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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. 96: Kentucky

Congratulations are in order for Kentucky. For the whole basketball thing, of course, but don’t forget this: Kentucky is no longer the 11th-best program in the SEC – or 12th, if we believe Vanderbilt can continue building upon James Franklin’s debut. Yes, congratulations: you did it, Kentucky. Today, after Mike Slive and the league’s decision-makers added Missouri and Texas A&M, the Wildcats are the 13th-best program in the 14-team SEC – or 14th, dead last, under the same conditions as above. Hey, you win some and you lose some; in fact, the Wildcats have long been happy with simply winning one more game than they lose, unlike the overwhelming majority of the SEC. Today, with the SEC deeper than ever, the wins will be even harder to come by for Joker Phillips and the Wildcats. So… John Calipari’s got a heck of a recruiting class coming in next year, huh?

SEC, East

Lexington, Ky.


Returning starters
11 (6 offense, 5 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 72

2011 record
(5-7, 2-6)

Last year’s

No. 76

2012 schedule

  • Sept. 2
    at Louisville
  • Sept. 8
    Western Kentucky
  • Sept. 15
    Kent St.
  • Sept. 22
    at Florida
  • Sept. 29
    South Carolina
  • Oct. 6
    Mississippi St.
  • Oct. 13
    at Arkansas
  • Oct. 20
  • Oct. 27
    at Missouri
  • Nov. 3
  • Nov. 17
  • Nov. 24
    at Tennessee

Last year’s prediction

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.

2011 recap

In a nutshell You had an idea that Kentucky wasn’t a bowl contender as early as the first game of the season, when the Wildcats’ sloppy and meandering play against Western Kentucky had a few Hilltoppers questioning whether U.K. was, in fact, part of the SEC. Kentucky would win that game and win again a week later, topping Central Michigan, before entering the offense-optional portion of the season – which would extend, with one happy exception, through the final 10 games of the year. The Wildcats would score more than 16 points only once during SEC play; would be held to single-digits three times, including over back-to-back weeks to start October; and would be outscored by 28 or more points four times, highlighted by a 30-point loss to Vanderbilt. The final result was five wins and the team’s first non-bowl season since 2005, putting an end to the most decorated stretch in Kentucky’s history. Technically, the final result was this: U.K. 10, Tennessee 7. You wouldn’t believe it if you hadn’t seen it with your own two eyes.

High point The win over Tennessee. Unexpected? Not in the general sense – Kentucky was terrible, but the Volunteers weren’t any better. But over the decades, it seemed like there was one thing you could set your watch to when it came to the SEC: come rain or shine, U.T. was going to find a way to beat the Wildcats.

Low point It doesn’t get much worse than a Sun Belt program – one with four wins over the last three years – questioning your conference affiliation. The year also featured Kentucky’s first loss to Louisville since 2005, perhaps signaling a turn in the rivalry, as well as that 30-point loss to Vanderbilt.

Tidbit Kentucky is now 8-1 under Phillips when winning the turnover battle. This isn’t surprising, but it does underline the idea that when it comes to winning games – something U.K. has done 11 times over the last two years – the Wildcats often need every advantage they can get, especially in terms of limiting their own mistakes. The lone loss came last fall, when U.K. was plus-three against Mississippi State, not committing a single turnover, yet still lost, 28-16. Perhaps trailing in turnover margin wasn’t a big deal last fall, considering how U.K. suffered so many lopsided defeats; it was a huge story in 2010, when turnovers meant the difference in competitive losses to Mississippi, Georgia and Mississippi State.

Tidbit (Vanderbilt edition) Kentucky and Vanderbilt first met in 1896, when the Commodores pulled out a 6-0 victory, and have met in every season since 1953. Over this time, U.K. has notched five winning streaks of four or more games: 1964-67, 1971-74, 1976-81, 1996-99 and 2004-7. Unfortunately, last year’s 30-point defeat was Kentucky’s third-largest during this series’ modern era – as always, using 1936 as the start of the modern era. It trails only a 34-0 loss in 1955 and a 42-6 loss in 1969.

Former players in the N.F.L.

21 OG Chandler Burden (Tennessee), WR Randall Cobb (Green Bay), FB John Conner (New York Jets), DE DeQuin Evans (Cincinnati), CB Winston Guy (Seattle), WR Steve Johnson (Buffalo), WR Micah Johnson (Cincinnati), CB Trevard Lindley (Philadelphia), DT Ricky Lumpkin (Arizona), P Tim Masthay (Green Bay), S Anthony Mosley (San Francisco), DT Corey Peters (Atlanta), DT Myron Pryor (New England), WR Matt Roark (New England), RB Alfonso Smith (Arizona), LB Ronnie Sneed (Detroit), TE Jacob Tamme (Denver), LB Danny Trevathan (Denver), P Ryan Tydlacka (Philadelphia), OT Garry Williams (Carolina), LB Wesley Woodyard (Denver).

