It’s inaccurate to say the honeymoon is over for Joker Phillips. That’s because he never had one.
The man who was hailed the conquering hero when he first took over as offensive coordinator for Ron Hudson (prior to the Tennessee game in 2004) became one of the nation’s hottest coaching properties after 2007. That was the season that saw the Wildcats throw for 250 yards per game and run for another 150.
In fact, Phillips’ work had become so impressive that it caught the eye of Bob Stoops, head coach at Oklahoma. Stoops already was familiar with Phillips, who was on Bill Curry’s staff when Stoops was the defensive coordinator at Florida.
In need of an injection of energy in the Sooner offense, Stoops made Phillips an offer the UK assistant decided to accept. That’s when Rich Brooks got busy. Brooks convinced then-president Lee Todd to make the financial commitment to Phillips it would take to keep Phillips on staff as head-coach-in-waiting.
Designating assistants as future head coaches hadn’t necessarily swept through college football, but it wasn’t all that common, either. Sometimes it works smoothly, as it did, ultimately, at Kentucky. And sometimes it boils into a real mess (See: West Virginia, University of).
But what it does everywhere is rob the new man of his sizzle. It’s not even the same as promoting from within, because there is no surprise element within the process. Zero. No water cooler talk of the new guy who suddenly appeared on the horizon, ready to rescue a doddering program from its doldrums, or take a moderately successful one to that elusive “next level.”
Had Phillips taken over as head coach following the ’07 season, the arms that greeted him might have been open a tad wider. Ever since Andre’ Woodson and his talented receivers moved on, the UK offense hasn’t been nearly as potent, or exciting. The same fans who leaped to their feet in Commonwealth Stadium after touchdown grabs by Keenan Burton, Stevie Johnson and Jacob Tamme, now were craning their necks, trying to peer into the UK coaches’ booth, hoping to catch a glimpse of the man who just called the play that went awry.
Over the next couple of seasons, the Cats were nearly as successful (the bowl game streak IS still intact), just not as sexy. And now the OC who, in the eyes of some fans, seems to have lost his mojo, is in charge. And his first season was unsatisfying, to say the least.
Oh, there was the upset win over eventual SEC East champion South Carolina, not to mention the heroic effort in the last-second loss to Auburn. The Cats did knock off Louisville again, too. But losses to the two Mississippi schools and Tennessee represented potential victories that, during Brooks’ tenure, seemed to be finding their way into the win column with more regularity. And the Cats laid an egg in the Compass Bowl, easily the least-impressive post-season stop in the streak.
Minus any sort of grace period (as well as Randall Cobb and Derrick Locke), Phillips and his overhauled staff now take aim at a schedule that sets up for what could be a run that leaves the Big Blue Nation giddy. But inexperience at receiver and running back, a new starting quarterback and a revamped defensive scheme add up to question marks that have kept the fan base wondering if the Wildcats can move out of the six-win neighborhood into splashier digs. It says here, they can.
Western Kentucky – Sept. 1 – Nashville
The Hilltoppers feature tailback Bobby Rainey, who showed UK fans last season just how explosive he can be, ripping off a 59-yard TD run against the Wildcats. UK went on to win, 63-28, with Locke rushing for 102 yards and Cobb catching five passes for 98 and two scores, as well as throwing for another. Kentucky should prevail at its home-away-from-home (LP Field, site of UK’s two Music City Bowl victories), but the victory might not come as easily as it did in 2010. (Result – W. Record – 1-0)
Central Michigan – Sept. 10 – Lexington
The Chippewas return to Commonwealth Stadium for the first time since 2006, when a future NFL quarterback named Dan LeFevour threw a scare into the Cats and their fans. CMU isn’t nearly as talented as it was then, coming off a 3-9 season, but the Chips return explosive receiver Cody Wilson, who racked up more than 1,000 yards in catches last year and was a terror on punt returns. Still, UK should be successful in its home opener. (W – 2-0)
Louisville – Sept. 17 – Lexington
Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Bedford couldn’t contain his enthusiasm when he took to the podium on media day earlier this week. “We’re comin’ after you,” he said. “We’re comin’ after anybody out there… We’re rollin’. We got it rollin.’ It’s like I tell people, ‘Get on the train right now. If you’re in the way, we’re gonna roll right through you.’ “
The Cards and their fans no doubt loved his enthusiasm, but is words spoke more to the future of the program – and not the immediate future. Head coach Charlie Strong saw 27 seniors leave the program, which had shown signs of progress during his first season at the helm. U of L wrapped up 2010 with a victory in the Beef O’Brady Bowl. But the Cardinals also said good-bye to All-Big East tailback Bilal Powell, and his 1,400 rushing yards. Victor Anderson should help pick up that slack, but U of L, which, under Bobby Petrino, had cranked out a string of talented quarterbacks, likely will start former walk-on Will Stein at the QB spot. The Cards lost two starting cornerbacks and a lot of experience at linebacker as well, meaning the Cats should be able to start the season 3-0. (W – 3-0)
Florida – Sept. 24 – Lexington
This is the year the second-longest losing streak in Division I football ends, according to some UK fans. The Cats haven’t beaten the Gators since 1986, and Florida will come to town with a brand new head coach and a new offensive scheme. But here’s the thing – it’s still Florida, with a roster overflowing with four- and five-star athletes.
