Posing the question takes but a second or two: “Can Joker survive?” And we’ve heard it all summer. The answer will take about a dozen weeks to present itself – more or less. That’s a long time, but fear not - we’re here to answer your queries before they inflate the first football.
A surprising victory here or there will quiet the speculation about Phillips’ immediate future. Every loss will re-double the pressure, although UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart has told anyone willing to listen that a definitive number of victories is not required. He just wants to see “progress.”
In 2005, the Wildcats, plagued with a befuddling number of crippling injuries, won just three games under Rich Brooks. But Barnhart saw effort on the field, and chemistry off it, leading to a decision to retain Brooks. It paid off with four straight bowl appearances before Brooks stepped down, and Phillips took over.
Unfortunately for the new head coach, the last two recruiting classes to sign with Brooks (2008-09) produced few play-makers and were riddled with attrition, leading to an oddly balanced roster for Phillips has this year. What few older players that are still around are solid leaders, but most of the talent is evident among the sophomores and redshirt freshmen – virtually all unproven commodities.
It will come down this season to the “swing games,” as usual, but aside from the opener, a scheduling imbalance makes Kentucky a longshot when it comes to the prospects for a winning season. Three of the four opponents UK faces in “winnable” games this season will have an extra week to prepare for the Wildcats. (See: http://bigblueinsider.com/2012/08/sec-schedule-maker-another-potential-obstacle-between-football-cats-and-success/)
So, how will it play out? Here is one typist’s opinion:
@Louisville, Sept. 2
Only a touchdown separated the arch-rivals last season in Commonwealth Stadium, and if not for a late Kentucky fumble near the goal line, the result might have been reversed.
Now the Cardinals get the Wildcats at the Big Slice, with a chance to grind salt in the wound. Louisville was installed during the summer as a 14-point favorite, no doubt because of the 25th-ranked Cardinals’ status as the favorites to win the Big East championship.
Two years ago, the Cats rolled into town and struck early, with big plays by Mike Hartline, Randall Cobb and Derrick Locke. The defense made stops when it had to as well, and Kentucky left town with a 23-16 victory.
It’s not impossible for that to happen again, but nobody on the UK offense has shown yet that he’s a consistent, big-play guy. And the departure of last year’s best players, Danny Travathan and Winston Guy, have left gaping holes in a 3-4 defense that features four new starters at linebacker and a defensive secondary that is wobbly at best.
If the Wildcats can contain quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, and force him into making mistakes, they could pull the upset. If not, Kentucky will begin the season in a hole, with much tougher games ahead.
Kent State, Sept. 8
Kent State returns 18 starters from a team that finished 5-7 last year under first-year coach Darrell Hazell. Mid-American Conference teams have come into Commonwealth Stadium and given the Wildcats trouble (’06, Central Michigan) and actually pulled off an upset (’79, Miami (O.), ’85, Bowling Green) but that won’t happen this year.
Western Kentucky, Sept. 15
The Hilltoppers proved to be a surprisingly tough Opening Night opponent last year in Nashville, although it was hard to discern if it was the poor offensive line play and dropped passes by the Wildcats, or execution by WKU.
Western Kentucky got off to a horrid start last year but closed in a rush, going 7-1 in the Sun Belt and finishing 7-5. However, all-conference workhorse rusher Bobby Rainey is gone to the NFL, and there’s nobody like him on the ‘Toppers’ roster.
@Florida, Sept. 22
The coaching carousel spins perpetually and you never know where it’s going to drop someone off. Gators head coach Will Muschamp made his bones as defensive coordinator first at LSU, then eventually at Texas. But his resume’ includes a stop at Valdosta State in 2000, where he worked as defensive coordinator under ex-UK graduate assistant Chris Hatcher (and the year before that, he was an assistant at Eastern Kentucky).
Muschamp’s staff at Florida features an offensive coordinator named Brent Pease. Sound familiar? It should. He spent two seasons in Lexington as the OC under Guy Morriss.
