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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 61: Kentucky

Start at the Jim Beam distillery. Move onto the Maker's Mark distillery. Then take a nap.

I understand we are in a new era of college football, where 70 teams — give or take, depending on sponsors — participate in bowl play each season, where six wins can be easily reached with a tepid non-conference slate and a handful of wins against conference opposition. Nevertheless, I rank Kentucky’s four consecutive bowl trips under Rich Brooks as one of the finest accomplishments in the SEC’s proud history. Yes, in conference history. Just in case you forgot, no one is supposed to win at Kentucky; if you do, great — if not, basketball tips off in November. Kentucky fans bemoaned his hiring back in 2003, but they’ll miss Rich Brooks, perhaps the finest coach in school history. Outside of Bear Bryant, of course.

SEC, East

Lexington, Ky.


Returning starters
11 (5 offense, 6 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 54

2009 record
(7-6, 3-5)

Last year’s

No. 61

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 4
    at Louisville
  • Sept. 11
    Western Kentucky
  • Sept. 18
  • Sept. 25
    at Florida
  • Oct. 2
    at Mississippi
  • Oct. 9
  • Oct. 16
    South Carolina
  • Oct. 23
  • Oct. 30
    at Mississippi St.
  • Nov. 6
    Charleston Southern
  • Nov. 13
  • Nov. 27
    at Tennessee

Last year’s prediction

With the help of playing only four road games, I believe 2009 will see Kentucky make its fourth consecutive bowl appearance. Not that I’m particularly crazy about this team; the Wildcats still stand near the bottom of the SEC talent-wise and will need to scratch and claw (nice feline reference) for every conference victory. What’s my prediction? Beating Mississippi State and taking one of Vanderbilt, Auburn and Tennessee is a must. If Brooks takes Kentucky to four straight bowl games, will he begin to earn the credit he deserves for turning around this once dilapidated program?

2009 recap

In a nutshell The first two of Kentucky’s bowl trips under Brooks came thanks to a high-powered passing offense, which helped the Wildcats post a school-record 475 points in 2007. The last two seasons could not have been more different: Kentucky has struggled mightily on offense, lacking any semblance of punch in the passing game while placing a larger importance upon a blossoming rushing attack. And that’s not the only disparity: Kentucky has stiffened on defense, allowing no more than 295 points in each of the last two years after allowing at least 369 points from 2006-7. The most important difference between last year’s squad and the first three Brooks-led bowl teams? After backing into post-season play from 2006-8, this team scratched and clawed its way to seven wins, overcoming a 2-3 start with five wins in its last seven games.

High point Five wins in six weeks from Oct. 17 – Nov. 21, with four of those victories coming in SEC play. The most impressive of the bunch? A 34-27 win over Georgia in Athens, which gave Kentucky seven wins and a guaranteed bowl birth. The Wildcats also bested Auburn on the road, giving it a pair of superb away wins against eight-win SEC competition.

Low point Three consecutive losses to open conference action set Kentucky in a sizable hole, though the team was able to recover from the sluggish start with a terrific final two months. Not that the Wildcats couldn’t be excused for the losing streak: the games came against Florida, Alabama and South Carolina, all of whom were ranked in the Top 25. The Wildcats nearly pulled out the road win in Columbia.

Tidbit Kentucky beat Georgia and Auburn on the road in 2009, a highly impressive feat. But can the achievement be considered historic? Well, yes. It marked the first time in program history that Kentucky had beaten both the Bulldogs and the Tigers in the same season, home or away. In 1956, the Wildcats beat Georgia but lost to Auburn by 13-0; in 1961, they beat Auburn but lost to Georgia by 16-15; in 1965, they beat Georgia but lost to Auburn by 23-18.

Tidbit (home edition) Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a mid-level team in the nation’s premier conference fails to win one conference game at home yet reaches bowl play. Surprised? That’s exactly what Kentucky did in 2009: 0-4 at home, 3-1 on the road in SEC action. A win at Vanderbilt joined the aforementioned road victories over Georgia and Vanderbilt; Kentucky lost to Florida, Alabama, Mississippi State and Tennessee in Lexington.

Former players in the N.F.L.

