Ball State vs University of Kentucky Football Preview

The 2023 college football season is barely more than a week away, with the action kicking off in earnest on Saturday, August 26. Football fans in Kentucky will have to wait a little bit longer, though: after a game between the Louisville Cardinals and the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets on September 1, the Bluegrass state is diving head first into the season with a game between the Ball State Cardinals and the Kentucky Wildcats in Lexington the following day.

Both teams are coming off of disappointing seasons in 2022, and they’ve taken varying approaches in order to address those deficiencies. Here’s a look at how the two teams match up ahead of the contest, as well as who is likely to start the new season with a win. We’ll start out with the Wildcats, the home team in this matchup.

Kentucky Wildcats: What's the Outlook?

The Wildcats looked like they might be one of the best teams in all of college football last season, climbing as high as No. 7 in the AP Poll after winning their first four games. They cratered from there, going 3-6 down the stretch as star quarterback Will Levis (who the Tennessee Titans drafted early in the second round of the NFL Draft in April) struggled with injuries and poor play. 

Bringing in an older quarterback to play out their final year(s) of eligibility seems like a winning formula in the era of the transfer portal, whether it’s Levis transferring from Penn State to the Wildcats or players like Kenny Pickett catching lightning in a bottle for the Pitt Panthers in 2021 after toiling in anonymity for years before that point. 

The Wildcats are going to try that out once again this season, bringing in four-year starter Devin Leary from the NC State Wolfpack. He’s struggled with injuries in the past but has shown himself to be an excellent quarterback when healthy, throwing 62 touchdowns to just 16 interceptions across 30 college games (27 starts). 

Another thing that could help the Wildcats is the fact that offensive coordinator Liam Coen is entering year two in Lexington. Coen has had time to impart his strategy to much of the team, and while Leary is still a newcomer, Coen will be the fifth offensive coordinator he’s dealt with since beginning his college career in 2018: he’s no stranger to learning a playbook on the fly, and his performance on the field hasn’t dipped because of it yet. 

For what it’s worth (and I know this may sound sacrilegious to Kentucky fans), I think that Leary is a better quarterback than Levis ever was. He doesn’t have the game-breaking, boom-or-bust penchant for big plays that his predecessor did, but he’s a consistent, intelligent passer who can scan the entire field and decide what the best course of action is. He’s not going to sling the ball 65 yards downfield like Levis, but he raises the Wildcat’s floor much like Pickett did in Pittsburgh. 

Consistent performance means as much (if not more) than highlight-reel plays do when it comes to winning actual football games, and I think that makes Kentucky an excellent sleeper pick in the SEC this season: they aren’t going to win it all, but they can certainly keep things interesting down the stretch. Kentucky fans can use BetMGM Kentucky promos to get in on the action this football season as the state of Kentucky is set to legalize online sports betting next month.

Ball State Cardinals: What's the Outlook?

The Cardinals, much like the Wildcats, struggled mightily in 2022, going 5-7. Quarterback John Paddock transferred to Illinois, so while they did bring in some talented offensive pieces (like running back Marquez Cooper out of Kent State) the transfer portal is going to be a push at best. Eight of their twelve games last season were decided by less than a score, so this is a plucky bunch… but playing it close against MAC teams is much different from hanging in the mix against an SEC program. 

Ball State lost to the Tennessee Volunteers 59-10 last season (although that Volunteers squad flirted with a college football playoff appearance for much of the year, going 9-1 through the first 10 games before an ACL injury to quarterback Hendon Hooker put them away), which gives you an idea of how the Cardinals match up against SEC talent. 

Who Ya Got?

The Wildcats are overwhelming favorites in this game, listed as high as -7000. While I expect them to take care of business against the Cardinals, I’d advise caution betting the spread. There’s a big talent disparity between the two teams, sure, but a 26.5-point spread is a pretty wide margin for the Wildcats to cover. They schedule games against teams like Ball State to give themselves a chance to get all their players on the same page ahead of the grind of an SEC schedule: don’t be surprised if it takes some time for them to iron out all the creases as Leary settles into life in Lexington

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