Can you feel it? Football is back in the Bluegrass – or at least in the neighborhood – as our beloved Wildcats come roaring into the 2009 season Saturday against Miami of Ohio at Paul Brown Stadium. In anticipation of this “Rumble at the River” (I guess “Damn, we shouldn’t have changed the Louisville game to week 3” was taken), we’re ushering back in the weekly football prognostication series known as “Previews, Predictions and Potty Humor”. This year, though we’ve matured like Chris Brown, we’re still looking to duplicate a strong 2008 campaign that saw accurate score guesses (within two points of the final score on 4 occasions), the foresight to go on-air and correctly guarantee a Gator title just minutes after they lost to Ole Miss and the never-ending support for all things Mike Hartline (which we now admit might have been a little much). But, since Tom Jurich isn’t writing this post, we’ll stop living in the past and get geared up for the future. And, my sweet UK fans, the future is now.
So, in the words of Mills Lane, Marvin Gaye and Rick Pitino….let’s get it on!
State of the Program: Kentucky
As we all know, the times are good around the Nutter Center these days. After three straight bowl wins, a promising recruiting class and not a sniff of any NCAA issues, Kentucky football has finally pulled itself out of the leper colony they seemed to settle down in following the Hal Mumme Era. This season, however, should be extremely pivotal in determining if our beloved heroes in blue are able to have sustained football success.
The Cats will likely never be a Florida or Georgia or LSU or even a Tennessee in terms of long-term national dominance and BCS glory. Football simply does not have a quick fix or one-year recruiting answer like basketball. Football, particularly in the SEC is like a long marathon and it takes years of strong recruiting and good player development – two areas where Kentucky is just stretching their quads and setting their watch. But, that’s not to say Kentucky cannot be competitive. At its best, Kentucky football will be a team that wins 7 0r 8 games every single year, with the chance to win 9 or 10 every five years or so. That’s how good football programs are built. And, to this point, Rich Brooks and his staff are doing one heck of a job of building the UK program to fit within this mold.
Brooks, who could be in his final season, has provided the steady hand and clear-cut plan for reviving the UK football program. Though sometimes coming off as stubborn with the depth chart and clearly enjoying the “it’s my way” attitude, he’s never been to inflexible to make changes to improve the program through coaching changes or philosophy. Now, as he enters his seventh season as Wildcat coach, the Great Tomato Connoissuer has a staff that’s as experienced and quality as, perhaps, any bunch in the SEC not reporting to a snot-nosed weasel. We all know about Joker Phillips, our beloved next head coach, and Steve Brown, our defensive genius hiding behind a mustache too small for his face, but Randy Sanders, offensive line coach Jimmy Heggins, running backs coach Larry Brinson and defensive line coach Rick Petri are regarded by peers as some of the best at their positions. These guys have served as the basis of the rebuilding and are all vital parts to achieving the continued success.
However, with only one 7-6 season removing them from a two-season dream run behind the star-studded senior class of 2007, it’s still too early to say whether or not the Cats are still on the permanent uptick or if they just caught some lightining in the bottle. Should this season’s more experienced and more prepared squad again take the Cats bowling, the fans will be happy. If they can steal a couple of wins against SEC power teams suffering through Bryan the Intern-like dry spells (Auburn and Tennessee), this season could be very special.
And, perhaps, therein will be the answer to the UK football future.
State of the Program: Miami of Ohio
Our fair opponents this week are tuned in like Timothy Leary to these festivities, launching a campaign for tickets early in the summer, ushering in a comic strip and even hyping the “buzz” on their official athletics site. Basically, starting the Mike Haywood era off with a bang is priority numero uno in Oxford. In the long-time assistant, the Redhawks think they’ve gotten a steal.
