Thanks to Jason Marcum at A Sea of Blue for doing this Q&A with us before the Music City Bowl.
1. Let's tackle the breaking news first. How will Denzil Ware's sudden suspension affect the Kentucky defense? Is Kentucky's defense in trouble Friday regardless?
It's a big loss for a defense that doesn't have much depth at linebacker, not to mention Ware was the second-best pass-rusher on this team after Josh Allen. With Ware out, it will be much easier for Northwestern to double-team Allen and not have other pass-rushers win their battles.
So in addition to not having Ware, it could also help neutralize Allen, arguably UK's best defender. Ware was also solid in run defense, though the defense as a whole struggled against the run this season.
2. Kentucky's big-play production has dropped off in 2017. How would you explain that?
The offensive line was a major work in progress throughout the season. It was dominant in 2016, allowing Stephen Johnson to have plenty of time in the pocket while receivers got open deep down the field. That was taken away this year, though the line made big improvements in run blocking as the season wore on.
The Cats also lost deep threat Jeff Badet as a graduate transfer to Oklahoma. He was easily the team's best receiver at stretching the field, so not having him made it much easier for defenses to stack the box.
UK also lost Boom Williams at running back. While Benny Snell is the top back, Boom was the better back at breaking off big runs. Losing Boom and Badet is mainly why this offseason struggled to produce more big plays in 2017.
3. Did you consider Kentucky's season to be a success?
I think it was 50-50 enough that it may actually depend on the result of this bowl. They beat mostly average/below average teams and didn't have a real signature win. They also lost to Ole Miss and Florida teams that aren't bowl eligible.
It wasn't a failure by any means, but I think if UK loses this bowl game, it will be considered a wash. But a win over a ranked Northwestern team easily makes it a success.
4. Kentucky's defense has started well in games this year, according to S&P+. Is that something Kentucky can take advantage of given that Northwestern usually starts games slowly on offense?
I'd like to think so, but the defense really struggled down the stretch, and Northwestern has had a month to prepare for this game and game plan for UK's weaknesses. In addition to Ware being out, I think this is a game UK wins only if it turns into a shootout.
5. These two teams do not play often (last meeting, 1928). Is there any obvious talent mismatch in this game? Are both teams evenly matched in terms of personnel? Recruiting? Coaching? We really have no idea. The last SEC team we played beat us by 30+ (thanks for heaping some misery on the Vols, though).
On paper, these teams are pretty even in overall talent. However, Northwestern has been far superior at maximizing their talent, exposing opponent's weaknesses, and making very few mistakes. Northwestern doesn't beat itself, but there've been several instances UK did just that.
If both teams play to their full ability, UK could definitely win this game, but over the course of a 12-game season, they had a tough time at executing for 60 minutes, something Northwestern was far superior at.
6. How do you see the game going?
I think the Big Ten Wildcats use a methodical offensive game plan of runs and short passes to have long, efficient drives that eat up clock and end in points. UK will make it competitive with a strong ground game behind Snell, but I see Northwestern coming out of this with a 30-23 win.