As we round out the top four opponents on Kentucky schedule, the top of the SEC makes their appearances on the list.
Coming off of a bowl bid in Shane Beamer's first season, South Carolina is riding a huge wave of momentum into their 2022 campaign. The early success paid dividends in the transfer portal as the Gamecocks picked up some crucial pieces, including former Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler. The addition of Rattler has taken the typical preseason South Carolina hype to a whole new level. In 2021, we got a glimpse of the kind of leader that Beamer is. Despite not being abundantly talented, the Gamecocks were able to manage a winning record while having one of the tougher schedules in the country. With the infusion of talent coming to Columbia, Kentucky should expect a tough outing when they meet with South Carolina on October 8th.
Putting Ole Miss this high on the list is somewhat of a risk. With that said, I look at the Rebels as a more stable and proven version of South Carolina. Lane Kiffin is coming off of a year in which he led Ole Miss to its first 10-win regular season in program history. A big part of the 2021 success was the arm of Matt Corral, who is now a Carolina Panther. Even with the departure of Corral, the Rebels brought in former USC quarterback, Jaxson Dart, who is currently in the driver's seat to win the starting job. It is unfair to assume that Dart will be anywhere near what Corral was, but it would also be a disservice to Kiffin assuming that the transfer would not make significant strides in improvement. Dart is not the only new face in Oxford, as the Rebels brought in former five-star running back, Zach Evans, from TCU. Evans will bring a threat to their offense that has not been there in the Kiffin era. A balanced attack on offense would open up so many opportunities to an offense that has been one-dimensional over the years. It is also worth noting that Ole Miss is bringing in the second-ranked transfer class in the country that will make an immediate impact on the field. The concern for the Rebels lies within the defense. Last year brought significant improvement on that end, but they are now void of defensive coordinator DJ Durkin, who left Oxford to take the same position at Texas A&M. Expect a shootout when the Wildcats and Rebels meet on October 1st, which has not fared well for Kentucky in the past.
Despite the trajectory of both teams over the years, Tennessee has continued to be the thorn in Kentucky's side. In both of Kentucky's 10-win seasons in the past four years, it has been the Volunteers winning the head-to-head meetings. In what was one of the more entertaining matchups of 2021, Tennessee held on to win a 45-42 thriller behind the arm of Hendon Hooker. In 2022, it is fair to expect a similar game. Tennessee returns Hooker and the same offensive philosophy that made them one of the more prolific passing games in the entire country. Defense still may be an afterthought in Knoxville, but the scoreboard operator will be busy keeping up with their offense. As we already established earlier, these types of teams are the ones that have given fits over the years, and the Wildcats have not won in front of a capacity crowd at Neyland Stadium in what seems like a century. Mark Stoops and company will have a tall task to complete when they make the road trip to Knoxville on October 29th.
The defending national champions are without a doubt the biggest test Kentucky will face this season as much. The Bulldogs lose a large portion of contributors to their championship team, including eight starters on defense, but Kirby Smart and Georgia have entered Alabama territory of reloading, rather than rebuilding. Stetson Bennett does return to Athens for his sixth season, and he will have star tight end Brock Bowers to target once again. Bowers busted onto the scene with 882 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns in his freshman campaign. Other than Bowers, there will be quite a few new faces on the Bulldogs offense with George Pickens, Zamir White and James Cook all in the NFL now. On the defensive side, Georgia does return sack-leader Robert Beal Jr. and one of the top returning defensive tackles in the SEC, Jalen Carter. Kirby Smart will surround these elite returners with former four and five-star recruits that are bound to make a name for themselves. Long story short, the Bulldogs will reload with size and talent and will be playing for a SEC championship berth in Lexington on November 19th.