- Time and Date: Saturday, September 3 at 7:00 p.m. ET
- Network: SEC+/ESPN+
- Location: Kroger Field — Lexington, KY
- Spread: Kentucky (-16)
- ESPN FPI: Kentucky has 93.3% chance to win
- All-time series: Kentucky leads, 8-4-1
- Last meeting: Kentucky 41, Miami (OH) 7 — September 7, 2013
- Current streak: Kentucky, 3 (1991-13)
Setting the scene
Miami (OH) travels south of the Ohio border for a Week 1 showdown in SEC country. If it seems like a long time since the RedHawks pulled out a victory in a game like this, the numbers certainly agree. Last December when Miami won the Frisco Football Classic over North Texas, it snapped its 31-game losing streak to FBS non-conference opponents dating back to 2011. The RedHawks look to carry the residue from that victory into Lexington with a veteran coach in Chuck Martin and the MAC’s premier quarterback in Brett Gabbert.
Kentucky enters the season ranked No. 20 in the AP Poll. If it seems like a long time since the Wildcats stormed into a season with a number beside their name, the numbers also agree. This is the program’s first preseason AP Poll appearance since 1978, and Mark Stoops’ team looks to back up the newfound hype around Kentucky football.
Miami RedHawks outlook
Miami was selected as the preseason MAC East favorite at the conference’s media day, and a major reason why can be answered by its quarterback. Brett Gabbert is the lone MAC QB who enters the 2022 season with previous all-conference honors.
Gabbert first burst onto the scene at Miami as a true freshman in 2019, and the brother of former first-round NFL Draft pick Blaine Gabbert has improved each season on campus. Last year, he posted 2,648 passing yards and 26 touchdowns, while remaining relatively mistake-free with six interceptions. He eclipsed the 400-yard threshold twice, and concluded the season by winning MVP honors of the Frisco Football Classic — Miami’s first bowl win in 11 years.
Unfortunately for Gabbert, he’ll operate without his favorite target in 2022. Jack Sorenson graduated from the program after an overwhelming presence in the offense which included 1,406 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2021. Without the trusty threat at receiver, Gabbert will explore his new options offensively. Taking over for Sorenson in the No. 1 role will be Mac Hippenhammer, who produced 786 yards on 48 receptions in a breakout junior season. Hippenhammer transferred in from Penn State and the RedHawks hope to see similar success in another Big Ten transfer. Former Indiana starter Miles Marshall joins the unit after posting 311 yards in 11 starts with the Hoosiers last fall.
Miami’s passing attack — 21st in the FBS in 2021 — is the team’s offensive calling card. While the RedHawks didn’t establish themselves as a lethal rushing threat, they were certainly serviceable. Rather than a lead back, Chuck Martin’s team prefers to spread the wealth between a horde of ball carriers. Keyon Mozee, Jaylon Bester, Tyre Shelton, Kevin Davis, and Kenny Tracy have all received considerable in-game reps in the past, so expect Miami to rotate between the backs — with Davis and Tracy serving the largest role in the receiving game.
Defense likely presents the greatest concern for the RedHawks simply because of what they’re replacing. Miami tied for 23rd in sacks per game last season, but the unit loses all five players which generated four sacks or more in 2021 including four All-MAC members of the front seven — Kameron Butler, Ivan Pace Jr., Lonnie Phelps, and Dominique Robinson. Miami brought in a slew of transfers to replace that production, but the newcomers lack in-game experience.
Still, given defensive line coach Ron Burton’s success with developing talent — which included switching Dominique Robinson from a wide receiver to an NFL Draft-caliber defensive end — he should be able to sharpen the pass rush abilities of Iowa State transfer Corey Suttle, Indiana transfer Ty Wise, and incumbent defensive end Caiden Woullard.
The RedHawks field more experience elsewhere in the unit, exhibiting their lone returning All-MAC defensive selection in Matthew Salopek. He operates as a hybrid between a safety and weak side linebacker, demonstrating his tremendous hitting ability with 112 tackles last year. Bolstering the unit is veteran middle linebacker Ryan McWood. Injuries limited McWood to one game in 2021, but last time he was healthy, he averaged 11.3 tackles across the 2020 season.
