Sponsored Content: University of Kentucky football set to kick off against Ball State
Published 4:30 pm Tuesday, August 29, 2023
We’re barely a week away from the long-awaited return of Kentucky football, as the Wildcats will host the Ball State Cardinals on Saturday, September 2. The Wildcats entered 2022 with sky-high expectations and lived up to them for the first month of the season, climbing as high as No. 7 in the AP Poll, but they were eventually exposed as pretenders: talented players like quarterback Will Levis, who ended up becoming a second-round draft pick, weren’t enough to cover up for the Wildcats’ glaring lack of talent on the offensive line, the flaws in now-departed offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello’s scheme.
Pundits may not be touting the Wildcats as a playoff dark horse like they did last season, but they’re widely expected to put together another consistent, winning season. Playing .500 ball or better may not seem like high praise in college football, where even one loss can be the death knell of a team’s playoff hopes, but given the historical mediocrity of the Wildcats’ football program, what head coach Mark Stoops has done over the past decade to bring the program to respectability is nothing short of remarkable.
A Look at the Odds
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One good way to get a ballpark estimate of how the Wildcats will perform this year is by looking at what the sportsbooks have to say about them. The mantra goes that the house always wins and, while that isn’t the case 100 percent of the time, the sports gambling business is a multi-billion-dollar industry, so they put quite a bit of time and resources into getting things correct as much as possible.
Right now, the over/under for the Wildcats’ win total for the 2023 season is set at seven: their chances of winning it all are extremely long, as they’re listed at or around +15000 depending on what sportsbook you use.
ESPN’s Football Power Index—a “predictive rating system designed to measure team strength and project performance going forward,” based in the preseason on “returning starters, past performance, recruiting rankings and coaching tenure”—lists the Wildcats as the No. 28 team in college football ahead of the start of the season, just outside the realm of the AP poll, so those playoff odds seem pretty accurate. Here’s a look at what could make or break the Wildcats’ season this year.
Looking at Leary
What the Wildcats end up doing this season hinges on how transfer quarterback Devin Leary performs. He’s a sixth-year man out of NC State who racked up 6,807 yards and 62 touchdowns to just 16 interceptions during 30 games (27 starts) in Raleigh. His career was hampered by injuries, part of why he still has a year of eligibility left as he enters his age-24 season, but he’s an excellent passer when healthy.
Leary isn’t going to blow you away with his physical talent like Levis could, but he’s also a lot more consistent, a polished, patient and accurate passer who will find the open man instead of aiming for the highlight reel with potentially bone-headed plays. Having an experienced passer can make a huge difference in college football, and if Leary can avoid the injury bug this season, he could help the Wildcats stay in the mix for the SEC’s East Division crown.
One interesting trend to note is that while the Wildcats have typically recruited quarterbacks from their home state or elsewhere around the Deep South, Leary marks the second straight quarterback from the northeastern United States that Kentucky has targeted. He hails from New Jersey, while Levis is a Massachusetts native: Bay State Massachusetts sports betting promos will be available for this game for people from that state. Kentucky fans, on the other hand, must wait a few more weeks before Kentucky officially launches online sports betting.
Sizing Up the Schedule
Right now, the Wildcats have the fourth-best odds of winning their division, listed around +3000; they’re tied for eighth to win the conference, around +6000. They have a long climb ahead if they want to unseat the Georgia Bulldogs for either of those crowns, but it’s possible that Georgia will take a step or two back after all the draft picks they’ve lost to the NFL in the past two seasons.
One game that I’m fascinated to see the outcome of is the Wildcats’ October 7 matchup with the Bulldogs. Kentucky played Georgia close last season, losing by a score of 16-6 at home. While a double-digit loss is still ugly on the score sheet, it looks a lot better when you consider that Georgia won their games by an average of nearly 27 points last season. It’s a much tougher task to pull off the upset on the road than it is from the comfort of one’s home stadium, but if Georgia isn’t quite as good as it has been in recent years, I think it’s possible.
Beyond the game with Georgia, Kentucky has two other matchups with teams who enter the 2023 season in the Top 25: they’ll host No. 12 Tennessee and No. 4 Alabama. Tennessee, similarly, could regress without star quarterback Hendon Hooker. New signal-caller Joe Milton has never been able to put it together on the field (and lost the starting job to Hooker in 2021), so I don’t see any reason to anoint them as contenders until he’s proven he can figure it out.
Alabama looks to rebound after a couple of uncharacteristic down years, and they’re always going to be a nightmare to face under Nick Saban no matter if they’re a playoff team or not.
Rounding out the Wildcats’ 2023 regular season is an in-state rivalry matchup with the Louisville Cardinals on the road. The Cardinals are getting more hype than the Wildcats are this season, so the prospect of putting that buzz to bed and showing who the best program in Kentucky is should make Wildcats fans salivate.