Arbitrary top five list

Active, non-rookie SEC head coaches by job security
1. James Franklin, Vanderbilt.
2. Steve Spurrier, South Carolina.
3. Nick Saban, Alabama.
4. Gary Pinkel, Missouri.
5. Les Miles, L.S.U.


Joker Phillips (Kentucky ’86), 11-14 after two seasons. His first season found Kentucky picking right up where Rich Brooks left off, extending Kentucky’s streak of bowl berths to five while, as under Brooks, not faring all that well in the SEC. The Wildcats took a step back last fall, failing to reach bowl eligibility for the first time since 2005 – ending the greatest stretch in program history. 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 — he’s 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 single-season record with 475 points  in 2007 — 36.5 points per game. 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.

Players to watch

Stop. Find a quarterback. Now. Kentucky doesn’t just need to find its starting quarterback; Phillips and offensive coordinator Randy Sanders need to settle on a quarterback and stick with him, avoiding the sort of in-out-in-out rotation that can deprive this offense of any rhythm – and to say U.K. lacked rhythm in 2011 would be kind. It was worse than that: the Wildcats were absolutely inept offensively as a whole, and a healthy portion of the team’s issues can be tied directly into the lack of consistent play from the quarterback position. So stop; find a quarterback; stick with him.

The biggest issue with this tack is that one contender for the starting role won’t arrive on campus until the summer. Nearly every outlet has labeled incoming freshman Patrick Towles as Kentucky’s future at the position; at least one went further, calling Towles the sort of once-in-a-generation talent who can do for U.K. what Tim Couch did more than a decade ago. Good luck living up to that sort of advance billing. But though Phillips might want to give Towles a redshirt, he might not have that option.

The jury remains out on the prospects of either senior Morgan Newton or sophomore Maxwell Smith as the Wildcats’ starter. Newton got the nod heading into last September, but his season went horribly awry after a strong performance against Louisville – he completed 10 of 41 attempts in the losses to L.S.U. and South Carolina. Smith, then a true freshman, stepped in and started the final three games of last season after Newton suffered a shoulder injury against Mississippi State. Smith didn’t play horribly, all things considered, but after a poor finish to spring ball, it’s hard to project where Smith stands in the current pecking order. Until Towles is ready – and that may not be until 2013 – look for U.K. to continue alternating Newton and Smith. That won’t be good for this offense.

Of course, it would help if Kentucky’s receivers could hang onto the football. Perhaps no team in college football suffered a more widespread case of the drops in 2011: the receiver corps’ lone saving grace is that Kentucky doesn’t track drops as a statistic, saving the group from being defined by a rather embarrassing number. Kentucky will have a new receivers coach in Pat Washington, who replaces Tee Martin, and his first order of business will be amending issues like those drops and what seemed like a general lack of mental conditioning – and you can make the case that the two go hand in hand.

Matt Roark is gone, but Kentucky does bring back senior La’Rod King (team-leading 40 receptions for 568 yards and 7 scores), who stands as the team’s lone proven threat in the passing game. King’s going to need help from fellow seniors Gene McCaskill, Aaron Boyd and E.J. Fields while Kentucky waits on the development of a slew of true and redshirt freshmen. A few of the youngsters pushing for playing time: Demarco Robinson, Daryl Collins, Jared Leet, Derrick Quarles, Rashad Cunningham, DeMarcus Sweat and A.J. Legree. Washington has said nice things about the latter pair, both incoming freshmen, but everyone loves the new guys until they drop three straight passes against Vanderbilt.

Four factors stands in the way of Kentucky’s running game: one, poor quarterback play, which allows SEC teams to put another man in the box; two, a lack of game-breaking ability in the backfield; three, a questionable offensive front, especially in terms of depth; and four, SEC defenses. It’ll be tough sledding for U.K., though the Wildcats do return last season’s top four running backs. This is a group led by senior CoShik Williams (team-leading 486 yards), with help from sophomore Josh Clemons (279 yards), junior Jonathan George (208 yards) and sophomore Raymond Sanders (155 yards). They won’t strike fear into the SEC, but perhaps U.K. can team Williams with Clemons – who played fairly well as a sophomore – and run the ball well enough to take pressure off of the yet-to-be-named starting quarterback.