First-year head coach Will Muschamp has been known for his defensive chops, from the time he was a young defensive coordinator at Valdosta State, working for ex-UK assistant Chris Hatcher. He honed his craft under Nick Saban at LSU and Mack Brown at Texas, before getting the chance to move to Gainesville.
And yes, the Gators have abandoned the spread attack favored by Urban Meyer, installing a pro-style attack coordinated by Charlie Weis. For whatever problems he had as head coach at Notre Dame, Weis has shown a flair for calling plays and developing quarterbacks. John Brantley struggled in Meyer’s system (much the way Chris Leake did, prior to the emergence of Tim Tebow) but he should be much more comfortable under Weis. And, when in doubt, he can hand off to Jeff Demps, one of the fastest players in the NCAA.
If the Cats have improved each week up to this point, they’ll have a chance to pull the upset. But it’s still Florida. (L – 3-1)
LSU – Oct. 1 – Baton Rouge
The turning point for the Wildcats in 2006 was a 49-0 loss at LSU. When Rich Brooks got home that night, he called a close friend and half-jokingly asked if he knew of anyone who might want to buy his house. As we all know, the Cats bounced back and went on to a bowl victory. But the LSU team Kentucky faced that night on the bayou was talented, strong and fast – much like the team the Cats will encounter on their first conference road trip. And what a place for a young, inexperienced UK team to get its first taste of life on the road in the SEC.
Head coach Les Miles by then will have figured out if Jordan Jefferson is the answer at quarterback. Jefferson has been just inconsistent enough in his two years as a starter to leave the door open for a challenger at the position, but so far no one has managed to take the job.
The Tigers also lost leading receiver Terrence Toliver, along with five starters on defense, but they’re being touted as the one team that could challenge Alabama in the SEC West. It could be another long night in Baton Rouge for the Wildcats. (L – 3-2)
South Carolina – Oct. 8 – Columbia
The Wildcats finally got The Visor last season, beating Steve Spurrier for the very first time. Mike Hartline was 32-of-42 with no interceptions and four touchdown passes, including the game-winner to Cobb with 75 seconds left in the game. It was one of eight catches for Cobb; wide receiver Chris Matthews had a career night with 12 grabs, good for 177 yards and a touchdown. Donald Russell caught seven balls for 70 yards. Trouble is, they’re all gone. And USC returns all of its big offensive guns.
Marcus Lattimore might be the best tailback in the league this season, with due respect to Alabama’s Trent Richardson. With the departure of ‘Bama’s Julio Jones and Georgia’s A.C. Green to the NFL, Alshon Jeffrey assumes the mantle of top pass-catcher in the league. And senior Stephen Garcia, fresh from his fifth suspension, returns at quarterback.
The defense should be better than the offense, despite the fact that the Gamecocks lost five starters. Returning is All-SEC defensive end Devin Taylor, along with All-SEC corner Stephon Gilmore. And if that’s not enough, Spurrier signed South Carolina prep All-American Jadeveon Clowney, the most highly-coveted defensive recruit in the country.
Kentucky pulled the upset last year in Commonwealth but SC will be out for revenge in Columbia. (L – 3-3)
Jacksonville State – Oct. 22 – Lexington
Athletics directors schedule games like this to make money. It’s a home game they don’t have to return. Coaches want games like this to create confidence among their players – and Phillips likely will need it this week, coming off matchups with three straight Top 25 opponents.
For the second straight week, the Cats will be facing Gamecocks; these guys are from Alabama, and they feature a lot of home-grown talent. JSU was picked to win the Ohio Valley Conference after finishing second last year. Senior quarterback Marques Ivory is a danger, after completing 60 percent of his passes for more than 2,200 yards and 18 touchdowns last season. Four of his top six receivers are gone, but the Gamecocks still have leading rusher Calvin Middleton.
