On the Beat: Kentucky football's strengths and weaknesses heading into Saturday's game vs. Mizzou

Eric Blum
Columbia Daily Tribune

This week's On the Beat is with Jon Hale, who covers Kentucky athletics for the Louisville Courier-Journal, part of the USA Today Network.

Hale has covered the Wildcats for over a decade and been there to witness the rise of Kentucky football under Mark Stoops, Final Four trips under John Calipari and much more.

Among the topics discussed with Hale are how Wildcats' fans view Missouri, how big this individual matchup is to both teams and what changes Kentucky's offense has made since the last time the teams played in October 2020. 

The full interview with Hale can be heard on this week's episode of the Tribune's Mizzou Sports Podcast. 

The following conversation has been slightly edited for length and clarity. 

Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops looks on from the sideline during a game against Missouri last season at Faurot Field.

Eric Blum: Where do things with this Kentucky team currently stand?

Jon Hale: "It's interesting. I think there's a fair amount of hype, which is somewhat surprising coming off their first losing season in a while. I do think the all-SEC season last year kind of reestablished expectations, maybe also kind of shone a light on, as much progress as Mark Stoops had made, there was still a pretty big gap between Kentucky and the legitimate contenders in the East, whether it's Georgia or Florida or certainly the top teams in the West. And I think maybe if we had seen a normal season, they would have been about 8-4 because they would have played four nonconference games they would have been favored heavily in. Things would have just kept rolling as normal and you would have not heard any sort of major changes. But because of the way the season played out, Stoops realized that you can't have an offense that doesn't consistently have any sort of credible passing attack and expect to be a legitimate contender in the SEC. And so he went blew things up after the season. ... It was like they didn't have a losing season at all last year based on how you were talking to people before the season. And then you go out in Week 1 and play a terrible Louisiana-Monroe team that did not win a single game last year. But they just were dominant in a way they have not often been in these openers against Group of Five teams. ... I don't think anybody thinks they're going to challenge Georgia. But there's some real thought that they might be able to even push Florida for that second spot in the East and certainly emerge on top between that preseason conversation whether it was going to be Kentucky or Missouri as the third team in the East."

More:Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz sees game against Kentucky as measuring stick for Tigers' growth

EB: How would you rate the importance of this game to Kentucky fans?

JH: "I think there's a lot of realization of how important it is. ... They realize that if you want to have a nine-win season, if you want to have a 10-win season, if you want to contend in the East, you have to be that team that emerges from this jumbled mess of the bottom half of the SEC East of Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, South Carolina and Vanderbilt. You have to be the team that separates itself from that pack to have a chance to even push Florida and Georgia. And so I think there's a real recognition of that part of it being really important. There's still some disappointment, embarrassment from the way that Kentucky-Missouri game went down last year. Kentucky thought that they had passed Missouri and then they went out and just laid an egg in that game and played their worst performance of the season. They got outmatched physically, which is something that has not happened to this team very often the last three or four years. It was clear (this week) at his press conference that Stoops is still upset about it. The players are still upset about it. So I think that's the other part that really increases the importance of this game in particular."

More:How good was Blaze Alldredge? Grading Mizzou after its win over Central Michigan

Kentucky's Chris Rodriguez celebrates after a long run last season at Kroger Field in Lexington, Ky.

EB: What do you think Kentucky's biggest weaknesses and strengths are coming into this game?

JH: "I think the strength is still on the offensive line and in the running back room. On the line, they lost an NFL draft pick and an All-SEC starter. They lost both those guys and kind of plugged them in with a former four-star recruit, top-100 kind of guy from LSU as a transfer at left tackle. They still have Darian Kinnard at right tackle, the preseason All-American. ... So the line has a lot of talent and a lot of depth there. And in the running back room, Chris Rodriguez, for my money, is probably one of the more underrated players in the SEC. He's averaged six yards per carry in his career. He actually has played a huge role the last few years when he made his first career start on Saturday. I'm not 100% convinced that the run game is going to be quite as successful as it has been just because of the way they block now and they've gone from kind of an inside zone team to an outside zone running team. That's different. It's going to take some time to learn and master that. But they should be able to run the ball and get those difficult yards and play behind that offensive line. That's going to be their strengths. In terms of weaknesses, probably the receivers, that's a huge question mark still. The offense is built in a way to get your playmakers the ball, to be able to move them around the field and scheme in a way to get them open. That worked against Louisiana-Monroe. But does it work against legitimate SEC teams, when they know that you only have two guys who you're consistently throwing it to? Does that become an issue? I don't know. I think we'll find out moving on. And then on defense, the pass rush was a weakness a year ago. They were like 113th in the country in sacks per game. Week 1 against maybe the worst team in college football, they had 14 tackles for loss and six sacks. Is that a sign that they fixed that in the offseason? Or is that just a product of who they were playing? I think the jury's still out."

More:Badie's breakout and what Missouri's defense lacked: Our takeaways from the win over Central Michigan

EB: Who do you think ends up winning the game, by how much and why?

JH: "I think I'll pick Kentucky just because of the motivation they have based on last year. The way they looked in Week 1, I think that they were able to probably hold some things back on offense because the opponent in terms of wrinkles. For instance, Will Levis was a running quarterback at Penn State. He didn't have one designed quarterback run in the first game. Is that not going to be part of the offense? Are they just holding that back so better opponents don't see it on film? I'm interested to see how much of that gets unveiled this weekend against Missouri. And I know Missouri wasn't super impressive in their opener against Central Michigan. But I've seen plenty of Kentucky teams struggle in their first game against a Group of Five opponent and turn out to be fine. Actually in 2018, Kentucky also played Central Michigan in their first game. The Wildcats were losing just before halftime and ended up winning and having their best season in 40 years. So I don't think that necessarily plays into my thinking. But I saw enough from Kentucky's offense to think they're going to be a legitimate passing threat with the running game that they already have that we know they can do. I think it's going to be a difficult thing to stop. A five-point spread seems about right to me. I haven't really thought about a final score yet, but I'll probably pick Kentucky by a touchdown."

You can follow Hale on Twitter @JonHale_CJ and read his work at www.courier-journal.com.

Contact Eric Blum at eblum@columbiatribune.com. Follow @ByEricBlum on Twitter.

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