Kentucky football vs. Miami (Ohio): Betting line, 3 things to know before picking the game

Brett Dawson
Louisville Courier Journal

LEXINGTON — The way Mark Stoops sees it, as many as a dozen freshmen could play this season for his Kentucky football team

Seven different true freshmen are on the Wildcats’ two-deep chart for Saturday’s season opener against Miami (Ohio). Two are penciled in as starters. 

First games are “always unique,” Stoops said. But the fresh faces add to the mystery. The young talent — particularly at wide receiver, where true freshmen Dane Key and Barion Brown are scheduled to start — is exciting for the present and the future, offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello said. 

“And we're going to build on that,” Scangarello said. “But practice is practice. And they've done in practice. They've earned that right (to play) now. We got to go see when the lights go on.”

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How will the Wildcats handle the big stage? And what can they expect in the opener from the RedHawks? Three keys you need to know: 

Keep an eye on the ground

Kentucky’s Kavosiey Smoke celebrates scoring a touchdown against Tennessee.
Nov. 6, 2012

Kentucky is without star running back Chris Rodriguez, who either is or isn’t suspended and either will or won’t be out multiple games. Stoops is keeping it vague. 

Whatever his long-term status, Rodriguez won’t play against Miami, and though the Cats are stacked with options at running back — senior Kavosiey Smoke is set to start — none has Rodriguez’s pedigree. The senior ran for 1,378 yards and 10 touchdowns last season and has 2,739 yards and 27 rushing TDs in his 32-game career. 

Miami was “really good against the run last year,” Scangarello said, allowing 4 yards per carry. That was tied with a cluster of teams — including Kentucky — for 50th-best in the FBS. 

“They'll jam you up at the box,” Scangarello said. “They know how to create havoc in the run game by moving the line of scrimmage. They'll twist and move the line a lot. And those things, if you're not on point, can lead to some negative plays.”

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Kentucky’s secondary gets the primary test

Miami (Ohio) quarterback Brett Gabbert looks for a receiver during the second half of the team's Frisco Football Classic NCAA college football game against North Texas in Frisco, Texas, Thursday, Dec. 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Strasen)

The Wildcats’ opening-night depth chart lists six starters on its defensive front — three linemen and three linebackers — and five of them are juniors or seniors. UK is loaded up front, and it’ll need pressure and production from those spots right from the start. 

Stoops has professed confidence in his secondary this preseason, but it remains relatively unproven. And it figures to get an early test from Miami quarterback Brett Gabbert. 

The 6-foot, 205-pound junior got a passing grade of 82.3 last season from Pro Football Focus — the same as Kentucky QB Will Levis. 

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Gabbert, the brother of Tampa Bay Buccaneers backup QB Blaine Gabbert, threw for 2,648 yards and 26 touchdowns with six interceptions last season. In 26 career games, he’s thrown 41 TDs and 14 picks. 

Stoops called Gabbert “poised” and “creative.” 

“He’s athletic, he’s experienced and can make all the throws,” Stoops said.

That’s a challenge for a Kentucky secondary that is unproven as a unit but has solid starting parts. 

Junior cornerback Carrington Valentine has played in 23 games, starting 13. At the opposite corner, transfer Keidron Smith will make his first start at UK, but he logged 47 games at Ole Miss, 29 as a starter. 

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Kentucky’s other key absence 

UK outside linebacker Jordan Wright celebrates a fumble recovery during the University of Kentucky football game against South Carolina at Kroger Field in Lexington, Kentucky, on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020.

In addition to Rodriguez, UK will be without linebacker Jordan Wright, a grad student who’s using the sixth year of eligibility granted by the NCAA’s post-COVID-pandemic rules. 

Wright has played 42 games, starting 12, and has 106 career tackles, 15.5 for less. That includes 6.5 sacks. Stoops confirmed this week that Wright will not play, but while the coach conceded UK has players facing possible multiple-game suspensions, he declined to say which players are suspended, instead characterizing players as unavailable. 

The Cats are seasoned up front, but Wright’s extra experience would’t hurt.

Gabbert is the key to the RedHawks’ offense, but Miami has a pair of running backs — senior Jaylen Bester and junior Tyre Shelton — that combined for 1,328 yards in 2019 before battling injuries over the past two seasons. 

Bester and Shelton were “tremendous players” before the injuries, Miami coach Chuck Martin said this week at his game-week news conference, and they’re a big part of why the coach is excited about an offense with nine returning starters. 

UK position breakdown:What can we expect from the new-look offense?

What is the betting line on the Kentucky-Miami (Ohio) game?

Kentucky is favored by 16.5 points, according to the Vegas Insider consensus line. 

Prediction: Kentucky 28, Miami (Ohio) 14

It’s reasonable to expect the Kentucky offense to struggle a bit to find its footing. Levis is learning new receivers, and a rookie is watching his blindside. And given the RedHawks’ success against the run last season, UK might actually feel Rodriguez’s absence, despite its capable options at running back. Gabbert will give the Cats’ secondary a test, but the defensive front should prove stalwart enough to keep Miami mostly in check.