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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. 72: Kentucky

You’d say Kentucky’s mired in a rut, then you’d look at the team’s win total over the six years prior to these heady days of bowl berth after bowl berth: two, two, seven, four, two and three. So this five-year bowl run is nothing short of miraculous, whether or not Kentucky gets to six wins by going 4-0 during its shockingly weak non-conference slate and 2-6 in the deadly SEC. Who cares? For all the talk about it being otherwise, there are really only three schools which look at football as merely a time-killer: North Carolina, Duke and Kentucky. Any schools that say otherwise are merely trying to lessen the embarrassing play of its football program, more or less. Kentucky football is just here to pass the time, making the idea that Kentucky is stuck in a seven-win rut all the more ludicrous. Seven wins? Sign me up.

SEC, East

Lexington, Ky.


Returning starters
14 (6 offense, 8 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 61

2010 record
(6-7, 2-6)

Last year’s

No. 69

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 1
    W. Kentucky (in Nashville)
  • Sept. 10
    Central Michigan
  • Sept. 17
  • Sept. 24
  • Oct. 1
    at L.S.U.
  • Oct. 8
    at S. Carolina
  • Oct. 2
    Jacksonville St.
  • Oct. 29
    Mississippi St.
  • Nov. 5
    at Mississippi
  • Nov. 12
    at Vanderbilt
  • Nov. 19
    at Georgia
  • Nov. 26

Last year’s prediction

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.

2010 recap

In a nutshell After a two-year lull, the offense got back on track. This is due in large part to vastly improved quarterback play, a program concern following the departure of Andre Woodson in 2007. Surprisingly, it was done with a similar cast of characters: Mike Hartline just grew up, on the field and off, it seems, and his development was the key factor behind Kentucky’s return to offensive prominence. The Wildcats ended the year ranked fifth in the SEC in scoring — adding nearly a touchdown per game off the 2009 total — and second in passing, and while the running game seemed secondary it was healthy enough to keep opposing defenses very honest. It’s a good thing the offense stepped up: the defense stepped back after two great years, allowing at least 20 points in 11 of 13 games. When the dust settled, however, and even with a disappointing bowl loss to Pittsburgh, this was another fine season for Kentucky football.

High point A 31-28 win over South Carolina on Oct. 16: SEC, meet Joker Phillips. This nationally-televised affair gave U.K. all the positive coverage it would need all season; it also gave the Wildcats the boost they’d need to reach bowl play, which is more important. A road win at Louisville to start the year was impressive in hindsight. The Wildcats have won four straight over their in-state rival.

Low point Another loss to Tennessee. That extends the losing streak to 26 years, and if Kentucky wasn’t able to beat the Volunteers at one point over the last four years it’s probably never going to happen. At least Kentucky had clinched bowl eligibility by that point; a win would have sent Tennessee to a 5-7 finish, however, so the Wildcats should at it as a missed opportunity. I was very disappointed in how Kentucky folded against a demoralized Pittsburgh team in a BBVA Compass Bowl loss.

Tidbit As stated above, the Wildcats allowed 11 opponents to score at least 20 points last fall. That’s not merely a fairly common occurrence in the program’s history: U.K. allowed nine opponents to do so in 1990 and 1994, 10 to do so in 1998, 2000 and 2001. Such defensive ineptitude is also something Kentucky has done even during this recent bowl run, back in 2006 and 2007. In 2006, the Wildcats allowed 10 opponents to score at least 20 points, holding only Texas State, Mississippi and Tennessee to 7, 14 and 17 points, respectively. A year later, U.K. allowed every opponent but two, Eastern Kentucky and Florida Atlantic, to under 20 points. Last fall, the Wildcats held Louisville to 16 points and Akron to just 10 — that was a great defensive showing.

Tidbit (100-word preview edition) It’s that time again. Here’s how it works: I give you a quiz question; you become the first person to answer the question; you win the opportunity to pen a 100-word preview of your favorite team when it appears on the Countdown. Get it? Good. Here’s the question:

Kentucky has reached bowl play in five consecutive seasons, a new school record. The Wildcats are one of five SEC schools to go bowling in each of the last five years, joining Alabama, Florida, Georgia and L.S.U., and are one of 28 teams nationwide to have done so. Can you name the 28 schools that have played in a bowl in each of the last five years?

