UK Football Preview

08/25/2011 12:01 PM

It was good news/bad news for Kentucky Coach Joker Phillips in his sideline debut. The good news is that Joker beat arch-rival Louisville, led a UK team to a win over Steve Spurrier for the first time ever, and got to a fifth straight bowl game. The bad news was that the Cats ended the year on an extremely sour note with yet another loss at Tennessee and a listless performance against Pitt in the BBVA Compass Bowl to close out the program’s first losing season since 2005. Phillips hopes to steady things out in Year Two.

Head Coach: Joker Phillips (6-7 record at UK and overall)
Assistant Coaches: Randy Sanders, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks; Rick Minter, co-defensive coordinator; Steve Brown, co-defensive coordinator/defensive backs; Tee Martin, passing game coordinator/wide receivers; Greg Nord, special teams/tight ends; Steve Pardue, running backs; Chuck Smith, linebackers/recruiting coordinator; Mike Summers, offensive line; David Turner, defensive line.
Starters returning: 16 (six offense, 10 defense)
Lettermen returning: 46
Players to watch: LB Danny Trevathan, OG Larry Warford, OG Stuart Hines, LB/S Winston Guy, QB Morgan Newton, WR La’Rod King, RB Raymond Sanders, C Matt Smith, LT Chandler Burden, DE Collins Ukwu
Strengths: With Randall Cobb and Derrick Locke now gone, the Cats’ offense will go as far as the line takes them. Four starters are back up front, with left guard Warford a potential high NFL Draft pick. Phillips also expects quarterback Morgan Newton to blossom in his first full season as a starter. The Cats return 10 starters defensively and seem invigorated by Rick Minter’s new scheme. They’ll be led by one of the country’s top playmakers in Trevathan.
Weaknesses: The Cats don’t have a lot of experience or proven production among the skill players. Top returning tailback Raymond Sanders was banged up for much of the offseason, and the receiving corps looked so-so in the spring. An injury to Newton would also be catastrophic. And while the defense has a lot of guys back, it has to prove that it can A) pick up Minter’s system, and B) make plays when the opportunity arises.

GAME BY GAME PREDICTIONS

UK 35, Western Kentucky 17-Willie Taggart has things moving in the right direction in Bowling Green, but the Toppers aren’t ready to knock off the Cats just yet. I can see this being a game for a half with Kentucky pulling away late.

UK 31, Central Michigan 20-Danger alert here, as the Wildcats could be looking ahead to Louisville. Yes I know CMU was just 2-10 last year, but they’ve been one of the MAC’s most successful programs and nearly knocked off the Cats at Commonwealth in 2006. And Kentucky has typically struggled with MAC teams.

UK 20, Louisville 13-Lots of unknowns in this one. In the end, though, I believe UK will be able to exploit U of L’s weaknesses just a little bit better than the Cards will theirs.

UK 27, Florida 26-Before you suggest that I’ve gone off the deep end, let me explain. Florida wasn’t any good last year. And yeah, while they still spanked the Cats for the 24th year in a row, now they’re going through a coaching transition fresh with new schemes, etc. Will Muschamp is no Ron Zook; he’ll ultimately get it done in Gainesville. But it might take awhile. This will be Kentucky’s best shot to beat the Gators since 2003, when a late Jared Lorenzen interception sealed a 24-21 loss to the Zooker in Rich Brooks’ first season. I believe UK will pull one upset, and until I see them beat Tennessee with my own eyes, I just can’t predict it.

LSU 34, UK 10-The Cats will go into Baton Rouge 4-0 and possibly ranked and then get smacked back to reality in a hurry. LSU will be fresh off a September slate that included a neutral game with Oregon and road trips to Mississippi State and West Virginia, so it probably won’t be as bad as the 49-0 ‘whuppin UK got on its last trip to Baton Rouge in 2006. The Tigers will still roll, though.

South Carolina 45, UK 13-Most people point to LSU as the longest-shot game on the UK schedule. I personally think it’s this one, and here’s why: I believe South Carolina will be just as good if not better than LSU, and you know Steve Spurrier is still seething over his first-ever loss to UK last season. He’ll have his foot on the gas for four quarters.

UK 27, Jacksonville State 16-The Cats get back on the winning track for Homecoming, but it won’t be a cakewalk. Jacksonville State is always ranked high in the FCS polls and won at Ole Miss last year.

Mississippi State 41, UK 40-People can say what they want, but Florida started going downhill when offensive coordinator Dan Mullen left for Starkville. Mullen has a big, mobile quarterback in Chris Relf, something the Kentucky defense always struggles with (see: Tebow, Tim; Newton, Cam). Five of the last six games between the two schools have been decided by a touchdown or less, and this one should be no different.

UK 28, Ole Miss 17-The Cats get bowl-eligible for the sixth straight season. Houston Nutt seems to have lost his mojo in Oxford, and UK remembers the game they gift-wrapped to the Rebels last season.

UK 14, Vanderbilt 13-This will be another one of those cold, ugly-November UK-Vandy contests played in a half-filled Vanderbilt Stadium (mostly Wildcat fans). The Commodores will see this as a winnable game and play hard, but the Cats will escape Nashville with the win.

Georgia 37, UK 22-If Mark Richt wants to stick around Athens, he can’t afford too many more losses to Kentucky (he has two in five years). I don’t think Georgia’s great this year, but they’ll be good enough to take care of the Cats at home.

Tennessee 28, UK 27-A big part of me thinks Kentucky might finally do it. But I just can’t pull the trigger. I’ve been burned too many times. I picked UK in 2007 and they lost a 4OT heartbreaker. I knew they wouldn’t win in 2008 in Phil Fulmer’s last game, but I picked them again in 2009 and they lost another overtime thriller. I gave them a 50-50 shot last season and they laid an egg. So like I said earlier, I’ll believe it when I see it.

FINAL SUMMARY
Getting to bowl games every year has clearly gotten old with Cat fans. Now they want two things: a serious contender in the SEC East, and a win over Tennessee. I don’t see either of those happening this year. But Phillips will do enough (another win over Louisville, upsetting Florida, upgrading the bowl destination) to quell some of the uneasiness his first year brought.

Final record: 7-5, 3-5 in SEC
Bowl destination: Gator, Jan. 2, Jacksonville ESPN2

Best offensive player: Larry Warford
Best defensive player: Danny Trevathan
Top newcomer: Josh Clemons

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