The problem with projecting this year’s UK football fortunes is that there is so much mystery about this team at so many positions. It's really scary because I sense that not even the coaches know what type of production they are going to get out of some players offensively, and that's where points are put on the board.
The few fleeting years of moderate success that UK has put on the field both in the recent five years as well as the few winning teams prior have been for the most part offensive oriented teams.
My point here is that the history of UK football shows that if they don't have some semblance of ability to put points on the board they struggle mightily in the end to a losing record.
However, I will give credit where it is deserved. I think Joker Phillips started a resurgence in UK football recruiting a couple years ago, and across the roster the Cats have a better quality of a football player in the main departments of size, speed, quickness, strength and athleticism. They still just don't have enough of them, plus the program has not had a premier player at QB since Andre Woodson graduated.
Even with the upgrade in talent at several positions, it's still painfully apparent the rest of the SEC has gone to another level of talent as well. UK still has a lot of players in their program that they have to spend two or sometimes three years on in the Nutter Center in order to get a couple of productive years out of them at Commonwealth Stadium. The rest of the conference's elite programs just keep reloading with four and five star players each season.
Defensively, UK probably will be better than the last two years because they return more players with experience and will reap the benefits of hard work. Collins Ukwu, Mister Cobble, Donte Rumph, Ridge Wilson, Ronnie Sneed, Martavious Neolms, Randall Burden and Mark Crawford are all better football players than they were last year and the year before, but now Joker has to rebuild the offense. Until UK can get both sides of the ball well seasoned with veterans, it will be close but no cigar on anything other than a break-even season.
The final area of concern to me is the SEC rotating schedule. Many times it's not as much about your own team as it is your opponent and catching them at the right time. UK is finishing up a two-year stint this fall of having Ole Miss, Mississippi St., Vanderbilt, and a still mediocre Tennessee all on the schedule at the same time. Check your past 40 years of UK football. It's rare to have both Mississippi schools on the schedule at the same time in consecutive years with Vanderbilt.
UK may have wasted a two-year window of opportunity of having the three other sisters of the poor by SEC standards on the schedule.
Next year the Cats will probably peak out defensively and be much better offensively but the SEC schedule is murder and the Cats will play Louisville in dangerous Papa Johns in 2012. But that's next year. Let's weigh in on the present and see if we can pull a surprise or two:
Sept. 1-WKU (Nashville) Don't chalk this up so quickly. Remember the running back that gashed UK for over 150 yards last year? Well, he's back. We'll find out real quickly how far Rick Minter has brought the Cats’ run defense. Barring a turnover marred game by WKU the Cats should pull away in the 2nd half. UK 30-10
Sept. 10-Central Michigan The new video jumbotron scoreboards and ribbon boards will be unveiled, but don't get too excited because it's a day game. You won't get the true effect until the next week when the Cats and Cards tangle. Luckily for the Cats, Central Michigan has had some off-the-field problems with a couple prime time defensive players who reportedly will be absent for their first three games. UK 34-14
Sept. 17-Louisville This will be a dog fight and at times a real ugly fight, kind of like a bunch of mules fighting over the last turnip in the garden. I'll say UK wins this one because, well, they won't fumble or throw away the turnip as much as the Cards. UK 24-20
Sept. 24-Florida Urban Meyer didn't leave Gainseville because of health reasons, he left because their was no longer enough premier talent to win national championships, but there is plenty enough left to beat the Cats. Florida 30-10
Oct. 1 - L.S.U. It appears the Cajuns in their own unique celebratory way have come out of the gate with a little off-the-field player controversy to deal with. Won't matter by the time UK arrives in Death Valley at Tiger Stadium for a night game. Les Miles himself can quarterback that team of studs to a win over UK. LSU 38-10
Oct. 8-South Carolina Don't think for a minute that the old ball coach has forgot last year nor softened any in his senior years. My guess is that Marcus Lattimore is the best running back in the SEC, Alshon Jeffries is the best receiver, and don't be surprised if the Gamecocks controversial QB Steven Garcia puts up the best numbers of his career this year and leads the Cocks to a BCS bowl. South Carolina 40-13
Oct. 22-Jacksonville State Cats will get a well-earned week off after that three week SEC gauntlet run against Gators, Bayou Bengals, and Gamecocks, plus it's homecoming. Cats will get back on winning note with their best offensive performance to date. UK 40-7
Oct. 29-Mississippi State This is where this season turns sour. I want to pick UK because it's at home, I really do, but the history of the program tells me there is always one win that gets away each year, and this year it's the Bulldogs of the maroon and white variety. Mississippi State 17-14
Nov. 5-Ole Miss By the time the Johnny Rebs get to Commonwealth Stadium, their coach Houston Nutt may have been run out of Oxford, Miss. It wouldn't matter anyway. This is one of three teams in conference that UK may be better than across the board and the comfort of Commonwealth Stadium won't produce the mistakes of last year. UK 27-13
Nov. 12-Vanderbilt This may be the last year that UK can beat Vandy in Nashville for a few years. Don't laugh because times are about to get better in Music City. This one will be in doubt until the last few minutes but for some reason UK has had their number most of the last 10 years. UK 28-24
Nov. 19-Georgia Mark Richt in my opinion is the most criticized and under appreciated coach in the SEC by his own fan base. He's also the nicest coach, plus his morals and integrity are unquestioned. Unfortunately, his days may be numbered by the time this part of the season rolls around unless super freshman running back Isaiah Crowell has a banner year. Won't matter for UK though, because UGA V111 can lead the rest of the gang to this victory between the hedges. Georgia 34-17
Nov. 26-Tennessee We arrive on Thanksgiving holidays weekend once again with the Cats in need of a win to build a better bowl resume. Won't happen they'll screw it up some way, and it may be the last year for a possible win against the Vols, especially in Lexington, but never fear, Cal’s Cats will be rolling by this time. As a matter of fact, if memory serves me right I think Big Blue Nation will be able to drift across town to Rupp Arena and get the bad football taste out of their mouth before the sun goes down. Tennessee 27-24 (OT)
There you have it 6-6, by the skin of the Cat, but there won't be a return trip to Birmingham and the BBVA Compass Bowl. Not after last year’s embarrassing attendance. The conference office will send a rebuilding Auburn or mediocre Mississippi State, anybody but UK and aren't we all thankful. I do see a return trip to Memphis and the Liberty Bowl against a Houston or maybe Southern Mississippi.
Bottom line is I think Joker is backing himself into a corner by making these bold predictions about conference championships, and I'm concerned because I like him and I think he brings a passion to coach UK football that no one else has ever had or will have. But in this day and age you have to put a few conference wins on the board before you start talking championships, and time is precious when athletic directors have super donors and fan bases breathing down their necks on a daily basis.
In the perfect world, UK would stop the streak against UT and not stub their toe against Mississippi State and go 8-4 with a nice trip to Jacksonville, Fla. for the Gator Bowl or a trip to the Georgia Dome in Atlanta for the Chick-Fil-A Bowl. But you must also keep in mind that those wins I predicted against Louisville, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt could just as easily all be in the loss column, then we would have a whole different scenario, especially for one Joker Phillips.