The Gators were an un-Florida-like 7-6 last season, 3-5 in the SEC (including a 48-10 win over Kentucky). But 19 starters are back, including 10 on defense. It’s unlikely the Cats will stop their long losing skid against the Gators (25 years) in Gainesville.
South Carolina, Sept. 29
A year after playing in the SEC Championship game, South Carolina fell short, finishing second in the division. USC was 11-2, but an inexplicable loss at home to Auburn ruined the Gamecocks’ chances at a return trip to Atlanta. They return only 13 starters, but that group includes tailback Marcus Lattimore, who might be the best in the league, and quarterback Connor Shaw, who is SC’s second-leading returning rusher as well.
South Carolina destroyed the Wildcats 54-3 last October; the classy Steve Spurrier never missing a chance to run up the score on UK. Perhaps he’s not aware Bill Curry no longer coaches here.
While Kentucky figures to be better, and highly motivated, it will take a monstrous effort to fight off a team whose defense features 6-foot-6, 256 lb. Jadeveon Clowney, the 2011 SEC Freshman of the Year. And with a thin, inexperienced UK defensive backfield, figure on the Ol’ Ball Coach to discover new ways to torture the Wildcat secondary.
South Carolina, 42-21
Mississippi State, Oct. 6
Dan Mullen’s 2011 team lost the games it was expected to lose, and won just enough to get to a bowl game (including a 28-16 decision in Lexington). The Bulldogs have the misfortune of playing in college football’s toughest division, so it’s doubtful they’ll improve much on their 2-6 record in the SEC West.
A scheduling quirk brings them back to Commonwealth Stadium this season, minus their offensive backfield and three of their five O-linemen. But on defense they return All-SEC DB Johnthan Banks, All-SEC offensive guard Gabe Jackson, outside linebacker Cameron Lawrence (2nd in the SEC in tackles); their offense does include versatile weapon Chad Bumpis.
MSU is a “swing” game every year for UK, but for the past three season, the pendulum has swung decidedly in the Dogs’ favor. Kentucky can’t let this opportunity get away. It will be especially tough, as State will have an extra week to prepare for the Cats. But if the Wildcats can survive back-to-back losses to Florida and South Carolina, they just might pull off what could figure to be a homefield upset.
@Arkansas, Oct. 13
Ever since John L. Smith bolted Louisville (the news broke in the middle of a bowl game) for Michigan State, his career has careened. Seen as a coaching star on the rise at U of L, Smith couldn’t get it done in four seasons in East Lansing. He became an assistant at Arkansas until December, 2011, when he accepted the job as head coach at Weber State. Less than five months later, he jilted the Wildcats and took the interim head coaching job back in Fayetteville, replacing motorcycle-riding lothario Bobby Petrino.
Smith inherited a Razorbacks team that rose to as high as third in the national rankings last season, but that was a squad that benefitted from the savvy play-calling of Petrino. It will be Paul Petrino, Bobby’s brother, calling plays this season. He might not be as sharp with a playbook as his brother, but he should be able to take advantage of the league’s best quarterback, Tyler Wilson (1st-team All-SEC) and surgically-repaired tailback Knile Davis to beat the Wildcats.
Georgia, Oct. 20
Most schools schedule Directional U or a bag of rocks as their homecoming opponent; the calendar (Keeneland fall meet, don’t you know) dictated that UK designate Georgia – only the best team in the SEC East.
Mark Richt staved off his critics again last year by finishing 7-1 in the division, earning the right to be annihilated in the SEC championship game by LSU. The Bulldogs lost their opener to Boise State, then a home game to South Carolina at the beginning of last season, before ripping off 10 straight wins. They open with Buffalo and then visit Missouri, so they figure to get off to a better start with an eye on the Oct. 6 rematch at USC.
Kentucky follows the Gamecocks on the UGA schedule and, ordinarily, that could be a plus. The Wildcats gave Georgia everything it could handle down in Athens last year and might have come upon an unfocused UGA team. But there’s an open date before the Dawgs visit the Bluegrass state, so it’s unlikely the Cats will be able to pull off a Homecoming surprise.
