Kentucky football moved to 4-0 on the 2022 season with a 31-23 win over Northern Illinois on Saturday.
Here is a closer look at what the win means beyond the scoreboard.
THE WARM-UP GAMES ARE FINISHED
Kentucky’s win at Florida still represents a marquee victory, even with the Gators’ lackluster showing since, but most of the first month of the season represented a chance to work through some early mistakes, give young players needed experience and build momentum heading into the meat of the Southeastern Conference schedule.
Making it through September undefeated and ranked in the top 10 has to be considered a win for Kentucky, but the schedule gets significantly more difficult from here, starting at No. 16 Ole Miss next week.
The good news is star running back Chris Rodriguez is set to return from a four-game suspension at Ole Miss. Rodriguez’s return should boost a rushing attack that struggled for much of the season’s first month and take some pressure off quarterback Will Levis. Kentucky will hope a rebuilt offensive line is ready to open holes for Rodriguez after failing to live up to the legacy of the “Big Blue Wall” for much of September.
It’s difficult to know what to make of Ole Miss, which is undefeated but looked vulnerable in closer-than-expected wins over Troy and Tulsa. It would be safe to assume Lane Kiffin’s Rebels will be the most difficult test for Kentucky’s defense yet though.
Kentucky took care of business in September, but we’re about to learn a lot more about whether this team is a legitimate challenger to No. 1 Georgia in the SEC East race.
EYE ON THE TOP 25 POLLS
With the win, No. 8 Kentucky looks likely to hold onto a spot in the top 10 of the new Associated Press poll released Sunday. That feat would mark the first time since 1977 that UK has spent more than two weeks in the top 10 of the AP poll.
Kentucky was last ranked higher than eighth in the final poll of the 1977 season when AP voters slotted the Wildcats at No. 6 following a 10-1 season. With No. 6 Oklahoma losing to unranked Kansas State Saturday, Kentucky looks like to move up at least one spot in the poll unless a team behind the Wildcats leapfrogs them.
A win at Ole Miss could put Kentucky in the conversation for a top-five ranking. The Wildcats have games against three ranked teams remaining: Ole Miss, Tennessee and Georgia.
IT’S CHRIS RODRIGUEZ TIME
Kentucky finally found some sustained rushing success against Northern Illinois with senior Kavosiey Smoke recording two carries of at least 20 yards in the first half, something no UK running back had done in the first three games. Those improvements come just in time for the return of Rodriguez, the SEC’s top returning rusher from 2021.
The McDonough, Georgia, native totaled 1,379 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. He ranks sixth on UK’s career rushing yards list (2,740). Rodriguez needs 1,134 yards to break Benny Snell’s career rushing record.
If Rodriguez plays in all eight of the remaining regular season games, plus a bowl, he would need to average 126 rushing yards per game to break Snell’s record. For now, Snell’s record looks safe thanks to UK’s high-octane passing attack and run blocking struggles, but Rodriguez will at least be fresh for the bulk of the conference slate.