Teams already spoken for: California (Katster), Iowa (M Meyer), Northwestern (NUwildcat09), Oregon (Eskynyt), Pittsburgh (htp2012), Texas (Burnt Orange), Washington (Dr. Klahn).

Former players in the N.F.L.

15 WR Randall Cobb (Green Bay), FB John Connor (New York Jets), DE Jeremy Jarmon (Washington), LB Micah Johnson (Kansas City), WR Steve Johnson (Buffalo), LB Braxton Kelley (Denver), CB Trevard Lindley (Philadelphia), P Tim Masthay (Green Bay), P Glenn Pakulak (Oakland), DT Corey Peters (Atlanta), DT Myron Pryor (New England), RB Alfonso Smith (Arizona), TE Jacob Tamme (Indianapolis), OT Garry Williams (Carolina), LB Wesley Woodyard (Denver).

Arbitrary top five list

Kentucky’s N.B.A. draft picks from 1989-2010
1. PG Rajon Rondo, 2007 (1st round, 21st overall).
2. SF Tayshaun Prince, 2003 (1st, 23rd).
3. SF Antoine Walker, 1997 (1st, 6th).
4. SF Jamal Mashburn, 1994 (1st, 4th).
5. SG Rex Chapman, 1989 (1st, 8th).


Joker Phillips (Kentucky ’86), 6-7 after one season. He picked up right where Rich Brooks left off, extending Kentucky’s streak of bowl berths to five while, like Brooks, not faring all that well in the SEC. Phillips had been the 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 passed two years in that role before taking on offensive coordinator duties in 2005; he held that position through the end of 2009, 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: 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. There were two key factors to appreciate about Phillips as he undertook his endeavor: one, he is a gifted offensive mind; and two, he had the opportunity to learn at the feet of one of this generation’s most under-appreciated coaches. He’s off to a fine start.

Players to watch

There are a lack of skill players to work with, but that doesn’t bother the offensive line. If Mike Hartline’s play at quarterback was one of the more pleasant surprises of the SEC season, the play of the Kentucky offensive line was of equal importance to this offense’s climb from mediocrity to the upper echelon of the SEC. It wasn’t supposed to go this way, both at quarterback and up front: this line broke in four new starters yet was able to take a great leap forward, with plenty of credit going to first-year line coach Mike Summers.

This year’s line should be even better. Four starters return in the same roles as in 2010: left tackle Chandler Burden, left guard Stuart Hines, center Matt Smith and right guard Larry Warford. Each brings something to the table: Warford and Hines earned all-SEC accolades a year ago – Warford’s a physical presence on the strong side of the line; Smith started every game in the middle of the line; and Burden, a converted defensive lineman, has the athletic ability to excel on the blind side. And there’s depth with senior Jake Lanefski, though he’s battled injury issues in the past, as well as senior Billy Joe Murphy, who is penciled as the starter at right tackle but has shown an ability to slide in at several spots along the line. This line is really good – and very underrated, lost in the shuffle of a deep SEC.

Morgan Newton takes over for Hartline, with the hope that another year of experience turns him into the player most expected him to be when he joined the Wildcats two years ago. He hasn’t been that program-defining player, no; nor is he quite the athlete some believed he would be, as Newton won’t really make a huge difference with his legs. But he’s Kentucky’s only option now that Hartline and Ryan Mossakowski have left the building, so the Wildcats desperately need the light to turn on. Maybe this is the year: it’s not as if Newton lacks experience, and several recent Kentucky quarterbacks – Andre Woodson and Hartline – have turned a corner over their last two seasons.

New running backs coach Steve Pardue will be tasked with rebuilding the backfield with the departure of Kentucky’s three leading rushers – Derrick Locke, first and foremost. Sophomore Raymond Sanders (254 yards, 3 touchdowns) will get first crack at taking over at running back; he’s the most experienced ball-carrier on the roster, as well as a potential receiving threat out of the backfield. Another sophomore, Jonathan George, has enough speed to make him a nice compliment to Sanders. The opportunity is certainly there for any back on the roster to make a move, like redshirt freshman Brandon Gainer or even incoming freshmen Josh Clemons and Marcus Caffey.

