Kroger Field will be a zoo for Big Blue Nation as Kentucky looks to open the season with five consecutive wins when South Carolina invades Lexington. A win would give the Wildcats their first five-game, single-season winning streak since 2002 — Kentucky won its bowl game in 2007 and its first four games of '08 — as well as its first 5-0 start since 1984.
The series between the Gamecocks and Wildcats has seen its fair share of runs over the years. Kentucky won the inaugural matchup in 1937, but since then South Carolina has won 17 of the 28 meetings, including a string of 10 straight from 2000-09. The Wildcats have seized momentum, however, winning the last four by an average of seven points per game.
South Carolina comes off a resounding 37-14 road win at Vanderbilt last week. Jake Bentley and Rico Dowdle did much of the heavy lifting, as the former threw for 261 yards and a touchdown on a 19-for-28 effort while the latter rushed for 112 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries. The defense did its job as well to provide a full team effort, holding Vanderbilt quarterback Kyle Shurmur to a 47 percent completion rate (18-for-38) and 180 yards with only one touchdown and an interception. The ground game was equally ineffective, as the Commodores rushed for just 3.8 yards per carry on 32 attempts in the game.
The Wildcats just keep winning, don’t they? After snapping the lengthy losing streak to Florida in Week 2, Kentucky took care of business against FCS opponent Murray State and then held No. 23 Mississippi State to just seven points in a 21-point win. Nick Fitzgerald and the Bulldogs were expected to be one of the Wildcats’ toughest 2018 opponents, but Kentucky limited Fitzgerald to 145 yards on 16-for-32 passing with no touchdowns and an interception. The run game amassed a measly 56 yards on 28 carries, with Fitzgerald netting just 20 yards on 16 carries while Kylin Hill and Aeris Williams combined to average three yards per carry with a long of eight yards.
South Carolina at Kentucky
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 29 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: SEC Network
Spread: Kentucky -1.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can South Carolina find the end zone?
The Gamecocks have put up 41, 17 and 37 points in their three games so far, so the team goes as the offense goes. However, Kentucky’s defense has allowed 13.3 points per game this season, which places the team seventh nationally in scoring defense. The Wildcats held conference foes Florida and Mississippi State to 23 points combined, and they could definitely use another similar defensive effort on Saturday.
2. Run, Benny, run
Atop many of the rushing leaderboards stands junior running back Benny Snell Jr., who has amassed SEC bests in rushing yards (540) and rushing touchdowns (seven) in 2018. South Carolina is middle-of-the-pack (75th) in rushing defense and will have its hands full trying to stop Snell.
3. 3rd down battle
Both Kentucky and South Carolina are in the top one-third of the FBS in converting on third downs offensively. The Gamecocks, though, feature the SEC’s best third-down defense (and fourth in the nation) allowing just 24.2 percent of third downs to be converted. Kentucky, meanwhile, is 113th in that category. In a game that could come down to the wire, converting on third down and keeping the offense on the field could key South Carolina down the stretch.
Kentucky won its home opener last week after opening with three straight wins on the road. Three of the Gamecocks’ four losses last season came in SEC play, so a Kentucky win certainly looks plausible, much more so after its torrent start to the season. This one shouldn’t be a blowout either way and will likely come down to time of possession and possibly a late score in the final few minutes.
Prediction: Kentucky 24, South Carolina 20
— 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.