When Kentucky and South Carolina meet on Saturday in Lexington, it will be a clash of teams trying to find an identity on different sides of the ball. The Gamecocks have already shown some improvement on defense under first-year head coach Will Muschamp, but they are having trouble scoring points. The ‘Cats, on the other hand, look decent on offense. But that Kentucky defense? Wow.
These two teams were picked to finish near the bottom of the SEC East in the preseason. It’s easy to see why, with the glaring concerns that both teams have on either side of the ball. But both also have shown some bright spots. Kentucky bounced back from an 0-2 start last week and defeated New Mexico State while putting up a whopping 62 points and gaining almost 700 total yards.
Muschamp’s Gamecocks went on the road and won an SEC game in Week 1 — albeit against Vanderbilt — but SEC road wins aren’t easy to come by. Then, after losing to Mississippi State in Week 2, South Carolina responded last week with a 20-15 win over a solid East Carolina team that had just knocked off NC State.
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops seems to have South Carolina’s number over the past two seasons. The Wildcats beat the Gamecocks in Lexington two years ago in a 45-38 shootout, then followed the 2014 win with an impressive 26-22 victory in Columbia. However, before that, South Carolina had won 13 of the previous 14 matchups. The Gamecocks lead the all-time series 17-9-1.
South Carolina at Kentucky
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 24 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: SEC Network
Spread: Kentucky -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Kentucky’s Defense vs. South Carolina’s Offense
Kentucky is allowing roughly 528 yards per game on defense — 285 through the air and 243 on the ground. That’s “good” for 122nd in the FBS. The Wildcats also are giving up almost 44 points per game. Basically, the ‘Cats are dead last in every major defensive category in the SEC. Luckily for them, South Carolina is only scoring around 16 points per game, which also is worst in the SEC in that particular category. The Gamecocks need to establish more of a running game this week. Brandon McIlwain has shown an ability to make plays with his legs, which is something Kentucky’s defense has struggled to stop. But South Carolina also needs more production from its running backs.
2. Drew Barker Injured
The Wildcats weren’t looking great at the quarterback position coming into the season. But to make matters worse, their starter was injured last week. Kentucky quarterback Drew Barker will not play on Saturday. Stoops said on Wednesday that Barker had a back injury and would miss a significant amount of time. JUCO transfer Stephen Johnson is slated to make his first career start at the FBS level against the Gamecocks on Saturday. He looked good against New Mexico State last week, throwing for over 300 yards and three touchdowns, but that was against … New Mexico State. This Muschamp-coached defense probably will present a bit more of a challenge.
3. “Boom” Williams & Jojo Kemp
If you’re not great on defense and you don’t have a proven quarterback, it’s tough to win in the SEC. It certainly helps, though, if you have a capable running back or two. Right now, Stanley “Boom” Williams (no relation to South Carolina’s head coach “Boom”) is having a great year on the ground. Williams is No. 4 on the SEC’s rushing leaders chart, having already put up over 340 yards this season. Kemp didn’t play last week but he’s probable for Saturday. He had a touchdown against each of Kentucky’s first two opponents. With an offensive line capable of run blocking, the ‘Cats will be hoping to find some success on the ground. But all we really know for sure is that for one reason or another, fans are going to be jamming to Nelly’s “Here Comes The Boom” on Saturday.
If you enjoy betting, the Gamecocks plus 2.5 points seems like a smart play here. Sure, Kentucky has had some success in this series under Stoops and the Wildcats are at home. But how much of an advantage is it playing in Lexington, if we’re being honest? I’m not sure why Kentucky is favored in this game, but hey, the Vegas guys usually know what they’re doing. Still, it doesn’t add up. Kentucky’s quarterback is out and its defense is stunningly bad. Even with a mediocre offense, South Carolina not only will cover the spread, but will win this game comfortably.