5 things to know about Northwestern's Music City Bowl opponent: Kentucky
After a lousy 2-3 start to the season, Northwestern rattled off seven consecutive wins to close out the year 9-3, needing just one more victory to get to the 10-win mark for the second time in three years. The Wildcats will face Kentucky in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl, scheduled for Dec. 29 at 4:30 p.m. ET.
Here are five things to know about Kentucky, which finished third in the SEC East with a 4-4 mark and a 7-5 record overall.
The Wildcats take care of the football
Not many teams took better care of the football than Kentucky. In 12 games this season, the Wildcats had just 13 turnovers, tied for third-fewest in the SEC and 19th in the nation. That was a huge key to success in 2017.
Kentucky committed multiple turnovers just three times this year. The worst performance came in a rivalry game against Tennessee, when the Cats turned it over four times. They still went on to defeat the Volunteers.
Effective in the red zone
Only a handful of teams were more efficient in the red zone than Kentucky. The Wildcats converted on 36-of-39 attempts this season, a 92.3 percent conversion rate. That clip ranked 13th nationally.
Most of the success in the red zone can be attributed to Benny Snell Jr. and the rushing attack, which accounted for 18 of Kentucky’s 24 touchdowns inside the 20-yard line. This isn’t a team afraid to bully its way to the goal line when its in scoring position.
Record-setting running back
Speaking of Snell, the star running back is coming off a tremendous season, rushing for 1,318 yards and 18 touchdowns on the year. He led the SEC in rushing yardage at the end of the regular season and broke Kentucky’s career rushing touchdown record (31) as a sophomore. Snell also ranks third in single-season rushing yardage this year.
What’s most impressive about Snell’s season was that he was so successful even when opponents knew he was going to touch the football. Kentucky’s passing offense had its struggles throughout the year and was forced to rely heavily on their primary back. Still, Snell had one of the best seasons in the history of the program and eclipsed the 100-yard mark seven times.
Defense struggles against good competition
Look at the defensive statistics and Kentucky looks like a pretty middle-of-the-road defense. Nothing that great but nothing that terrible, either. But when you start looking at each game individually, it’s easy to see the Wildcats have struggled against teams that can move the ball.
Five times this year Kentucky has surrendered at least 30 points, going 1-4 in those games. This isn’t a team built to win shootouts, so if the defense isn’t keeping teams out of the end zone, it’s usually translated to a loss.
Ugly end to a solid season
Kentucky was 7-3 heading into the final two games of the season. Unfortunately, things got ugly for the Wildcats in an otherwise solid season, losing in blowout fashion to Georgia (42-13) and in-state rival Louisville (44-17) to close out the regular season.
After starting the season 3-0, there was some belief that Kentucky might actually be able to compete in an SEC East filled with a group of mediocre squads. The Cats never really proved to be a threat, but were still able to lock up a bowl berth with four weeks remaining.