BATON ROUGE, La. – Upstart Kentucky (5-1, 2-1 SEC) gets another chance on Saturday to prove that its fast start is legitimate. The Wildcats will visit LSU (5-2, 1-2), which notched its first SEC win in last weekend’s 30-27 thriller against Florida.
One of these teams will be bowl eligible by the end of Saturday night, while the other will start looking over a tough second-half schedule and hoping another win is on there somewhere.
Let’s take a look at four key factors in Saturday’s game:
Contributions from newcomers: A unique attribute that both of these teams share is how heavily their offenses rely on players who are filling new roles.
True freshman have accounted for 22 of LSU’s 31 touchdowns, and they have actually scored 16 of those touchdowns. Freshman running back Leonard Fournette, who rushed for 140 yards and scored twice against Florida, has six touchdowns. Receiver Malachi Dupre has four, and running back Darrel Williams three. Quarterback Brandon Harris has passed for six touchdowns and run for three.
After he rushed 27 times against Florida, one of only nine backs ever to run more than 25 times in a game under LSU coach Les Miles, keep an eye on whether the Tigers use Fournette as the feature back again. Previously they had distributed carries among Fournette, Williams and seniors Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee.
The Tigers have already played 17 true freshmen this season, which is the most for any LSU freshman class under Miles.
Kentucky, meanwhile, is also getting a majority of its production from players who didn’t play for the Wildcats in 2013. Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard (38-282, 3 TDs) and freshman Stanley Williams (23-202, 2 TDs) help Kentucky newcomers account for 73 percent of the team’s rushing yards. Players who didn’t play for Kentucky last season have also accounted for 67 percent of its points (147 of 171).
Williams, who also leads the SEC with an average of 36 yards per kickoff return, had a big game last Saturday against Louisiana-Monroe. He ran seven times for 104 yards and a touchdown and also returned the opening kickoff 75 yards.
Rare air for Kentucky: In Mark Stoops’ second season, the Wildcats are vastly improved from their back-to-back two-win seasons of 2012 and 2013. In fact, they would be undefeated today if their upset bid at Florida hadn’t fallen just short in a 36-30 triple-overtime loss.
They haven’t been on the road since that painful loss in The Swamp, so posting a win Saturday at Tiger Stadium would be an even greater milestone for Stoops than Kentucky’s thrilling 45-38 win over South Carolina two weeks ago.
It would also secure Kentucky’s first four-game winning streak since 2008, its first three-game SEC winning streak since 2006 and its first 3-1 start in SEC play since 1999.
If the Wildcats are 6-1 by the end of Saturday night, it would be only the fourth time since 1950 that Kentucky had won six or more games in the first seven games of the season.
Turnover battle: Finishing on the positive side in turnover margin is often a way to earn a victory, and these teams have done that consistently. LSU and Kentucky are both plus-eight in turnover margin, which ties for second in the SEC.
A remarkable turnaround by Kentucky’s secondary is the driving force in its success generating turnovers. Of Kentucky’s 16 takeaways, 11 have come on interceptions -- a total that is fourth nationally and second on the SEC behind Ole Miss’ 12. Kentucky had just three interceptions in the entire 2013 season.
Junior college transfer A.J. Stamps is the Wildcats’ leader in pass coverage, notching three interceptions and six passes defended.
Safety Marcus McWilson and linebacker Josh Forrest both returned interceptions for touchdowns last week against Louisiana-Monroe, marking the first time since 1986 that the Wildcats had two pick-sixes in a game.
LSU has been more balanced in turnovers, both in its takeaways and giveaways. The defense has generated 16 turnovers (eight fumbles and eight interceptions) and the offense has committed eight turnovers (four fumbles and four interceptions).
Linebacker Kwon Alexander is one of the Tigers to watch on the turnover front. He forced a fumble that Danielle Hunter recovered and returned for a touchdown against Mississippi State and then forced a Jeff Driskel fumble last week in Florida territory that led to a short touchdown drive.
Safety Rickey Jefferson made a key late interception against the Gators to set up Colby Delahoussaye’s game-winning field goal. Jefferson and cornerback Tre'Davious White are tied for the team lead with two interceptions apiece.
Pounding the run: If Kentucky is to win on Saturday, its success in the running game will almost certainly be a deciding factor.
The Wildcats have one of the SEC’s most balanced offenses, but LSU has been much more vulnerable against the run than the pass. The Tigers are 12th in the SEC against the run (175.6 yards per game), but boast the conference’s top pass defense (157.7).
Don’t be surprised to see the Wildcats feed Williams and Heard, have Jojo Kemp take direct snaps and even run a bit with quarterback Patrick Towles in an effort to duplicate previous teams’ successes running against LSU.
The Wildcats also must do a better job on the ground against the run-heavy Tigers. South Carolina ran for 282 yards against Kentucky two weeks ago, led by 183 yards and three touchdowns from Mike Davis. LSU runs the ball more than any SEC team; its 332 rushing attempts are 43 more than the next-closest team. So the Wildcats know that slowing down Fournette and Co. is their No. 1 task.
Kentucky is eighth in the SEC in run defense at 152.0 ypg. LSU is sixth in the league in rushing offense (209.1), but had one of its best outings of the season against Florida. Although the Gators have one of the toughest defensive fronts in the league, LSU ran 50 times for 195 yards.