Now in year three, head coach Mark Stoops finally has an experienced group of players at Kentucky. The Wildcats, returning seven starters on both sides of the ball, have the potential to be a contender in the SEC East but a non-conference test in week one against Louisiana-Lafayette should not be overlooked.
The Ragin' Cajuns, coached by Mark Hudspeth, have won nine games in each of the past four seasons. Included in those four seasons are four consecutive New Orleans Bowl victories and a Sun Belt championship in 2013. The Ragin' Cajuns have beaten the likes of East Carolina, Nevada and San Diego State along the way.
The Wildcats will be looking for their first win since beating the Cajuns' Sun Belt rival, Louisiana-Monroe, in week seven of 2014. Kentucky lost six games to close out the season, while Lafayette won eight of its last nine.
Louisiana-Lafayette has accomplished a lot during Hudspeth's tenure but have yet to beat an SEC team. Despite losing, the Ragin' Cajuns have given programs such as Arizona and Florida all they wanted in recent years. Saturday's matchup will be the first meeting between Kentucky and Louisiana-Lafayette.
Louisiana-Lafayette at Kentucky
Kickoff: 7 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: ESPNU
Spread: Kentucky -17
Three Things to Watch
1. Kentucky's offensive line vs. Lafayette's defensive line
The Wildcats should possess one of the SEC's most physically imposing offensive lines this season. Seriously, these guys are some pretty punishing run blockers. Pass protection, well, not so great. Nonetheless, the Ragin' Cajuns could have a difficult time replacing Christian Ringo and Justin Hamilton, a pair of stud defensive linemen a year ago. Also, they will be without linebacker Trae Johnson. Kentucky's pair of running backs, Stanley "Boom" Williams and Jojo Kemp, could have a field day.
2. Patrick Towles vs. Lafayette's depleted secondary
If Lafayette is in some way able to slow Kentucky's ground attack, the defense will be faced with another massive challenge in slowing down the Wildcats' quarterback. Towles may be the best pure passer in the SEC East, so the Ragin' Cajuns may regret making him throw. He has a couple reliable targets on the outside. It will be interesting to see how Kentucky balances its explosive running backs' ability with the Wildcats' new version of the Air Raid offense in week one. Lafayette allowed a Sun Belt-worst 263.6 passing yards per game in 2014.
3. Can the Wildcats stop Elijah McGuire?
The 2014 Sun Belt Player of the Year, McGuire is an SEC-caliber player. He amassed 1,165 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground during the regular season. McGuire also led the way in receptions for Lafayette, snagging 40 catches for 414 yards. Kentucky lost a good deal of production on the defensive line in the offseason and frankly, this defense didn't do a very good job of stopping the run near the end of the 2014 campaign either. The Wildcats gave up 52 points per game in their final three contests. If the defense hasn't improved, McGuire has the ability to run wild.
It's always tough to predict the first game for any team because coaching staffs have had ample time to prepare for their opponent. Given the quality of coach the Ragin' Cajuns have and their recent success, it would make sense to pick this to be a close game. However, while McGuire could certainly be a bright spot and help them put points on the board, Lafayette has lost too much defensively to stay in this game. I expect Kentucky to have one of the SEC's best offenses in 2015, at least statistically. After a quarter or two of letting Lafayette hang around, the Wildcats will start piling up touchdowns.