September 02, 2016

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) Kentucky enters Saturday night's opener against Southern Mississippi with more urgency than usual.

The Wildcats realize how critical every game is to them to reach the six-win threshold and become bowl eligible after consecutive 5-7 finishes. They also would like to build some momentum heading into next week's Southeastern Conference opener at Florida.

But that doesn't mean the Wildcats are looking past Southern Mississippi.

Kentucky is facing a Southern Miss squad eager to follow up a 9-5 season and bowl appearance by upsetting a Power Five conference school. While losing to the Golden Eagles won't necessarily break the Wildcats' season, their quest to reach the postseason for the first time since 2010 would become a little harder.

Kentucky coach Mark Stoops understands the importance but maintains a positive approach.

''We do not put any more pressure on ourselves,'' Stoops said. ''We just need to go out there and do what we've been doing and have that great focus and attention to detail. I'm excited about that myself because I know we'll be prepared.''

Southern Miss is kicking off its season under new coach Jay Hopson. He is replacing Todd Monken, who left to become offensive coordinator with the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Hopson previously served as the Golden Eagles' defensive backs coach (2001-03) and defensive coordinator ('05-'07) before going on to guide Alcorn State to a 32-17 record and consecutive SWAC titles the past four years.

Adding more intrigue to the opener is the return of Shannon Dawson as Southern Miss' offensive coordinator after holding the same job with Kentucky last season.

Though Dawson was criticized for the Wildcats' late-season struggles and play-calling, Stoops and players had kind words for Dawson. The familiarity between Dawson and his former team could make things interesting.

''Anytime you open with an SEC opponent, you have your hands full,'' Hopson said. ''Kentucky is a well-coached football team with outstanding players. We know we've got to be ready this week.''

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Here are some things to watch when Kentucky hosts Southern Mississippi:

BARKER'S MOMENT: Kentucky sophomore quarterback Drew Barker has drawn raves from teammates and coaches about his maturity and command of the offense and huddle. He'll start his first opener for the Wildcats since replacing Patrick Towles late last season but hasn't seemed fazed by the hype and expectations. ''I've had some playing time, so I kind of know what to expect,'' Barker said. ''It's just building off that confidence. I just can't wait to get back out there because it seems like it's been two years.''

MULLENS' BIG ARM: Southern Miss senior quarterback Nick Mullens threw for 4,476 yards and 38 touchdowns last season and is Conference USA's preseason offensive player of the year. He not only puts the Wildcats' pass rush on notice, but the secondary as well. ''You can't take any plays off,'' free safety Marcus McWilson said. ''If they catch you slipping, that's when they get that one (play) and we can't let that happen.''

DEFENSIVE DEPTH: As if Kentucky didn't have enough holes to fill on defense, tackle Regie Meant left the team early in camp for undisclosed personal reasons and safety Darius West was lost for the season with a left knee injury. Not only will the Wildcats look to younger players again to provide depth, they need everyone to stay healthy and contribute.

SERIES RENEWAL: Kentucky is 2-0 against Southern Miss in a series last played 30 years ago in Lexington. The Wildcats won that game 32-0 and have outscored the Golden Eagles 103-7 overall.

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Follow Gary B. Graves on Twitter: www.twitter.com/GaryBGraves and on the AP's college football page: http://collegefootball.ap.org .

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