North Carolina

Fearless Prediction: Kentucky vs. North Carolina State in Gator Bowl

The 2020 season has been an arduous one for the Kentucky Wildcats. UK limped home with a 4-6 mark in the all-SEC slate, having suffered the preseason loss of linebacker Chris Oats due to a serious non-football medical condition and the midseason death of offensive line coach John Schlarman.

The Wildcats made it through 2020 largely by leaning on their defense, which finished 5th in the SEC in both scoring defense and total defense. UK also surrendered the fewest passing yards per game in the SEC, and the Wildcats’ 13 interceptions tied for the conference lead.

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Offensively, UK finished last in the SEC in yardage and 11th in scoring. Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran has gotten the boot after UK finished a mile (actually, 63 yards per game) behind 13th place South Carolina in passing offense.

But 2021 opens with No. 23 North Carolina State and their 8-3 mark in the Gator Bowl at noon Saturday. And Kentucky is a 2.5-point favorite, which should go to show that the SEC remains a different beast in the world of college football.

The Wolfpack boast that 8-3 mark without the benefit of playing either Notre Dame or Clemson. They were boatraced by North Carolina and took a tough loss to Miami. The biggest victory on the State schedule was a 15-14 triumph over Liberty.

NC State offense vs. UK defense

Despite going 8-3, State was actually outgained by opposing offenses by 26 yards per game (418-392). Florida State transfer Bailey Hockman led the Wolfpack to several big passing games down the stretch (he passed for more than 300 yards in each of the last 2 regular-season games), and State finished 6th of the 15 ACC teams in passing yardage. State spreads the ball around, with 4 receivers having 26 or more catches, each for 400 or more yards, and 3 of the targets grabbing at least 5 touchdowns. State doesn’t have a very strong running game, as they averaged just 3.5 yards per carry and finished 12th in the ACC in rushing yardage.

Kentucky will play the game without defensive back Kelvin Joseph, who has opted out. Kentucky ranked last in the SEC in sacks, which makes leading the conference in interceptions all the more unusual. State did throw a dozen interceptions this year, and Kentucky probably would benefit greatly by going plus-1 or plus-2 on turnovers.

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UK offense vs. NC State defense

Kentucky’s ground game will be key on offense. The Wildcats finished 5th in the SEC in rushing and averaged 4.8 yards per carry. Battering ram Chris Rodriguez (102 carries, 701 yards, 9 TDs) should be ready for a big game against a State front line that was fairly ho-hum (4.1 yards per carry allowed, 18 TDs rushing allowed).

State hasn’t been brilliant against the pass, but the question remains as to how many times Kentucky will put the ball in the air. Quarterback Terry Wilson will start, but it remains to be seen whether UK will play their younger QBs in an effort to gain some valuable experience. Without Gran calling plays, don’t be surprised if UK looks to utilize tight end Keaton Upshaw and receiver Josh Ali in the passing game.

State finished 9th in the ACC in scoring defense despite missing the 2 most potent offenses in the league. While Kentucky will probably look to force some turnovers, State will probably look to keep Kentucky off-schedule in long-yardage situations, forcing the Wildcats to pass.

Special teams

State has been respectable in all areas, and Kentucky, frankly, has struggled. COVID-related personnel losses hampered the Wildcats on special teams, but State has an advantage in both consistency of kickers and explosiveness of the returners.

Prediction

Turning the calendar over to 2021 (and shedding some bad memories of offensive game plans gone wrong) should help Kentucky find a new burst. On paper, this looks like a game that NC State would handle. An 8-3 ACC team against a 4-6 SEC team? That point spread is telling. Kentucky has a superior offensive line, and if Rodriguez can keep up in 2nd-and-short and 2nd-and-medium, some surprising passes should set up Ali and Upshaw.

Defensively, Kentucky is probably healthier than in many weeks. It’ll be a relief not lining up across from Alabama or Florida. State’s passing game is thoroughly competent, but assuming that Kentucky can limit their running game, the Wildcats should be able to force a key turnover or 2.

Getting ahead has been a key for Kentucky all season, and if they can do it, they should be fine. If not, UK fans might learn that there was a lot more than Gran causing the offense to bog down. But the optimistic view wins out here.

FEARLESS PREDICTION: UK 24, NC State 21.

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