Haywood comes to Oxford from Notre Dame, where he served as Charlie Weis’ offensive coordinator and running backs coach for the past four seasons. He also served as the evil Larry Brinson at LSU under Nick Saban and Gerry DiNardo and at Texas under Mack Brown. So, I guess he’s good with running backs. Or, he’s good with good running backs. He hired on high school principal look-a-like Carl Reese as defensive coordinator, who had retired from Texas six years earlier. He kept the family tree alive and brought Peter Vaas, Notre Dame’s quarterback’s coach, over to be his offensive coordinator. So, this mysterious team should look like Notre Dame’s disappointing 2008 offense and Texas’ disappointing early 2000s defenses. Right?
On offense, while the scheme remains a surprise at this point, senior Daniel Raudabaugh is expected to be the starter for the third season, but he hasn’t done a whole lot since coming out of Coppell, Texas (shout-out to me!). Last season, under Shane Montgomery, Raudabaugh threw for 8 touchdowns and 9 interceptions, a disappointing follow-up to his 12 and 12 sophomore campaign. Given Haywood’s inclination to the running back position, you’d have to assume that the tandem of junior Thomas Merriweather and sophomore JR Taylor will get their touches in what will likely be a pro-style offense. The pair combined for just under 1,000 yards and six touchdowns last year. But, who knows, really?
Overall, it’s clear that the attitude around the Miami program, while extremely optimistic, is not one of serious expectations. They’ve been picked to finish at or near the bottom of the MAC by nearly everyone on Earth and I don’t think you’ll hear any of their contingent refuting those prognostications. But, what do you do when the only place to go is up? You generate attention and create buzz. And, to Miami, that’s what the Rumble at the River is all about.
Things I am going to keep my eye on….
1. I think you underestimate my sneakiness– In case you haven’t heard, pretty much no one on earth knows what to expect from the Redhawks when they get to Paul Brown on Saturday. Rich Brooks says he isn’t too concerned and that adapting should be easy given the experience on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. When a guy as anal as Rich Brooks says he is comfortable adapting, he either has a secret spy or knows that he has SEC talent going against a MAC team coming off of 2 wins. Still, Miami is treating this like the event of the century and I wouldn’t be surprised if they brought a little sizzle or trickery for their one chance to have Ohio headlines. Plus, they’re going to get absolutely slaughtered next week when they travel to Boise, so I’d assume there are a lot of eggs in this River Rumble basket.
2. Matthews and Hartline: Summer loving: I can almost picture the music video right now. Chris Matthews shows up from Los Angeles in tight blue jeans, a white tee shirt and a black leather jacket, combing his hair back. Mike Hartline looks at him shyly and then a connection is made. All of a sudden, you hear Hartline belt out “Summer loving, grew me a ‘stache”, with Matthews replying “Summer loving, you threw me a pa-a-a-ass”. Later on, Joker Phillips pops in with a “Tell me more, tell me more, do you like bubble screens?” and Zipp Duncan and a shirtless Christian Johnson join in with a few “Well-a, well-a, well-a, huh!” verses.
Wow. Sorry about that. I’m extremely embarrassed. But, in all seriousness, both Mike Hartline and Chris Matthews have been the recipients of more summer love than Olivia Newton-John and how this connection plays out on the field should be interesting to watch. The recipe for a happy ending is there, but, like any good fairy tale, there are monsters to battle. Matthews is a perfect combination of size and speed, but will he be able to climb that dreaded JuCo wall that so many others have hit? Mike Hartline is making smart and accurate throws now (even the deep ball!), but he’s had relationship issues with his wideouts in the past. They’ll both have every thing on their side to get off to a great start in this game. Keep an eye on how they take advantage.
