It wasn’t inconceivable, writing about a UK football team that in 2009 could be setting its sights on a bowl appearance. A few years back it seemed possible. Only, what seemed likely was that the head coach would be someone other than Rich Brooks.
You know the story by heart (you’re probably re-living it through “Rich Tradition,” radio man Tom Leach’s book, which is now in its second printing). The Wildcats rose from, if not the dead, then dormancy, midway through 2006 after a blowout loss to LSU, rolling to the first of three consecutive post-season appearances.
Going into that season, it seemed a certainty that anything less would send Brooks back to Oregon and retirement for good. He had done the dirty work; his first Kentucky teams had absorbed the losses that usually accompany severe NCAA penalties. There was more talent on hand and the situation seemed ripe for the next head coach.
But the Wildcats had other ideas. This was the guy who’d sat in their living rooms and convinced them not to listen to their friends and family, the folks who surely had told them Lexington, Kentucky, was a dead-end in college football. Instead, they signed on and breathed new life into a moribund program. And now they’re poised to make history – again.
A fourth bowl bid awaits and, it says here, the Cats will get it. Here’s how:
Sept. 5 – Miami of Ohio (Cincinnati)
Seems it wasn’t that long ago Ben Roethlisberger and the Redhawks were 13-1, ranked as high as #10, everybody’s favorite “mid-major.” But in the Cradle of Coaches, the program did fall – down came the Redhawks, cradle and all. They won only two games last year, which is why they have a new coach.
Mike Heywood comes to MU from Notre Dame, where he was Charlie Weis’ offensive coordinator. Weis already had decided to take over the play-calling duties himself this season, so Heywood needed the new gig. He inherits a strong-armed quarterback in Daniel Radabaugh but also a team that was outgained by nearly 100 yards per contest last season. The Redhawks also were -12 in turnovers in 2008.
With new schemes on both sides of the football, Miami won’t be ready to take off the training wheels against a Southeastern Conference team coming off a bowl victory with so many returning starters. (UK Record: 1-0)
Sept. 19 – Louisville
Not even the heartiest Kentucky fan could have predicted what happened in last season’s UK-U of L game. There was reason to believe the Cats would be better on defense – but to score two touchdowns and not surrender a point to Louisville’s offense?
Some of UK’s best from that day are gone (Myron Pryor, Jeremy Jarmon, Braxton Kelley) but enough return to make it an ugly day for the Cardinals. Still, they’ll make it a tougher game than most might think, even in Commonwealth Stadium.
Quarterback Justin Burke (6-3, 229) has the arm and moxie any coach would covet, and U of L’s skill players (Victor Anderson, Doug Beaumont, Scott Long, Josh Chichester) will be a stout test for the Kentucky defense.
The Louisville defense eroded throughout last season, thanks in part to injuries, but figures to be improved as well. Still, the home team will pull this one out, perhaps in the last possession – either on offense or defense. (UK Record: 2-0)
Sept 26 – Florida
Okay, there’s the obligatory reference. But there’s so much more to the Gators, who feature an offensive line that could be starting a freshman center, Louisville native Sam Robey (son of ex-UK basketball All-American Rick) and the two Pouncey brothers, Mike and Maurkice. They’ll be opening holes for tailback Emanuel Moody, the former Southern Cal transfer who battled injuries most of last year.
Florida loses talent at the receiver spot, including Percy Harvin, but listen for the name Carl Moore, the top-ranked JUCO wideout a couple of years ago who struggled to pick up the offense last season.
Florida returns all 11 starters, plus most of its backups, from a defense that was +22 in turnovers last year.
Even in Commonwealth Stadium, the Gators will be tough to stop. Another Kentucky losing streak will endure. (UK Record: 2-1)
Oct. 3 – Alabama
UK played Alabama as well or better than any team it faced in the regular season. The Crimson Tide edged the Wildcats 17-14 in Tuscaloosa en route to an undefeated regular season.
They lost to Florida in the SEC Championship game and then fell apart against Utah in the Sugar Bowl. And they did it all last season with just nine returning seniors.
They have much more experience now, although they have to replace quarterback John Parker Wilson, who left as the Tide’s all-time leader in total offense. Senior Greg McElroy won the starting job in the spring, where apparently he excelled.