Kentucky won’t move to the 3-4 wholesale, but will implement that scheme while retaining the familiar 4-3 look in certain situation. The move, which will be implemented by Steve Brown and new addition Rick Minter – the two will share coordinator duties – will offer some relief to a defensive line that suffered some losses due to graduation. But the front is really the only group touched by losses: in all, U.K. brings back its top 11 tacklers from a year ago. Perhaps the defense can carry the load as the offense rebuilds.

Any discussion of this U.K. defense must begin with weak side linebacker Danny Trevathan, a clear all-American and SEC Defensive Player of the Year candidate heading into the fall. He was a menace in 2010: 144 tackles (16 for loss) and 3 sacks, with the former total the most in the SEC. He could have opted for the N.F.L., so his decision to come back provides an incalculable lift to this defense. When Kentucky does line up in a 4-3 look, it will be senior Ronnie Snead (61 tackles) in the middle and rising star Ridge Wilson (3o tackles in a limited role), a junior, on the strong side. Wilson could also line up at end, giving some heat to a questionable pass rush. But U.K. does need to find some depth when it does go to the 3-4, so one of a group of sophomores and freshmen, including Jewell Ratliff, Avery Williamson and Malcom McDuffen, must step up.

It’s been the story over all of Kentucky’s bowl run: the Wildcats have weapons in the secondary and all-conference performers at linebacker but struggle up front, especially against the run. But the Wildcats don’t fare too poorly in getting pressure in the backfield; the key will be developing a front seven that stands tall against the run, with that quest beginning with the search for three capable linemen. U.K. can rely on experience at end, but need more from both Collins Ukwu and Taylor Wyndham – the latter has the size to move inside on passing downs, increasing his flexibility.

What about inside? Kentucky brings back contributors like Mark Crawford (24 tackles, 4.5 for loss) and Luke McDermott (17 tackles, 3.5 sacks), though how each could transition to playing on the nose remains to be seen. But that’s not a bad pairing when U.K. does go with a 4-3 look. Line depth took a big hit earlier this month when Brice Laughlin and Nermin Delic opted to leave the program; both would have been part of the rotation this fall, and perhaps major difference-makers down the road.

Every piece of this underrated secondary returns in 2011: five starters, due to Kentucky’s tendency to spend much of its time with an extra defensive back on the field. The star is safety Winston Guy, a second-team all-SEC pick a year ago after finishing second on the team in tackles (106) and leading the way with three interceptions. Guy has the size and tackling ability to perhaps move down to a hybrid-linebacker role in the new defensive alignment. Junior Martavius Nelson (55 tackles, 2 sacks) moves from cornerback to free safety, joining Guy and senior Mychal Bailey (57 stops, 2 interceptions) to give U.K. three very talented safeties along the back end of the defense. Bailey must do some work in the classroom before being reinstated on the football team, however.

So the Wildcats are loaded at safety; what about cornerback? Much will depend on senior Randall Burden’s continued development. While not quite on the same level as some of Kentucky’s recent all-SEC cornerbacks, Burden has showed flashes of all-conference talent – the key will be putting it all together. Likewise with senior Anthony Mosley, a converted receiver who pitched in with 36 tackles and an interception in 2010. The second group consists of junior Cartier Rice and sophomore Jerrell Priester, with U.K. expecting big things of the latter.

Position battle(s) to watch

Wide receiver You don’t replace a Randall Cobb. He was a once-in-a-generation sort of talent, the sort rarely seen in Lexington: Cobb will be sorely missed. As will Chris Matthews, who broke through in his senior season, but while U.K. will miss his production he’s closer to replaceable. That’s because the Wildcats have similarly lanky, athletic options coming up the pipeline: one is 6’5 senior Matt Roark, though he hasn’t cracked into his vein of potential as of yet. Junior La’Rod King, all 6’4 of him, is closer to breaking through after serving as Kentucky’s third option in 2010, making 36 catches for 478 yards. Fellow juniors E.J. Fields and Aaron Boyd also come in around 6’4, giving the Wildcats four tall receivers to work with in the passing game. Then there’s junior Gene McCaskill, who was part of the rotation in 2009 but missed last fall with an A.C.L. injury. But none are as proven as Matthews; none can come close to replicating just what Cobb brought to the table, though there are no receivers in the F.B.S. who can do just what Cobb did for the Wildcats in 2011. Maybe sophomore Brian Adams can be that sort of multifaceted option, now that he’s seems recovered from the dangerous health scare that threatened his life two years ago. Adams is a very nice athlete, but he’ll need to have a monster year if U.K. hopes to receive similar production at receiver.

