Wildcats and Warhawks: Kentucky’s football season begins


Kentucky quarterback Will Levis (7) looks for an open receiver during an open practice in Lexington, Ky., Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Michael Clubb)

Hunter Shelton

It’s almost football time in the Bluegrass.

Year nine of the Mark Stoops era is set to kick off on Sept. 4 at Kroger Field, as the Wildcats host the Louisiana Monroe Warhawks.

Kentucky is 5-3 in week one matchups under Stoops, as well as 6-2 in home openers. After dropping the first two games of the 2020 all-SEC schedule at Auburn and at home against Ole Miss, the Cats will look to get off on the right foot in 2021 against UL Monroe.

But who are the Warhawks?

Out of the Sun Belt conference, UL Monroe is coming off a winless 2020 campaign. In their 10 games, they lost by an average of 25.7 points per game.

Neither offense nor defense was a strong suit for the Warhawks last season. Finishing 119 out of 127 teams in the FBS in total offense and 113 in total defense, Monroe averaged just 305.7 yards per game while allowing 464.6.

Following the disappointing season, Monroe fired head coach Matt Viator, who compiled a 19-39 record during his tenure of five seasons.

Having just one winning season since 1980, UL Monroe decided to bring in a new head coach whose name is part of football royalty.

Terry Bowden begins his fifth NCAA head coaching gig with the Warhawks, having a record of 156-101- 2 in 22 seasons as a skipper. Known for his time at Auburn during which he led the Tigers to two SEC West division titles, Bowden isn’t new to coaching a mid-major. He took the Zips to one MAC Championship game in 2017 during his seven seasons at Akron.

Son of the late legendary Bobby Bowden, who won over 300 games with Florida State, and brother to former longtime Clemson head coach Tommy Bowden, Terry comes from a football family that is used to winning.

Bowden isn’t the only recognizable new face in town, however. Rich Rodriguez was hired as the new offensive coordinator in January, bringing his coveted spread option offense to Monroe. Rodriguez brings along 163 victories and 16 years of experience as an NCAA head coach at West Virginia, Michigan and, most recently, Arizona.

While the coaching staff is prominent, the depth chart is relatively unknown.

With multiple transfers coming in and out of the portal, the Warhawks team was still coming together as training camp began. Coach Bowden is still yet to announce starters, keeping his team under wraps as game one against Kentucky approaches.

What is known is that Josh Johnson and Josh Pederson, the team’s leading rusher and receiver from a year ago, are gone. The defensive line lacks depth, and no position features a bulk of options.

Defensive coordinator Zac Alley does return both of his leading tacklers from a year ago, in linebacker Traveion Webster and safety Austin Hawley. On the offensive side of the ball, wide receivers Perry Carter and Jahquan Bloomfield will be featured in the newlook attack, alongside four of the five returning offensive linemen who started a year ago.

Who will be under center against Kentucky on Sept. 4 is still up in the air.

After opting out of the end of the 2020 season and later announcing he was entering the transfer portal, sophomore Colby Suits decided to return to Monroe after throwing eight touchdowns and seven interceptions in eight games a year ago.

Challenging Suits for the starting job is Arizona transfer and son of ULM’s new offensive coordinator, Rhett Rodriguez. Playing in 11 games over his time in Tucson under his father, Rodriguez accounted for four touchdowns and four interceptions.

Time will tell whether Bowden and Rodriguez will be able to quickly turn around a program that has sat near the bottom of the Sun Belt since it joined the conference in 2001. Kentucky poses a tough first challenge for the Warhawks, as they have the firepower to out-run, pass, tackle and play ULM.

Kentucky won the last meeting between the two, drumming ULM 48-14 in Lexington. UK leads the all-time series 4-1.

Kickoff between the Wildcats and Warhawks is set for noon on Sept. 4 at Kroger Field, and the game can be seen on SEC Network.