Bama also lost big-play tailback Glen Coffee and two first-team All-American offensive linemen in center Antoine Caldwell and left tackle Andre’ Smith, now a Cincinnati Bengal. But there’s so much talent returning on both sides of the football that Kentucky figures to be an underdog on its home field, even though it lost by just a field goal on the road last season. (UK Record: 2-2)
Oct. 10 – at South Carolina
The Wildcats finally hit the road the second weekend of October, visiting a team that also owns a winning streak over Kentucky, although modest compared to the way Florida and Tennessee have dominated.
The Gamecocks were up-and-down last season, which has been the norm under Steve Spurrier. Their season included a victory AT Mississippi, the only team to knock off Florida, a seven-point loss to LSU and a blowout win over Tennessee. But they also beat Wofford by only 10, suffered a 50-point blowout at Florida followed by a 31-14 loss at rival Clemson.
In the bowl game, quarterback Stephen Garcia threw four first-half interceptions, a big reason the Gamecocks lost to Iowa, 31-10. Garcia is back as the starting QB, but will not have tailback Mike Davis, wideout Kenny McKinley or tight end Jared Cook (both pass catchers now play in the NFL).
The defense returns standout linebacker Eric Norwood, a first-team All-SEC performer last year. But USC has just 11 returning starters, the second-lowest total in the league. Spurrier also shook up his coaching staff (again) in the off-season, which could help. But, it says here, UK’s string of losses to the Gamecocks will end, as the Wildcats beat Steve Superior for the first time. EVER. (UK Record: 3-2)
Oct. 17 – at Auburn
The Wildcats will visit the Plains in search of SEC road victories on consecutive Saturdays for the first time since 1977 (UK did it twice that season, en route to a 10-1 record). When they arrive at Auburn, the Tigers will have six games behind them, more than enough to adjust to new head coach Gene Chizik, who was the puzzling choice to take over when Tommy Tuberville was fired.
Puzzling, because one would think Auburn, even though it’s relegated to Little Brother status behind the Crimson Tide in the state of Alabama, still is one of the plum coaching jobs in arguably the best BCS conference. But Chizik does have a resume’ that includes defensive cooridnator stops at Auburn and Texas. He was 5-19 in two seasons as a head coach at Iowa, but given the woes of that program, understandable.
Now he’s back “home,” where his teams will play power football on the ground, under offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn (his Tulsa team last was ranked 5th in the FBS in rushing). Kodi Burns figures to be the starting QB but it’s hard to tell who could do what, based on last year’s circus-like atmosphere, which included the mid-season firing of OC Tony Franklin.
Auburn returns talent on the D-line and in the secondary, which could offset personnel losses at linebacker. Big Blue fans think this could be a place to steal a win. It could be, but it’s still Auburn. And it’s still an SEC road game. (UK Record: 3-3)
Oct. 24 – Louisiana-Monroe
Three years ago, the Warhawks nearly spoiled the UK party in Commonwealth Stadium. The 2006 Wildcats had bounced back from annihilation at LSU with three straight wins over Mississippi State, Georgia and Vanderbilt.
But QB Kinsmon Lancaster and ULM couldn’t have cared less. This was their chance to upset an SEC team on the road, and the nearly did it, finally succumbing, 42-40. Lancaster has moved on but ULM still returns 17 starters from a team that led Division I football in starts lost to injury.
The Cats will win this one, but only if they top the effort they showed in ’06 (UK Record: 4-3)
Oct. 31 – Mississippi State
Halloween night in 1992 might have been a turning point in the Bill Curry era. The MSU Bulldogs blocked a UK field goal try at the final horn, preserving a 37-36 victory in one of the most entertaining games Commonwealth Stadium had ever seen.
A win before a handful of bowl representatives would have left the Wildcats 5-2. Instead, they slipped to 4-3 and would lose the rest of their games that season.
This game might be just as crucial. The Bulldogs will be playing under first-year head coach Dan Mullen, who was Urban Meyer’s QB coach both at Bowling Green and Utah, and had the added duties of offensive coordinator in Gainesville. He has no Tim Tebow; hard to say who the starting QB will be when the Dogs come to town, although Tyson Lee is still around. He threw for 261 yards vs. UK in Starkville last year.
Former 1,000-yard rusher Anthony Dixon returns but MSU has an SEC-low 10 starters coming back. Defensive tackle Pernell McPhee should help matters; he’s spent the past two seasons leading all junior college players in sacks.
The lack of experience added to the adjustments the Bulldogs have to make to a new staff should give UK more than enough advantage to score treats, and not tricks, on this pivotal night. (UK Record: 5-3)
Nov. 7 – Eastern Kentucky
There was a time, including the 1982 season, when EKU could have handled Kentucky either in Lexington or Richmond. That was the year Roy Kidd won his second NCAA Division 1-AA championship with a team that finished 13-0. The Cats that year were 0-10-1 under first-year coach Jerry Claiborne.