What got lost in the shuffle amid Kentucky’s offensive despair was the improved play of the defense. The Wildcats allowed roughly four fewer points per game than in 2010, limiting seven opponents to 24 points or less, and did a pretty nice job limiting the opposition in the passing game. Not that there isn’t work still to be done: U.K. still ranked 10th in the SEC in total defense and yards allowed per play while holding only two opponents to less than 134 yards on the ground. Obviously, the Wildcats need to stiffen on first and second down, particularly during SEC play. But U.K. is also among the worst in the SEC when it comes to getting to the quarterback, which is nothing new.

Kentucky hasn’t mounted an adequate pass rush since 2008; over the last three years, U.K. has ranked 12th, 12th and 10th, respectively, in the SEC in sacks. Will this change in 2012? It’s hard to find any reason why, seeing that the Wildcats are heading into this fall with nearly the same cast of characters along the defensive line. U.K. is in a position where it needs a breakthrough senior season from ends Collins Ukwu (28 tackles, 6.5 for loss) and Taylor Windham (14 tackles); if not that, U.K. needs younger ends like Farrington Huguenin, Mike Douglas and Langston Newton to step up and provide some speed off the edge.

Ukwu and Windham will start, as they did for most of last season. This pair will be joined inside by juniors Donte Rumph (31 tackles) and Mister Cobble (33 tackles), two big-bodied tackles who won’t provide much of a push but must do a better job occupying blockers in the middle of the line. Overall, you’re looking at a line largely devoid of SEC-like athleticism, even if help seems to be on the way among the untested underclassmen. Can a true freshman like Newton make an impact working solely as an edge rusher on passing downs?

At least the defensive line has some recognizable faces. Kentucky’s back eight – the Wildcats play five defensive backs – will be almost completely rebuilt, with senior safeties Martavius Neloms (71 tackles, 2.5 for loss) and Mikie Benton (28 tackles) the lone returning starters. When it comes to secondary play, U.K. will have a hard time replacing all-conference pick Winston Guy, who was a great fit in the Wildcats’ hybrid safety-linebacker role. His spot will now be filled by sophomore Miles Simpson, and let’s wish him good luck; Simpson, who played sparingly last fall, is stepping into some big shoes.

The lack of experience at cornerback is distressing, to put it lightly. One thing we can lock in stone: Cartier Rice will start. He’s a senior, meaning that Rice has been through the fire once or twice, which certainly helps; he’s also one of only two cornerbacks who saw the field last fall, joining Eric Dixon, a sophomore. Dixon will play, perhaps opposite of Rice, though it looks like U.K. is leaning towards a staring duo of Rice and redshirt freshman Marcus Caffey. Kentucky signed eight defensive backs in February’s class, and you have to think that at least half of these newcomers will start at cornerback. There’s enough well-regarded youth for U.K. to get better as the year wears on, but as of today, Kentucky is not in good shape at the position.

The Wildcats knew they were going to lose weak side linebacker Danny Trevathan, the team’s leading tackler, and middle linebacker Ronnie Sneed – they were seniors, after all. U.K. was not ready to lose would-be senior Ridge Wilson, who was dismissed from the program in February. Wilson was looked at as a potential leader on this defense; losing him hurts Kentucky’s bottom line. But it’s not all bad. Junior Avery Williamson (49 tackles) is ready to step into the starting lineup at middle linebacker. Likewise with sophomore Alvin Dupree (21 tackles) on the strong side. For now, sophomore Malcolm McDuffen will get the nod on the weak side. McDuffen could surprise, but he’s no Trevathan. U.K. could have really used Wilson’s experience.

Kentucky is also going to miss punter Ryan Tydlacka. The only thing – or things, or people – separating Tydlacka from all-SEC honors was the play of Steven Clark and Brad Wing. It’s easy to make the case that Tydlacka was the team’s offensive M.V.P., considering how many times the Wildcats needed his leg to bail out this putrid offense. Kentucky can turn to either junior Joe Mansour or redshirt freshman Jay Willmott to fill Tydlacka’s spot. My money’s on Mansour for two reasons: one, he handled kickoffs for U.K. last fall; and two, he’s on scholarship.

Position battle(s) to watch

Offensive line Forget the staring unit, as Kentucky seems to have an idea of which way its leaning with the first five. U.K. should be very worried about the situation up front should one or two starters miss an extended amount of time. The Wildcats’ depth woes during the spring has put Phillips in the unenviable position of potentially relying on five incoming freshmen to fill out the two-deep. The big-picture issue revolves around the line’s overall youth and inexperience, as while U.K. has 14 linemen on the roster, 11 are either freshmen or sophomores. Yes, there will be a learning curve.

