A new season dawns in Lexington as the Kentucky Wildcats (7-6 in 2017) host the Central Michigan Chippewas (8-5 in '17) for the seventh all-time meeting between the two teams. The Wildcats have won each of the first six contests and are heavily favored on Saturday. The matchup returns after a six-year hiatus, with Kentucky victorious 27-13 in Lexington the last time the two sides met in 2011.
Central Michigan finished the 2017 season — the third at the helm for head coach John Bonamego — with an 8-5 record. The Chippewas’ 6-2 tally in MAC play was good enough for second in the MAC West, a game behind Toledo. They struggled against the Power 5, beating only Kansas and losing to Syracuse and Boston College. Central Michigan did have quite a bit of success away from Mount Pleasant, going 5-2 in road games (including a season-ending loss to Wyoming in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl).
Kentucky didn’t end its season the way many in Big Blue Nation would have hoped in Mark Stoops' fifth season in Lexington. The Wildcats entered their bye week 5-1 and a contender in the SEC East, only to finish a disappointing 7-6. Kentucky lost its final two regular-season games by an average of 28 points before falling by the slimmest of margins in the Music City Bowl, a 24-23 loss to Northwestern.
Central Michigan at Kentucky
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 1 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Kentucky -17
Three Things to Watch
1. Kentucky's veteran-laden defense
The Chippewas enter 2018 led by redshirt sophomore quarterback Tony Poljan, who played in 12 games last season, albeit sparingly. The Wildcats counter with a defense that could see eight seniors on the field at any one time. Kentucky was a middle-of-the-pack team last year with regard to sacks (8th in the SEC), but another year of experience should greatly benefit that unit as it looks to make a bigger splash in the opposing backfield.
2. Which offense masks inexperience better?
We’ve already discussed Central Michigan’s youth at quarterback, but there’s more to the Chippewas’ offensive inexperience. Depth charts released near the end of summer project three freshmen starting at wide receiver, which means an inexperienced signal-caller will have very young targets at his disposal. For the Wildcats, though, sophomore junior college transfer Terry Wilson is cemented as the starter entering 2018. Wilson has not played a snap at the FBS level, redshirting at Oregon in 2016 before spending last season at Garden City (Kan.) Community College.
3. Interception battle
The beginning of the season is often the time for teams to work out the kinks in their offensive schemes, which could lead to an extra turnover or two in the early going. Interceptions were hard to find from Kentucky’s offense last season, though a change at quarterback might lead to a learning curve as Wilson gets in sync with his receivers. The Chippewas’ defense led the MAC and was seventh in the FBS with 19 interceptions, and they’ll need to grab at least a couple to have any chance of pulling off the upset and ending Kentucky’s win streak in this series.
Kentucky holds a clear talent advantage on both sides of the ball, and its experience on defense is a huge plus as it hopes to ride that leadership to another winning season. Though Terry Wilson steps into the driver’s seat for the first time, the weapons around him — including workhorse running back Benny Snell Jr., who rushed for 1,333 yards last season — should make the transition very smooth. Add in the Wildcats’ home-field advantage, and all signs point to a season-opening win for Big Blue.
Prediction: Kentucky 28, Central Michigan 17
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and currently a senior at the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and works for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.