The Colonels would love to have squared off with the Wildcats that season; many of them told me as much. Since then they’ve had their chances, without much success. And even though Dean Hood’s team has been picked to win its third consecutive Ohio Valley Conference championship, Eastern likely won’t be able to handle Kentucky’s speed on the defensive side of the football.
Still, the Cats will have to take care of the ball and get it into the end zone against a team stocked with Kentuckians who think UK made a mistake by not recruiting them. (UK Record: 6-3)
Nov. 14 – at Vanderbilt
UK fans likely were stunned to see more than one pre-season survey that had Vanderbilt finishing ahead of the Wildcats in the SEC East. That’s because not only did the Commodores come into Lexington and whip Kentucky 31-24 last season, they followed it up with a victory in their first bowl appearance in 26 seasons, beating Boston College in the Music City.
Fortunately for the Wildcats, 1st-team All-SEC cornerback D.J. Moore (who had two interceptions AND two TDs as a wideout vs. UK last year) is gone. They held Kentucky to a total of 144 yards in the victory, which isn’t likely to happen again, even though the entire two-deep returns to the defensive line.
The ‘Dores finished the season +9 in turnovers, winning only one game in which they forced none or committed more than their opponent. The Cats should score some revenge. (UK Record: 7-3)
Nov. 21 – at Georgia
Georgia was the sexy choice to win the SEC last year, in spite of the fact that the Bulldogs were facing a brutal schedule. And, indeed, they faltered, finishing with what coach Mark Richt called “the worst 10-win season” in college football history. Their setbacks included a shocking homefield blowout loss to Alabama, and another pounding between the hedges by Florida.
Their victories included a 42-38 win in Lexington, in a game that saw six lead changes in the second half. In fact, Georgia didn’t score what turned out to be the game-winning TD until the final 1:54 of the game, when future #1 NFL Draft pick Matthew Stafford hit wideout A.J. Green with a scoring strike. And STILL, the Cats drove the ball down the field, only to see a Georgia defensive lineman pick off a Randall Cobb pass at the 18-yard-line with 46 seconds left.
Joining Stafford as an early draft pick was explosive tailback Knowshon Moreno. Replacing either will be nearly impossible; senior Joe Cox will get the nod at quarterback – a guy who was 31-0 as a starter in high school. The O-line that opened holes for Moreno returns veterans who total 99 starts among them.
On defense the Dawgs lose 25 starts among the D-linemen who are gone, but they return their top three tacklers at linebacker. And they’re still Georgia, always tough down Between the Hedges. (UK Record: 7-4)
Nov. 28 – Tennessee
The streak is an embarrassment to UK fans, but it’s become a mission to the Volunteers. Nobody in orange wants to be part of a team that lost to Kentucky. A UT squad that had lost to Vanderbilt three years ago seemed vulnerable, but the Vols that day barged into Lexington and smothered the Wildcats, 27-8.
The current Tennessee veterans may have the firing of Phil Fulmer on their collective minds right now, but by the time the Kentucky game rolls around, they will have forgotten it.
No matter what their won-loss mark when Thanksgiving weekend rolls around, it’ll be Go Time.
The Vols will have had the entire season to adjust to new head coach Lane Kiffin and his well-paid band of talented assistants. It’ll be interesting to see if Jonathan Crompton is still the starting QB by then, leading an offense that doesn’t show nearly the potential (at least on paper) as other UT attacks of the past.
But Tennessee still has a lot of talent returning to a defense that actually finished tied with Alabama for third nationally.
Still, it says here, the streak will end in Lexington. Big Blue fans world-wide will give thanks. Hey – it has to end some time. Doesn’t it? (UK Record: 8-4)
It might be the Outback; it might be the Peach. Wherever it is, indoors or out, it’ll be warm. And the competition will be hot. With bigger bids come better opponents, which is why the Cats could finish 8-5 again, for the third time in four years.
But with a trip to, say, Tampa in their rearview mirrors, Wildcat fans will fully immerse themselves in basketball with happy memories of the 2009 football season.
It could happen…
(Former WKYT Sports Manager Dick Gabriel is a 20-year veteran of the UK radio and TV networks. He reports from the sidelines during Wildcat football games on the Big Blue Sports Radio Network. He can be heard each evening from 6-8 p.m. ET on “Sports Nightly,” on 630 WLAP-AM.)