3. The Replacements and The Boomerangs – As with every opener, eyes will turn to the new starters on the field and the incoming freshmen. For Kentucky fans, they might need more eyes than a _____ (Fake Gimel, if you’re reading this, I need you to insert a monster with a lot of eyes here) (Fake Gimel: I would go with a Beholder of the Underdark.). The biggest concern will likely be the defensive line, where Ventrell Jenkins and Myron Pryor departed and Jeremy Jarmon was insanely shown the door by the NCAA. The Cats have a handful of youngsters looking to make an impact (and who will apparently rotate), but who emerges should be interesting. Randall Cobb moves to wideout permanently, joining Chris Matthews and youngster we haven’s seen: LaRod King. Marcus Davis will step in at center for the suspended Jorge Gonzalez. In addition to new starters and fresh faces, the Cats also welcome in a pair of “boomerang” players, Paul Warford and Christian Johnson. Both players were starters before not being a part of last season’s team for different reasons, and will return to their roles in 2009.
4. Randall Cobb – Just keep an eye on him. He’s good. And he’s fun as hell to watch.
It will be good news for the Wildcats from Lexington as they prove themselves to be the only feline species capable of showing off at Paul Brown. The non-conference streaking will hit 15 and the clean-shaven Mike Hartline will connect with his wideouts as regularly as Matt Jones checks his google ranking. After a strong performance, Hartline blasts Lones Seiber’s Dashboard Confessional cd and proves to be vindicated….for the week. Cats win 41-10, and Micah Johnson’s services are not needed. And, hey, we still have time to ease up on the never-ending Hartline support.
Other Games of Importance
(16) Oregon at (14) Boise State – Don’t get me wrong. I hate west coast football. I think the PAC-10 is overrated every year and I think far too many programs are built on gimmicky offenses and pre-season hype. But, this game intrigues me greatly. It features two “sleeper” teams of the pre-season. Both Oregon and Boise State have found themselves as the darlings of some big-time publications and this game could go a long way as to making that come true for one of them. But, aside from all that garbage, it features the two best quarterbacks you’ve probably never heard of: Oregon junior Jeremiah Masoli and Boise State redshirt sophomore Kellen Moore. Stay up late tonight.
(13) Georgia at (9) Oklahoma State – I find this game extrememly intriguing as well. Georgia lost a boatload of NFL talent and is being written off by a lot of people. Oklahoma State has been rising for a few years and they are another pre-season darling behind do-everything quarterback Zac Robinson. However, my inner Silky Johnson wants to just hate, hate, hate on both of these predictions. First, I think the demise of Georgia is greatly exaggerated and I think they’ll be contending with the Gators again for the SEC East title. Despite the losses of last year’s team, they still have a lot of experienced young players (I think over 20 freshmen played last year) and sometimes losing a little “Me” for some “We” could help. Remember, Joe Cox started over Matt Stafford early on. Also, Oklahoma State has burned me too many times. For three years now, I’ve picked them as my sleeper team and championed them to the world, only to be disappointed. Will they finally get over that hump this year? Maybe. Tonight, again, could tell us a lot.
(5) Alabama at (7) Virginia Tech – Ahh, the opening Bama TV game. It seems like just yesterday that they were crushing Clemson and Johnny Bruce’s little brother was supplying a never-ending stream of jello shots. But, here we are, entering a very pressure-filled year for Nick Saban’s overachieving team. The storybook ending wasn’t exactly perfect for last year’s Tide, but they far exceeded expectations. They’re equally talented this year, but I’m extremely skeptical of how Greg McElroy will handle the pressure and the offense. He is, without a doubt, the difference between disappointing and special. And, at Alabama, there is no in between. But, on the other side of the field, Frank Beamer’s perennially overrated Hokie team could actually provide a threat. You know about Virginia Tech’s defense. Year in and year out, it’s one of the tops in the nation. But, for the first time in years, they could actually have some offensive power thanks to an explosive backfield of QB Tyrod Taylor and running backs Darren Evans and Ryan Williams. This game will be the perfect dessert to a strong football weekend.
So, there you have it folks. As many words as Rumaugh and half the info. And, before you start saving this link into your favorites, remember that there are 12 games this year. And, like Rich Brooks, I don’t care if it’s Squalhockey Canyone Institute of Technology or Alabama, I’m going to be here talking football for every one. Let’s make it a good season.