16 WR Keenan Burton (St. Louis), FB John Conner (New York Jets), OT Zipp Duncan (Philadelphia), LB Jeremy Jarmon (Washington), WR Steve Johnson (Buffalo), LB Braxton Kelly (Denver), CB Trevard Lindley (Philadelphia), P Tim Masthay (Green Bay), LB Sam Maxwell (New Orleans), DT Corey Peters (Atlanta), DT Myron Pryor (New England), RB Alfonso Smith (Arizona), TE Jacob Tamme (Indianapolis), LB Johnny Williams (Pittsburgh), OT Garry Williams (Carolina), LB Wesley Woodyard (Denver).

Arbitrary top five list

Historic feuds
1. Wars of the Roses.
2. Galileo-Pope Urban VIII.
3. Hatfield-McCoys.
4. Alexander Hamilton-Aaron Burr.
5. Al Capone-Bugs Moran.


Joker Phillips (Kentucky ’86), entering his first season. He has been the head coach in waiting since 2008, patiently waiting his turn under Brooks, who brought Phillips back to Lexington as part of his initial staff. Make no mistake: while Phillips has served at other, potentially more prestigious programs, he is all Kentucky. That dates back to his playing days as a wide receiver — one of the more prolific pass-catchers in school history — and his early days as an assistant, which began once his professional career concluded in 1988. Phillips spent the first nine years of his coaching career in Lexington, beginning as a graduate assistant before progressing to the team’s receivers coach, where he spent six years from 1991-96. His tenure under Brooks, starting in 2003, began as Kentucky’s recruiting coordinator and, again, receivers coach. He passes two years in that role before taking on offensive coordinator duties in 2005; he held that position through the end of that season, though he shared play-calling duties in Kentucky’s Music City Bowl loss to Clemson. Phillips has had a distinct impact on this side of the ball: as noted, Kentucky set a new school record for points in a season in 2007, scoring 475 points — 36.5 points per game. He sandwiched his stints at his alma mater with stops at five B.C.S. conference programs: Cincinnati, Minnesota, Notre Dame and South Carolina, all coaching the receivers. I see two key factors to like about Phillips as he undertakes this opportunity: one, he has done more than enough, particularly at Kentucky, to earn this opportunity; and two, he has had the good fortune to learn under one of the most under appreciated coaches of this era in Rich Brooks. Let’s see if Phillips is up to the task.

Tidbit (coaching edition) It would not have been surprising to see Phillips retain the entirety of the previous staff, coaches who alongside the new Kentucky coach under Rich Brooks. That has not been the case. Phillips let go off offensive line coach Jimmy Heggins and defensive line coach Rick Petri shortly after he ascended to his current role, and recently relieved special teams coordinator Steve Ortmayer of his duties. I was very surprised to hear that Heggins was let go; in my mind, Heggins is one of the best offensive line coaches in the country. It does seem clear that Phillips is placing an emphasis on hiring top-notch recruiters: Tee Martin — that name might be familiar — is a coach who fits into that mold. He has already replaced Ortmayer, hiring former Louisville — and, for a short time, Illinois — assistant Greg Nord.

Players to watch

Keep an eye on the development of the Kentucky offensive line, which will rebuild around a new coach, Mike Summers, and four new starters. The one returning starter, Stuart Hines, is a good one: an all-conference pick at right guard last fall, Hines will move to left guard in 2010. Even with Hines changing positions, the right side of the line doesn’t look to be in terrible shape. Senior Brad Durham, a seven-game starter over the past two season, takes over at tackle; key reserve Larry Warford, a sophomore, will start at guard. As of now, sophomore Matt Smith will get the starting nod at center. This is partly due to Smith’s solid play during the spring, partly due to injuries suffered by junior Jake Lanefski and senior Marcus Davis. Neither was ready to go during the spring, but will make their claims to the starting role when practice resumes in August. At left tackle, the competition will come down to juniors Chandler Burden and Billy Joe Murphy; Burden, a former defensive lineman, currently stands atop the depth chart.

