked near the bottom in third-down percentage allowing opponents to convert 42 percent of the time. Two players to watch on that side of the ball are defensive end Ty Shelby and linebacker Traveion Webster. Shelby is a preseason All-Sun Belt performer while Webster led the team with 82 tackles.
As we continue with our Louisiana-Monroe at Kentucky preview we now look at the series history.
The Last Time They Met
This will be the sixth meeting all-time between the Warhawks and Wildcats. ULM won the first meeting back in 1994 21-14. Since then Kentucky’s run off four straight by an average margin of 23.5 points. In their last meeting back in 2014 Louisiana-Monroe jumped out to a 14-3 lead before the Cats ran off 45 unanswered points for a 48-14 win. Patrick Towles threw for 216 yards and three touchdowns while Stanley “Boom” Williams ran for 104 yards and a score. All-time Kentucky is 10-2 versus Sun Belt teams.
Now that we’ve looked at both teams it’s prediction time as we wrap up our Louisiana-Monroe at Kentucky Preview
Who Wins On Saturday?
After struggling in the first two years one thing Mark Stoops has done consistently is beat the teams Kentucky’s supposed to beat.
Kentucky football coaches against non-conference opponents:
Mark Stoops 25-8
Joker Phillips 9-4
Rich Brooks 23-7
Guy Morriss 5-2
Hal Mumme 10-4
Bill Curry 12-12
Jerry Claiborne 28-9-3
— John Clay (@johnclayiv) August 24, 2021
There’s no reason to think it won’t be 12 straight after Saturday. Against a bad defense, this should be a great showcase for the revamped Kentucky offense. Remember other than a scrimmage during Fan Day a few weeks ago no one’s seen what a Liam Coen offense looks like. The Cats didn’t have a Spring game for a second straight year and the practices weren’t open to either the media or the public. What we can expect is a pro-style more wide-open offense with an emphasis on getting the receivers involved. Of course, that doesn’t mean the running game is going away. Especially with one of the SEC’s best offensive lines, the Big Blue Wall, blocking for him. Coen says he wants Rodriguez to get at least 25 touches per game, whether that’s running or catching the ball out of the backfield.
A win on Saturday gives Stoops 50 for his career at Kentucky. That puts him in some exclusive company as only he and Bear Bryant will have won 50 games in Lexington. The Cats are a 31 point favorite and generally, you never pick the Cats to cover. However, against a bad Warhawks team, the Cats win and even cover.
Thanks for checking out our Louisiana-Monroe at Kentucky preview with us here at Last Word On College Football. We’ll be back after the game with a full recap.