What Kentucky football’s season-opening win over Ball State means for the Wildcats

Kentucky football opened the 2023 season with a 44-14 win over Ball State on Saturday. It might still be some time before we know how the Wildcats stack up against Southeastern Conference competition thanks to a light start to the season, so how much significance does the opening win carry?

Here is a closer look at what the victory means beyond the scoreboard.

Opening test passed

For the sixth time in seven years, Kentucky football has opened its season with a victory. The lone exception in that stretch was the 2020 season when the UK only faced SEC teams due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

For Kentucky to have a truly special season, it must first sweep its non-conference slate, so in that sense the Wildcats passed their first test.

Recent history suggests the opening performance might not say much about what is to come, though.

In 2018, Kentucky looked sluggish for much of an opening 35-20 win over a Central Michigan team that did not beat an FBS opponent all season but still went on to record UK’s first 10-win season since 1977. In 2021, Liam Coen’s first game as offensive coordinator, the Wildcats opened the season in dominant fashion in a 45-10 blowout of Louisiana Monroe on the way to another 10-win season.

Kentucky’s 20-game non-conference winning streak was snapped with the Music City Bowl loss to Iowa on New Year’s Eve, but the win over Ball State means Kentucky has beaten 17 consecutive regular season non-conference opponents. The last regular season loss to a team outside the SEC came against Louisville on Nov. 25, 2017.

Kentucky running back Ray Davis (1) celebrates after a first-half run for a first down against Ball State.
Kentucky running back Ray Davis (1) celebrates after a first-half run for a first down against Ball State.

Valuable experience for newcomers

Kentucky’s opening depth chart included 13 incoming transfers and four freshmen. With so many new faces, the light September schedule should allow the Wildcats some time to gel before starting the meat of SEC play.

We know Mark Stoops and his staff recruited the transfers for an immediate impact, but it will be interesting to see how many of the 2023 high school signees play over the course of the first month as the staff weighs redshirt decisions. Players can appear in up to four games without losing a season of eligibility.

Wide receiver Anthony Brown-Stephens, safety Ty Bryant and snapper Walker Himebauch are the only freshmen coaches have confirmed will play more than four games barring injury. Tight end Khamari Anderson was also on the opening depth chart, but offensive coordinator Liam Coen recently said he might still be in line for a redshirt if the four veteran tight ends ahead of him remain healthy. The fact that Anderson played on UK’s kickoff team Saturday suggests he is unlikely to redshirt though.

As expected, Kentucky rotated series at right tackle between Jeremy Flax and USC transfer Courtland Ford for much of the game. Flax is the returning starter, but Ford might have the higher upside. Early snaps for Ford could be particularly important since he is making the move from left tackle to right tackle.

Respect for the MAC

For the second consecutive season Kentucky will face multiple teams from the Mid-American Conference during the regular season.

Last season, Kentucky beat Miami (Ohio) and Northern Illinois by a combined 31 points. Kentucky’s second game against a MAC team this season comes on Sept. 16 against Akron.

Kentucky is 36-7-1 all-time against current MAC teams. The Wildcats have won 16 straight against current MAC teams with the last loss coming to Ohio in 2004.

Fans can expect more Kentucky-MAC matchups with the Wildcats scheduled to play multiple MAC teams in four of the next five seasons.

“It’s a good conference,” offensive coordinator Liam Coen said of the MAC this week. “I was in the MAC for two years when we were at UMass before we got thrown out in 2014 and 2015. You go play and there’s 5,000 people in the stands and not a ton of people. You’re playing on Thursday, Tuesday nights and it’s freezing cold. Nobody cares. They just go out and play football.”

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