Senior Derrick Locke spent last off-season adding weight to his somewhat slight frame, and his hard work paid off in a 907-yard junior season. It was a good thing Locke made a commitment to becoming an every-down back: due to the sub par play of its quarterbacks, Kentucky ran the ball with far more consistency last fall than in years past. Locke was the beneficiary of the added carries, toting the ball 101 more times — 195 carries on the year — than his previous career high, which came as a freshman. As always, Locke remained a big-play threat while serving a sizable role as a pass-catcher, chipping in 31 receptions for 284 yards. The Wildcats must supplant all-conference fullback John Conner, with former running back Moncell Allen (228 yards rushing last fall) likely earning the starting nod.

I think the world of junior receiver Randall Cobb, who has taken wonderfully to the position since transitioning from quarterback midway through his freshman season. Cobb can do it all, making him one of those do-everything performers that can define an offense, let alone serve as a role model for teammates on both sides of the ball. While Kentucky does not ask him to throw as often as it once did, Cobb is a valuable weapon in the Wildcat formation: he rushed for 573 yards and a team-best 10 touchdowns last fall, in addition to his team-high 39 receptions for 447 yards and 4 touchdowns. He’ll be joined in the starting lineup by senior Chris Matthews, a former JUCO transfer, and junior Gene McCaskill. Matthews, who finished second on the team in catches (32) and receiving yards (354), may be poised for a big senior season; he was touch-and-go at times last fall, learning the offense, but he can put that experience to good use in 2010.

While two starters must be replaced, the Wildcats return three players with starting experience in the secondary. Two are cornerbacks: senior Paul Warford is a two-year starter, while junior Randall Burden was able to earn valuable playing time last fall due to injuries at the position. Sophomore Martavius Neloms will also see his role increase after playing 11 games in a reserve role in 2009. Winston Guy returns at free safety after making 60 tackles (2 for loss) and a sack last fall, while the open strong safety spot will come down to juniors Taiedo Smith and Josh Gibbs, the latter a JUCO transfer.

The biggest loss on the defensive side of the ball — with all due respect to cornerback Trevard Lindley, who had all-American talent — is that of tackle Corey Peters, a first-team all-SEC pick a year ago. The Wildcats will combat his departure up front with three returning starters, as well as two former reserves ready to step into a starting role along the interior. The team looks very good at end. While overshadowed by Peters a year ago, senior DeQuin Evans ranks among the best at his position in the SEC. He made 38 tackles last fall, 12 for loss, and added a team-best six sacks. Sophomore Taylor Windham played well as a rookie last fall, accounting for 28 stops (6.5 for loss) and a pair of sacks. Another sophomore end, Collins Ukwu, will also be in the mix for the starting role opposite Evans.

Ricky Lumpkin returns at one tackle spot, though replacing Peters remains a concern. Lumpkin, now a senior, has been somewhat up-and-down over his first three seasons; Kentucky needs him to maintain a high level of play each week, which Lumpkin is certainly capable of doing. Senior Shane McCord leads the way in the competition to replace Peters, though junior Mark Crawford is also in the mix. Both have paid their dues while serving in secondary roles, and will be fixtures in the line rotation regardless of which lands the starting spot.

Danny Trevathan, the team’s leading returning tackler (82, 5 for loss), at weak side linebacker, both Kentucky faces holes at the strong side and in the middle. The biggest key will be replacing Micah Johnson: as of now, the Wildcats will go with junior Ronnie Sneed in the middle. He’s somewhat experienced, having made 14 tackles as a reserve last fall; there is little experience to speak of on the strong side, let alone behind Sneed and Trevathan on the depth chart. To be fair, senior Jacob Dufrene did land some meaningful snaps in last season’s Music City Bowl, and sophomore Ridge Wilson is expected to play a far larger role than he did as a rookie. In good news, Wilson has added much-needed weight, and seems ready to take on the job on the strong side.

Position battles to watch

Quarterback play should improve, but you might want to have this on hand.

