Swing Games, Once Again, Will Dictate Fortunes of Football Cats

In 2009 the football Wildcats finally pulled off the kind of victories their fans have been waiting to see since, well, since the ‘70s in one case and the ‘60s in another.

Kentucky pulled off Southeastern Conference upsets of Georgia (first one on the road since 1977) and Auburn (first win of any kind over AU since 1966).

And still, the regular season worksheet ended at 7-5 – again. A victory over Mississippi State (not as simple as it seems) would have nudged the Cats to that elusive 8-4 mark they’ve been trying to reach since 1984.

Can they get there this season? This is how it looks from one vantage point:

Sept. 4, Papa John ‘s Cardinal Stadium
Last Year: UK, 31-27

Kentucky did well to hang on for the victory in 2009, but managed to make plays on offense, defense and with special teams. It will take a similar effort this year, unlike the road victory in ’08, when the defense scored two touchdowns against the Cards and did not yield a point.

It’ll be the head coaching debut both for Joker Phillips and Charlie Strong, who often talked of working together when one or the other landed a top job. Little did they know they’d end up working 80 miles apart, facing each other in their first respective games.

The Cards are thin virtually everywhere, except for offensive line. And they do have a pair of quality rushers in Bilal Powell and Victor Anderson.

Phillips is working with more talent on his roster, one he had a major hand in building through his recruiting efforts. Strong made a quick impression on recruits but has far more holes to fill.

Sept. 11, Lexington
Last Year – DNP

Another first-year head coach, Willie Taggert, is trying to revive a team that lost every game last season. True, the Hilltoppers have struggled since moving up to Division I, but they gave up more than 60 points in back-to-back games last year – no, not to traditional powers, but to North Texas State and Middle Tennessee.

This season, WKU opens up at Nebraska and could come limping into Commonwealth Stadium. Taggert has nowhere near the talent on this team that surrounded him the year he quarterbacked the Toppers to the 1-AA national championship. He has switched his team to the West Coast offense, which sound like fun, but is a demanding and rigid system. It will be a real test for sophomore quarterback Kawaun Jakes, who subbed for starter Brandon Smith last season when Smith went down with an injury. Jakes threw for 276 yards in his first start (against Navy).

Taggert will restore some glory in Bowling Green (eventually) but the red towels won’t be flying by the time the Blue Nation is in the rearview mirror.

Sept. 18, Lexington
Last Year – DNP

This is the kind of game that makes season ticket holders either grind their teeth, or play hero with their neighbors by giving away their seats. But it’s vital to the growth of a team still in transition, such as Kentucky.

It will mark the third consecutive week the Cats will face a team with a new head coach. J.D. Brookhart took over for Lee Owens, who had three winning seasons in his last five years, including a 7-5 mark in 2009, but still got canned. Blowing a 17-7 lead to Temple, which scored the game’s last 49 points, didn’t help.

Patrick Nicely and Matt Rodgers each saw time at quarterback last season, but in order to build depth, Brookhart took out an ad in the student paper, asking for anyone who had experience playing QB. Student coach Tim Zett, who last played in ’05, ended up re-joining the team.

The Zips won only three games last season and don’t figure to top that total this year.

Sept. 25, Gainesville
Last Year: Florida, 41-7

The Gators last year had a pretty good quarterback (can’t seem to recall his name) but he’s gone now; John Brantley inherits the position. His experience in ‘09 took a sudden jump, coincidentally enough, when that other guy took a wicked hit in the UK game and left with a concussion.

Brantley will be well-schooled by Urban Meyer, and by the time the Cats visit The Swamp, he’ll have three full games as a starter under his pads, including a trip to (and presumably a win over) down-trodden Tennessee.

But as always, Florida is about far more than just the guy taking snaps. When Meyer first arrived, he was unhappy (and remained as such for three seasons) with his running backs. Not so now. Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey make his smile a lot.

Of concern to the Gators is the personnel losses to their receiving corps, including wideout Riley Cooper and tight end Aaron Hernandez, the nation’s best at his position last season.

Mike Pouncey anchors an offensive line that is deep and experienced, but their counterparts on defense lost a lot of talent as well. The defensive backfield also said goodbye to All-America corner Joe Haden.

Still, the Gators have re-loaded. And it’s tough to win at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, where in the last 10 seasons, UF is 56-9.

Oct. 2, Oxford
Last Year: DNP

Kentucky’s chances at a road win improved immensely on Aug. 31, when the NCAA ruled that transfer quarterback Jeremiah Massoli would not be eligible to play in 2010. Ole Miss will appeal, but if that fails, Houston Nutt will have to get creative with his offense.
Quarterback Jevan Snead and tailback Dexter McCluster, who set a school record with 282 rushing yards against Tennessee, are gone, and most of the candidates to step in are all young or new (including JUCO quarterback Randall Mackey). The Rebs return tailback Brandon Bolden, last year’s second-leading rusher.