Game(s) to watch

As always, Kentucky needs to go 4-0 outside of the SEC. Three games are definite wins, with Louisville the one game that could go either way. In terms of conference play, U.K. will, as always, look at Vanderbilt as the fifth win and aim for an upset. If the SEC does nothing else, it provides the chance for an upset.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Can the offense keep up last year’s pace? I can’t see it happening. Newton is a nice prospect at quarterback, but I’m not sure if he’s ready – or if he’ll ever be ready – to have quite the season Hartline had a year ago. He’s only a junior, however, and still only somewhat inexperienced, so there’s still time for him to reach his full potential. There are similar losses at running back, and the holes at receiver are extremely daunting. Even with a very good offensive line there’s really little chance that U.K. will remain in the top half of the SEC offensively, which is a concern. But those concerns are dealt with in part by the presence of a stout defense, which might have issues up front but returns enough to lift U.K. right into the bowl mix. And that’s where we’ll find Kentucky, once again: hovering around six wins, with four victories coming outside of the SEC and two – hopefully – coming in the SEC. It’s nearly a guarantee, actually, that the Wildcats will land five wins from the non-conference slate and from Vanderbilt – though the Commodores look to be getting better quickly under James Franklin. Will Kentucky get that sixth win? It’ll be a dogfight, as always, but perhaps the Wildcats deserve the benefit of the doubt. I’m guessing that U.K. will end the regular season 6-6, 2-6 in the SEC, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Wildcats get stuck at the five-win mark.

Dream season The Wildcats up the total to eight wins, four of which come in the SEC.

Nightmare season U.K. can’t get it done offensively, and while the defense is up to the task it can’t do quite enough: 4-8, 0-8 in the SEC.

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.

Word Count

Through 49 teams 139,736.

Up Next

Who is No. 71? Abraham Lincoln only visited tomorrow’s university’s home state once, back in 1856, during which time he made a speech campaigning for then-Presidential hopeful Charles Fremont in the city that houses tomorrow’s university.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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  1. NUwildcat09 says:

    I think No. 71 is going to be Western Michigan University. Abraham Lincoln spoke in Kalamazoo, Michigan on August 27, 1856. You can find the full speech here: http://www.mrlincolnandfreedom.org/inside.asp?ID=14&subjectID=2

  2. Flint Foster says:

    28 teams with at 5 straight bowl appearances – Kentucky, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, LSU, Florida St., Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, Boston College, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Texas Tech, Boise State, Southern Miss, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Navy, Utah, BYU, Clemson, Missouri, Nevada, Oregon, Penn St., South Florida, TCU, East Carolina, Oklahoma State.

    I’d love to do 100 words on the Ole Miss Rebels.

    Paul: You got the Rebels. Nice work by you. Send it along at your leisure to audible@presnapread.com.

  3. David says:

    This may have happened before without me noticing – why do I get a different picture for this entry when viewed in google reader?

    (bourbon bottles here , joker playing card via google reader [ http://www.presnapread.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/joker-e1308548561655.jpg ]

    Paul: Not sure how Google Reader works, but the Joker picture was used when this post was a draft but was swapped out for the whiskey bottles shortly after it went live. So maybe your Reader just takes the original snapshot when it lists each post.

  4. Mendenhall4Pres says:

    Devil of a question, but I believe that next is Western Michigan. Lincoln visited Michigan once in 1856 and spoke in Kalamazoo.

  5. wildcat6 says:

    One could probably say that UCLA football exists just to pass the time before UCLA basketball, in addition to UNC, Duke and Kentucky, although the Bruins have made a few Rose Bowls in the past 40 years or so. One 23-10 victory over Woody Hayes’ top-ranked Buckeyes in the mid-70′s stands out for me.

  6. M Meyer says:

    I agree on UNC + Duke + Kentucky and I would add the Kansas Jayhawks. The Kansas fans that I know are very invested in basketball, and I get the sense that they are only casually interested in the football team doing well.

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