Kentucky Wildcats outlook
Mark Stoops is in the process of transforming Kentucky into the SEC’s quietest juggernaut. While the Wildcats have yet to participate in a New Year’s Six bowl under Stoops’ reign, they’re coming off their second 10-win season and Top 20 finish in four seasons — after failing to finish ranked once from 1985 through 2017.
After faring 10-3 a year ago, Kentucky returns its starting quarterback which led the team on that tremendous campaign, Will Levis. The 6’3”, 222 pound senior quarterback revolves his entire game around the theme of ‘power,’ whether that involves stepping into downfield throws or bulldozing defenders as a runner. Kentucky’s offense is primarily run-based, as Levis totaled under 30 attempts in nine of 13 games. Still, he maintained accuracy with a 66 percent completion rate and delivered three or more passing touchdowns on four occasions.
Kentucky utilizes him in zone reads quite often, and he punched in nine rushing scores in 2021. The rushing attack will play a major role in boosting this offense Saturday, but they’ll have to do it without 1,300-yard rusher Chris Rodriguez Jr., who is serving the first game of an undefined suspension. That shifts secondary back Kavosiey Smoke into the No. 1 role, and Smoke is somebody Stoops should feel comfortable with guiding the rushing attack after 1,306 yards and 12 touchdowns in four previous seasons in Lexington.
The receiving corps notably loses Wan’Dale Robinson, who warranted a second round selection in the NFL Draft last April, as well as Josh Ali. Combined, those two accounted for 60 percent of Kentucky’s receptions last season. The new-look receiving corps possesses less experience than any other position group on the roster, and two true freshmen — Dane Key and Barion Brown — are set to start alongside Virginia Tech transfer Tayvion Robinson. The Wildcats rely on heavily tight end utilization as well, especially for blocking, but also replace their often-utilized tight end Justin Rigg. With all of these moving parts in Levis’ receiving corps, the run game is certainly Kentucky’s most reliable option for the time being.
Kentucky’s recent track record of success can primarily be attributed to the defensive side of the ball. The Wildcats ranked 26th in scoring defense in 2021, most notably thriving as one of the country’s premier run defenses. However, takeaways were anything but abundant for the group, and they were one of 16 FBS teams to average under one forced turnover per game.
That havoc starts with exhibiting a strong pass rush. Despite losing Josh Paschal to the NFL, Kentucky still retains more-than-serviceable blitzers in outside linebackers J.J. Weaver (10.5 tackles for loss, team-high 6.5 sacks last season) and DeAndre Square (9.5 tackles for loss, 3.0 sacks last season). This outside backer duo ranks as one of the top tandems in the country and should cause plenty of havoc around the line of scrimmage. Splitting the difference between the two is Jacquez Jones who tied for the team-lead with 82 tackles. Jones thrived in coverage roles last season, and he’ll be useful when Miami targets its tight ends and running backs in the short field.
Both programs operate under well-tenured coaching staffs and established veteran quarterbacks, but there are certain areas on each unit with giant question marks heading into Saturday, due to a lack of experience.
Oftentimes the key matchup to look for in a game is between premier players. But this Kentucky and Miami battle looks destined to be won in the trenches, and plenty of inexperience is exuded within these units. Miami’s defensive line of relatively-inexperienced transfers will look to impose its will on a Kentucky offensive line replacing consensus All-American Darian Kinnard as well as prominent starters Dare Rosenthal and Luke Fortner.
This game should be close with Gabbert’s RedHawks thriving through the air and Kentucky getting its ground production from Smoke, Levis, and secondary halfback Ramon Jefferson (an FCS All-American transfer). The difference in this game will be the playmaking of Kentucky’s linebacking corps which will keep the RedHawks more one dimensional on offense than the Wildcats. The result: Kentucky claims victory in Lexington by less than a touchdown.
Prediction: Kentucky 31, Miami (OH) 26