On defense, they said goodbye to ends Greg Hardy (and his 26 career sacks) and Marcus Tillman. But three starters do return, along with JUCO stud Wayne Dorsey.

If the Wildcats are healthy and executing proficiently at this point in the season, the Rebel fans who started the day with a party in The Grove might be back in the trees by early evening, drowing their sorrows.

Oct. 9, Lexington
Last Year: UK, 21-14

Kentucky last season rallied for a pair of fourth-quarter scores to stun the Tigers, who were still adjusting under first-year coach Gene Chizik. It might have been the finest hour for the UK defense, which limited the high-octane Auburn attack. It won’t be so simple this season.

Tailback Ben Tate, who rushed for more than 1,300 yards last year, has moved on, and so has starting QB Chris Todd. Tate will be missed. Todd, not so much. And if Cameron Newton plays to his JUCO form, the Kentucky defense could be back on its heels. The Tigers still have tailback Mario Fannin, who averaged 8.4 yards every time he touched the football.

The defensive line returns a total of 26 starts, although it lost Antonio Coleman to the NFL. Their linebacking corps includes just one scholarship backup.
The Auburn offense will play at a pace the Cats will not have seen all year and might not see again. It will severely test Kentucky’s inexperienced linebackers.

This was a team last year that led eventual national champion Alabama 14-0 before falling in the Iron Bowl, 26-21. One prognosticator has Auburn 11-0 going into the Nov. 26 rematch with the Crimson Tide.
WINNER: Auburn

Oct. 16, Lexington
Last Year: USC, 28-26

Perhaps more than the Mississippi State game, this was the One That Got Away from the Wildcats last year. Kentucky was dictating the terms in Columbia, leading 17-14 at the half, with Mike Hartline playing his best football as a Wildcat. It appeared as though two streaks would come to an end: Kentucky hasn’t beaten USC since 1999, and the Wildcats have NEVER beaten Steve Spurrier.

But Hartline went down, and so did UK’s shot at ending the frustration. The Cats get the Gamecocks in Lexington this season, but that assures little, as Spurrier returns 15 starters.

Stephen Garcia is back at QB, but Spurrier, as usual, played mind games with his starter throughout the spring and up to the opener. SC returns its top four rushers as well, although Kenny Miles was the leader with only 625 yards. Keep an eye out for freshman tailback Marcus Lattimore, rated by some as the top high school running back in the country last year.

South Carolina has a new offensive line coach, as Spurrier seeks improvement from a unit that gave up 34 sacks last season, and was last in the league in rushing.

The defense loses All-America linebacker Eric Norwood, but returns talented D-lineman Cliff Matthews, along with seven of its top eight defensive backs from last year.

Still, for all it had happening last season, the ‘Cocks underachieved, finishing 7-6, including the two-point win over Kentucky and a four-point victory over Vanderbilt. Without dramatic improvement, it says here, the two streaks end this season in Lexington. But the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. So…
WINNER: South Carolina

Oct. 23, Lexington
Last Year: UK, 34-27

The loss to Kentucky last year didn’t create the wave of complaints about Georgia coach Mark Richt, but it did serve as a catalyst. Even though Richt has won 10 or more games in seven of his first eight seasons (including two SEC titles), Bulldog fans were screaming for blood.

What UK fans need to remember is the loss to the Wildcats was the only setback for Georgia in its last five games. Even so, Richt shook up his coaching staff and hired a new defensive coordinator. Todd Grantham has overseen UGA’s shift to a 3-4 defense which, if it includes the right personnel and is executed properly, can wreak havoc with any offense.

The Dawgs hurt themselves last year by turning the ball over and, worse than that, not forcing nearly enough. The flopped onto only two enemy fumbles all of last season.

One of the biggest obstacles before the Georgia offense is the NCAA. As of three days before the opener, Richt and company still had no idea if star receiver A.J. Green, who is under investigation for reasons nobody will divulge, will be available.

Georgia’s offensive triggerman will be Aaron Murray, a redshirt freshman, and his backup is a true freshman, Hutson Mason. They’ll play secure in the knowledge that the offensive line, which returns all five starters, gave up a league-low five sacks last season.

Richt has pledged to run the ball more this season. The Dawgs will have to. Especially if Green remains on the sideline.