@Missouri, Oct. 27
The football Wildcats are facing a new conference member for the first time since 1992, when they beat South Carolina, 13-9. That was at Commonwealth Stadium. They play Missouri in Columbia, where the Tigers last season spilled Texas and Texas Tech on successive weekends, part of a four-game winning streak to end an 8-5 season. Dual threat QB James Franklin is back, as is receiver T.J. Moe (1st-team All-Big 12 in 2010).
Big Blue fans have this one in the “swing” category, and by the time this game rolls around, the young Wildcats will have played three games on the road (Louisville, Gainesville and Fayetteville), so a hostile environ won’t be a shock. But wouldn’t you know it – Mizzou has an open date before the Cats come to town.
Can Kentucky pull off the upset? It IS Missouri – so I say, “Show me.”
Vanderbilt, Nov. 3
For the second straight week, the Wildcats will have to deal with James Franklin. This time, it’s the energetic, second-year head coach of the Commodores, who led Vandy to a 6-7 record and a berth in the Liberty Bowl last season. Those six wins included a 38-8 destruction of Kentucky in Nashville.
The Cats get the ‘Dores in Lexington this time, and revenge no doubt will be a motivator. But it won’t be that easy. Dynamic runner Zac Stacy returns for Vanderbilt, off a single-season rushing record. He’s one of nine starters returning on offense, including quarterback Jordan Rodgers.
Vandy favors an unconventional spread-type of offense, which seems to give UK fits, as opposed to the pro-style used by teams like Georgia. A blowout is unlikely, but don’t be surprised if the Cats are underdogs – TO VANDY – on their home field this day.
Samford, Nov. 17
Samford provides the opposition on Senior Day, the last home date for the Wildcats, following an open week. The Bulldogs last year showed they have some talent, and they’re expected to contend in the Ohio Valley Conference.
But if the Wildcats are healthy, and still in one piece mentally at this point (which they were last year), Kentucky should duplicate the 38-14 pounding it administered in 2011.
@Tennessee, Nov. 26
Tennessee’s offense went to sleep during the second half of the season last year, scoring seven or fewer points in five of its last six SEC games. Of course, four of those opponents were LSU, Alabama, South Carolina and Arkansas. But the last one was Kentucky (10-7 loss).
What makes it even harder to understand is that the Volunteer attack begins with junior QB Tyler Bray who, after only 16 games at UT (he missed five as a soph with a broken thumb) already is seventh all-time in Knoxville with 35 touchdown passes and ninth in total passing yards.
His favorite target is already gone. Junior wideout Da’Rick Rogers has been dismissed from the team for disciplinary reasons, taking with him the stats that made him a 1st-team All-SEC selection in 2011. A remarkable 54 of his 67 catches last season went for first downs or touchdowns.
The Vol defense will feature linebacker A.J. Johnson, a consensus freshman All-American last year who made the second-most stops by a freshman in UT history, including a whopping 13 against Alabama.
Only head coach Derek Dooley’s seat is hotter than Joker Phillips’, and it was on Dooley’s watch that the winning streak against Kentucky came to an end. The Wildcats haven’t won back-to-back games against Tennessee since 1976-77, with two of the best teams UK has ever produced. This Kentucky team can’t begin to match those in talent – but, it says here, the Cats will match their winning streak by pulling off the upset.
That’s the way it looks from here: Five victories, including another win over the Orange in what will again have to pass for a bowl game for the Wildcats. And it won’t change much of anything; the haters will be screaming anew for Phillips’ head and his supporters will point to the difficulty of schedule and the fact that most people predicted only four wins or fewer for this Wildcat team.
As for Barnhart – he’ll see enough “progress” to bring Phillips and his staff back for the 2013 season, which will be preceded by another summer of speculation and predictions.
Let’s do this again real soon.
Dick Gabriel is in his 24th season with the UK TV and radio networks, and can be heard each Monday-Friday at 6 p.m. on The Big Blue Insider, on 630 WLAP-AM.