Quarterback Yes, quarterback. Again. Kentucky has played musical chairs under center since the departure of Andre Woodson following the 2007 season, failing to land anything close to satisfactory play from its quarterbacks. We’ll see the same cast of characters competing for the starting job in 2010: senior Mike Hartline, sophomore Morgan Newton and redshirt freshman Ryan Mossakowski. Hartline is the most seasoned, obviously. He’s started 14 games over the past two years, though his inconsistency has been a concern. So has staying healthy: Hartline missed the second half of last season after suffering a knee injury, which opened up the spot to Newton. The sophomore is not quite a polisher passer — as of yet — but his athletic ability separates him from his competition. There is also no discounting Kentucky’s 5-3 mark with Newton in the starting lineup; he has an intangible, an ability to lift the play of his teammates, which all coaches look for from their starting quarterback. Mossakowski trails that pair, though only because of his lack of experience. In fact, if Phillips wanted to return to the spread passing attack Kentucky ran to such great effect with Woodson making the throws, Mossakowski would be his best option. As now, however, the job will come down to eitler Hartline or Newton, with the most likely scenario a by-committee approach.

Game(s) to watch

The four non-conference games and SEC tilts against Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Tennessee. If Kentucky is going to reach bowl play, six of its wins will come from this group. Expecting this team to land a win against its remaining five conference foes might be too much to ask, though the Wildcats are certainly capable — very, very capable — of stealing a win at home against Auburn or South Carolina.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Call me crazy: I know it’s only the first game of the season, but I think Kentucky’s year — and its bowl hopes — hinge on how it fares against Louisville on Sept. 4. Is this a crazy concept? Well, yes, perhaps. Yet I can’t shake the feeling that Kentucky needs to go 4-0 in non-conference play to reach six wins, let alone match last season’s seven-win output; in that case, seeing that the remaining three non-conference affairs are clear victories, how the Wildcats fare against the hated Cardinals will dictate this team’s chances at bowl eligibility. As is typically the case, this team — on paper — does not instill confidence. Quarterback remains a major concern; that position is joined by question marks along the offensive line and in the back seven of the defense. Perhaps the defense as a whole is a question mark, though I think the defensive line is in pretty good shape. While there are players to like on both sides of the ball, Kentucky will not out-talent, for lack of a better phrase, any teams on its conference slate. So why do I have Kentucky in this spot, and why do I have the Wildcats landing that sixth win? Because nothing has changed: Kentucky never looks good on paper, never seems to have the pieces to upset a team or two in SEC play, yet always does — at least over the last four years. While my concerns about the long-term viability of the program will not be addressed until I see Phillips in action, I like the Wildcats to continue its bowl streak. Though not by much: I’m thinking six wins.

Dream season Kentucky’s first season under Phillips goes swimmingly: 8-4, 4-4 in the SEC. The bowl streak continues.

Nightmare season The Wildcats aren’t world beaters, but a 4-8 finish, with only one victory coming in conference play, would be sorely disappointing.

In case you were wondering

Where do Kentucky fans congregate? Kentucky has more fan sites than any other program in the F.B.S.; unfortunately, the majority are dedicated to U.K. basketball. So where do you turn? Start with the big boys, Cats Pause and Kentucky Sports Report, but also check out Wildcat Nation and A Sea of Blue. You can also try the Web site of The Lexington Herald-Leader.

Up Next

Who is No. 60? Our next program has only two nine-win seasons on the F.B.S. level. Both have come under its current coach.

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  1. Jeff says:

    Ohio U.?

  2. Burnt Orange says:

    I have always liked the Cats and Brooks was one of the three or four most underrated coaches I’ve seen but new coach, rebuilt offensive line, SEC schedule, iffy Qb situation etc. – I can’t see a win in Starkville this time around and Kentucky wins in Knoxville are few and far between. 5-7. I hope I am wrong but I don’t think I am.

  3. Rookierookie says:

    “where 35 teams — give or take, depending on sponsors — participate in bowl play each season”

    There are 35 bowls, so 70 *teams* play.

  4. Andy G says:

    Ohio is next.

  5. marooncat79 says:

    the best UK Football site–HANDS DOWN–is aaronsukfootballblog.blogspot.com

  6. HGWells says:

    So you fix the mistakes you made in your analysis of UK last year by repeating them?

  7. lee eaton ii says:

    There does seem to be alot of talent missing from last years team especially on defense however the o line seems to be solid based on recent reports. The defense looks to slip however the skill players and Hartline could well make up the difference. If Hartline answers the bell for his senior season as Woodson did and Monsell Allen takes well to the fulback position the numbers could vastly improved with the balanced attack.

    I dont know the details however Kys opponents have surely lost key players as well

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