TAKE TWO: UK-Ole Miss Predictions
One of the biggest games of Kentucky's 2022 season schedule is nearly upon us with the No. 7/8 Wildcats taking on the No. 14 Ole Miss Rebels in Oxford tomorrow.
Cats Illustrated writers Jeff Drummond and Justin Rowland share takes on the game; both how they see the matchup on paper and how they see it playing out.
What are the biggest reasons for optimism going into this game for Kentucky fans?
Jeff Drummond: I think the Cats have a better, more balanced roster. If you go position group by position group in this game, you're taking Kentucky's guys the majority of the time. In particular, I like Will Levis and his receiver corps over that of Jaxson Dart and the Ole Miss passing targets. You also have the return of the SEC's leading rusher from last season, Chris Rodriguez, which is no small detail for a Rebel defense that just gave up 262 yards on the ground to Tulsa. Lastly, I like the fact that UK has a highly competitive SEC road game under its belt while Ole Miss has yet to be tested.
Justin Rowland: Kentucky could have a significant advantage at quarterback going into this game. If the defense is capable of executing the task of loading the box, spying the quarterback, and tackling in the open field - which they have done pretty well this year - then it's easy to see the game tipping in the Cats direction. Given that there seem to be questions about Jaxson Dart, that increases the likelihood that UK's defense can make game-changing plays or have a successful day.
Ole Miss is a talented team but there are questions about who might be out. It sounds like some key players are questionable and that could balance out the effects of JJ Weaver being out for Kentucky.
We've already seen Kentucky go on the road and win in an even louder environment. Also, the Rebels showed some vulnerability last week against Tulsa, and haven't really played anyone very good so it's hard to tell how good they really are.
Of course, the return of Chris Rodriguez gives Kentucky a chance to correct the rushing game's issues.
I like that the game takes place early in the day. You don't want your team going on the road and sitting in a hotel room all day while the opposing fans get crazy.
What are the biggest reasons for concern?
Drummond: Lane Kiffin is one of the best play-callers in college football and will have a nice gameplan in place to attack Brad White's defense. I have the feeling he's been holding part of their package back against the four inferior teams they've faced so far. I think the Rebels' tempo is also a concern. It has bothered UK in the past, most recently in a shootout with Tennessee at Kroger Field. There's also that pesky stat lingering over Mark Stoops and previous UK coaches. The Cats are 0-for their last 14 on the road in the SEC West, including an 0-for-10 mark for the current head coach.
Rowland: Kentucky is 0-10 in SEC West road games, as you've probably read many times (including twice here!), and you're going to see that stat until the first digit changes. Last year in Starkville, the Cats got off to a hot start but started turning it over. Your margin for error in these road games with an energized crowd/opponent is razor thin and turnovers have done Kentucky in before. The Cats must play a clean game and that has not been their greatest strength so far this year.
The offensive line is in focus once again, with all the struggles this year, and if they have lapses it could create turnovers. If the line doesn't play better then C Rod's impact won't be what it could be.
Now to Ole Miss: If healthy, this could be the most formidable rushing attack the Cats face all season. And you know Lane Kiffin is going to be tough during the course of the game.
What's your prediction for the game's outcome?
Drummond: Kentucky 26, Ole MIss 23 -- I went back and forth on this one all week, leaning toward the Rebels on Monday and swinging back toward the Cats on Thursday. It should be a good one, but the matchups really favor UK. If the Cats can come out of this turnover-free, they're going to win this game. If the margin is no worse than minus-1, they'll still have a shot. But it just feels like a game where the team that makes the fewest mistakes will win.
Rowland: Kentucky 31, Ole Miss 28. I've gone back and forth in my head about this outcome all week, and it comes down to this: If Kentucky plays a clean game, I think they win. What exactly that means, how many turnovers can they live with (1?), I don't know. But I like the senior quarterback going on the road against a team that hasn't shown much balance yet.
Who will Kentucky's most valuable player be?
Drummond: Will Levis -- The Kentucky QB lives for this type of high profile matchup, and I don't think he'll disappoint on Saturday. The Rebels have to pick their poison with three really talented UK receivers and a handful of tight ends who can also make plays in the passing game, all while having to deal with the return of Chris Rodriguez with fresh legs and a highly motivated mindset.
Rowland: I like Jeff's pick because for Kentucky to win, Levis is the one guy that absolutely has to play well. But I'll call for Jacquez Jones to play his third straight outstanding game and come up with a turnover in his homecoming to Oxford. He, DeAndre Square, and Jordan Wright also need to play to their highest potential.