Oct. 30, Starkville
Last Year: Mississippi State, 31-24

Since 2006, the visiting team has won this matchup and in three of those four seasons, a bowl bid has hung in the balance for the winning team. It might play out again that way, but the Bulldogs have improved under second-year coach Dan Mullen, a former offensive coordinator at Florida.

His infectious energy has rubbed off on the MSU fans and players. Not only did the Dogs beat Kentucky last season, they nearly stunned LSU and then shellacked arch-rival Mississippi in the Egg Bowl.

All-SEC tailback Anthony Dixon, who strafed the UK defense for 252 rushing yards in ’09, is gone, but Mullen has two talented quarterbacks and likely will use both. Chris Relf is a better runner than Tyler Russell, who throws the ball better than Relf. This gives Mullen the same sort of option Florida had during Meyer’s first season, with Chris Leake and Tim Tebow (Ah! THAT’S the guy Brantley is replacing at Florida...)

MSU has experience in both the offensive and defensive lines, including JUCO transfer James Carmon at defensive tackle. He stands 6-foot-7, 345 lbs. (and with those numbers, he can stand wherever he wants). State is expected to have its best run defense in the last four or five years.

This could be Kentucky’s turn again, but even in victory, the Wildcats have struggled in this series.
WINNER: Mississippi State

Nov. 6, Lexington
Last Year: DNP

The Buccaneers, members of the Big South Conference, play in what used to be Division 1-AA. Last season, they dropped their season opener at Florida, 62-3, but still finished with a 6-5 record, third in their league. The Bucs, and coach Jay Miller, are the winningest team and coach, respectively, in the young history of the Big South.

This is another one of those grind-your-teeth games for season ticket holders, but it should delight Kentucky’s backups. The Wildcats figure to romp, and Joker Phillips should be able to empty his bench.

Nov. 13, Lexington
Last Year: UK, 24-13

New head coach Robbie Caldwell claims he was shocked when his old boss, Bobby Johnson, walked into Caldwell’s office in the middle of summer and told the offensive line coach that he was retiring on the spot. That left Caldwell as the interim head coach and, soon after, Vandy removed the “interim” part of his title.

Johnson’s final team last season finished 2-10, with a lot of players back from the 2008 squad that won the Music City Bowl, right down the street from the Commodores’ campus. Perhaps Johnson sized up this year’s squad and decided to get out while the bowl victory was still something of a happy memory.

The ‘Dores do have experience, with 12 of their 22 starters listed as juniors. But you have to wonder about the confidence of a team that went winless in the SEC last year and averaged only nine points per game in league play.

Vandy does feature perhaps the most exciting player in the conference, sophomore Warren Norman. Last year, Norman broke Herschel Walker’s SEC record for all-purpose yards as a freshman (1.941) and was named conference Freshman of the Year. He returns kicks and punts, catches passes and runs the ball and will have to do all of that extremely well for the Commodores to have any chance at returning to post season play.

Vandy was poor at stopping the run last season and lost two starters from the front line. Perhaps younger players will make the most of their opportunities to play.

Nov. 27, Knoxville
Last Year: UT, 30-24 (OT)

Lane Kiffin shocked the Big Orange faithful when he fled Rocky Top for the Left Coast. The move to hire Derek Dooley could pay dividends in the future, and Kiffin’s timing might actually have been a blessing.

The NCAA is sniffing around Tennessee’s recruiting under Kiffin, so he might have been short-time, anyway. And if you’re going to change coaches, you may as well do it before a season where you have to virtually start over.
Gone is quarterback Jonathan Crompton, who threw for 2,800 yards and 27 touchdowns, with only 13 interceptions. The Vols also have to replace their top two rushers and their ENTIRE offensive line, including tackle Aaron Douglas, a freshman All-American last year who quit the squad in the spring.

At least Tennessee returns its top three receivers, including tight end Luke Stocker, a native of Berea who chose the Orange over the Blue.

The defense lost first-team All-America safety Eric Berry and All-SEC performer Rico McCoy, not to mention defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, who followed his son to Southern Cal.

Dooley, the son of former legendary Georgia coach Vince Dooley, grew up in the south and was weaned on SEC football. If he can jump-start the program, Dooley could be a lifer at Tennessee. But if EVER there was a season the Wildcats could end their 25-game losing skid to UT, it’s this one.

So, there it is. A regular-season record of 8-4, with a chance to win at least two more (Auburn, Mississippi State) and drop a couple more (Georgia, Ole Miss), not to mention the yearly attempt to end the futility that has become the Tennessee “rivalry.”

What do you say we re-visit the season in, say, three months, as we all prepare for a bowl game in Florida?

(Former WKYT Sports Manager Dick Gabriel is a 21-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.)

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