On defense, the Cats will have to contend with Montae’ Lewis, a first-team All-OVC tackle last year. With Lewis in the lineup for the past three seasons, JSU has gone 25-9. But Kentucky figures to have just as much speed and more depth, which should lead to a confidence-building performance on Homecoming Saturday. (W – 4-3)
Mississippi State – Oct. 29 – Lexington
MSU represents the first of two “swing” games for the Cats, and they’re both in Commonwealth Stadium. For each of the past five seasons, the matchup with the Bulldogs has been pivotal for both teams. State got the best of the Cats last year in Starkville, in a game Kentucky could have, and maybe SHOULD have, won. With Locke still sidelined by injury, UK couldn’t muster any kind of a rushing attack, producing just 89 yards on the ground. MSU ground out 214 rushing yards and made a fourth-quarter TD with nearly 11 minutes left stand up in a 24-17 win.
Dan Mullen is in his third year in Starkville, after coming over from Meyer’s staff at Florida. Mullen was credited with helping to develop Tebow, and he’s done similar work with Chris Relf. The ‘Dogs quarterback returns for his senior season, following a year that saw him throw for 1,700 yards and rush for 700 more.
Defensively, State lost a lot of talent at linebacker but Brandon Maye, a transfer from Clemson, is eligible and could make an impact.
This could be the game where Rick Minter’s defensive approach begins to pay noticeable dividends. Kentucky needs to short-circuit Relf if it’s going to have any chance at stopping the Bulldogs. If UK can provide constant pressure on Relf with the 3-4, it could avenge last year’s loss. But MSU has become a difficult matchup for the Wildcats over the past few years. (L –4-4)
Mississippi – Nov. 5 – Lexington
The worst loss of the season last year came in Oxford, where the Cats turned it over three times and gave up more than 200 yards rushing to a mediocre Ole Miss team. It was the Rebels’ only SEC victory.
Whoever starts at quarterback for Houston Nutt will be inexperienced, but Brandon Bolden returns at tailback. He’s the seventh all-time school leader in rushing yards (including 976 last year) and second in rushing touchdowns. The Ole Miss defense lost six starters, although Nutt and his staff have worked at re-stocking the roster with primarly home-grown talent. Still, the Rebs should not be able to leave Commonwealth with a victory. (W 5-4)
Vanderbilt – Nov. 12 – Nashville
Kentucky has inched out to a 41-38-4 lead in a series that seemed to go back-and-forth each year. The Wildcats clobbered the Commodores, 38-20 last season. But again, it was Cobb doing a majority of the damage, rushing for 170 yards and two touchdowns, and catching three passes for 56 more. Locke ran for 145 yards and two scores. The ‘Dores had answers for neither. By the time they square off, Kentucky should have answers to the questions surrounding its offense.
Vandy does have talent, including explosive runner Warren Norman at tailback and in the return game. But first-year head coach James Franklin didn’t find much stock on the cupboards when he arrived in the Music City. (W – 6-4)
Georgia – Nov. 19 – Athens
Kentucky wasted a big day by Hartline in the loss to Georgia last season. The senior QB threw for 353 yards and four touchdowns. But he threw one pick to go along with the three fumbles the Wildcats coughed up in the 44-31 loss.
Aaron Murray only threw 12 times (completing nine) against the Cats; he figures to do more damage this year for a Georgia team squarely under the gun. Two seasons ago, Mark Richt felt the pressure after his team stumbled to an 8-5 season. In 2010, the Dogs staggered to 6-7. The only thing that might play into Kentucky’s favor is the fact that the UGA faces Aubun the week before it plays the Wildcats, and Georgia Tech the week after. (L – 6-5)
Tennessee – Nov. 26 – Lexington
Easily the most disappointing loss of the 2010 season, Kentucky missed a grand opportunity to end the nation’s longest losing skid, one team to another, by falling in Knoxville, 24-14. UK fans can still see the fumble in the end zone as Locke and Hartline misconnected on a handoff that could have led to a 14-0 lead.
If this is to be the year the Cats finally get it done, they’ll have to figure out quarterback Tyler Bray. A backup for the first eight games, Bray stepped in and led the Volunteers to four straight wins, including the decision over Kentucky. Bray lit up the Cats for 353 passing yards, although the Vols lost their top three receivers to graduation. But returning at tailback is Tauren Poole, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards last season.
Defensively, Tennessee returns its leading tackler, linebacker Herman Lathers; free safety Prentice Waggner (five interceptions, third on the team in tackles with 57) and defensive tackle Malik Jackson. The transfer from Southern California was an impact player last year and is the focal point of the UT defense.
Is this FINALLY the year? Conventional wisdom says, “No. Keep picking Tennessee until somehow, some way, the streak ends.” But what’s the fun in that? (W – 7-5)
So there you have it – seven victories and another bowl trip to Nashville or Memphis. But if the Cats are coming off a win over the Vols, the Big Blue Nation will take it. Gladly.
(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.)