Three starters must be replaced off of last year’s line, but the biggest piece returns: right guard Larry Warford, now a senior – amazing how time flies – is one of the best interior linemen in the SEC and a borderline all-American candidate in his final season. He and senior center Matt Smith, a two-year starter, will lend a steady hand to an otherwise untested offensive front. They’ll be surrounded by new guys, though U.K. knows who they’ll be: sophomore Darian Miller will get blind side tackle duties after starting two games at right tackle as a true freshman; redshirt freshman Zach West, an emergency backup to Warford last fall, will start at left guard; and junior Kevin Mitchell, who started last year’s opener at left guard, will play right tackle.

Warford is a certain all-SEC pick – he earned second-team honors as a sophomore and junior – and Smith is experienced, which counts. But even if you ignore the issues along the second group, the lack of starting experience at left tackle, left guard and right tackle is cause for concern. Now, about the lack of depth: get to know true freshmen Zach Myers, Jordan Watson, Jordan Swindle, Jon Toth and T.J. Jones, because at least one will be needed in 2012. What will South Carolina’s front seven do to this offensive line? What about Georgia’s? Shield your eyes.

Game(s) to watch

May the SEC have mercy on Kentucky if this team doesn’t start at least 2-1 – or 3-0, considering the overall nastiness of the Wildcats’ conference schedule. It’s easy to picture U.K. embarking on one long, disheartening losing streak beginning on Sept. 22 and continuing through Nov. 3. But if the Wildcats can start 3-0, notch one SEC upset and beat Samford, they’ll enter the season finale needing only another win over Tennessee to return to bowl play. But where’s that SEC upset coming from?

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell I hate asking this question, but it needs to be raised: Where are the SEC wins coming from? Don’t say Tennessee, because one win in nearly three decades doesn’t prove anything; all that win does is force U.T. to pay attention, and I can’t imagine a scenario where the Wildcats go into Knoxville – where they’ve won only once since 1977 – and notch a second straight win over the Volunteers. Kentucky isn’t winning an SEC road game. Perhaps this team can sneak by Vanderbilt at home, but the Commodores, who should be better in 2012, beat U.K. like a drum last fall. Put simply, Kentucky does not look like a team that can compete in any way, shape or form against the rest of the SEC. A few conference rivals have one or two holes; I look at Kentucky’s roster and see nothing but holes. Quarterback is a mess, though it’s hard not to be excited about Towles’ future with the program. Outside of King, there’s nothing of consequence at receiver. The offensive line is one injury away from folding like a beach chair. The defensive line lacks athleticism. The back eight breaks in six new starters, with special emphasis on the new faces at cornerback. This team is going to push for a bowl berth in the SEC? I just don’t see it. In fact, I can’t even say with certainty that Kentucky will simply roll past Western Kentucky and Kent State during non-conference play. This does not look like a good team.

Dream season The Towles era begins early, and it’s glorious. Behind the program’s best quarterback since Tim Couch, Kentucky goes 4-0 in non-conference action and adds another four wins during SEC play to win eight games in the regular season for the first time since 1984.

Nightmare season Wisely, Phillips doesn’t waste a season of Towles’ eligibility on this: Kentucky is awful defensively, worse offensively, and beats only Kent State and Samford.

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 IllustratedKentucky Sports Report and Cats Pause, but also check out Wildcat Nation and A Sea of Blue. You should also frequent the Web sites of The Lexington Herald-Leader and The Courier-Journal. Kentucky’s bowl streak ended in the same year that Kyle Tucker picked up the U.K. beat at The Courier-Journal, which may or may not be a coincidence.

Kentucky’s all-name nominee DT Mister Cobble.

Word Count

Through 29 teams 98,685.

Up Next

Who is No. 95? The finest coach in the history of tomorrow’s program was a head coach at five different programs during his career. He posted at least one seven-win season at each stop, including five such years at tomorrow’s school.

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  1. Alex Payne says:

    New Mexico State!

  2. Mark S says:

    Pretty amazing that NMSU is ahead of an SEC team and two ACC teams.

  3. [...] lede to Paul Myerberg’s preseason analysis of Kentucky made me laugh: Congratulations are in order for Kentucky. For the whole basketball thing, of [...]

  4. Hokieshibe says:

    @Mark – also ahead of a big 12 and a big 10 team… Not surprising really. Most conferences have at least one really bad bottom feeder.

  5. Dennis says:

    Warren Woodson is indeed a hall of fame coach and his place in the hall of hame is well deserved! … winning the Sun Bowl wice as head coach of New Mexico State.

  6. Jon joyner says:

    I think Paul is drastically over-rating the Cats this year. It will be much worse than that.

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