I yield the floor to the gentleman from Alabama.
Rich Brooks’ impact on the culture of Kentucky football cannot be overstated. At the time of Brooks’ uncelebrated arrival, the program was mired in a seemingly unending cycle of failure, interrupted only occasionally by short term success, generally followed by NCAA intervention. Now Kentucky football is thriving. Commonwealth Stadium overflows each football Saturday. High-end recruits who would formerly not pick up a call from a Kentucky staffer are committing to become Cats at a record pace. Kentucky has proven themselves to be a tough out for even the elite of SEC football. With all of that said, Brooks acknowledged some regret at the time of his retirement that he was unable to take the program a step closer to championship level in the final years of his UK tenure. If Coach Brooks’ protÃ©gÃ©, Joker Phillips, is to move the program to unprecedented heights, Kentucky will have to find a way to win games in the late fall.
If my previously-posted prediction for the first eight games of the 2010 season are correct (I use the word “if” because I don’t like to appear conceited), the Cats will enter late October at 5-3. With four winnable games on the late season schedule, this record would once again give Kentucky the opportunity to achieve a dream season. Unfortunately, the Cats have fallen flat when presented with such opportunity in the recent past, including last season, when home losses to Mississippi State and Tennessee cost Kentucky a second place SEC East finish and New Year’s Day Bowl. Should the Cats find themselves similarly situated in 2010, will they be able to take advantage?
Game 9: October 30th, at Mississippi State
On October 30th, Kentucky will visit the Bulldogs at Davis Wade Stadium, arguably the finest football venue in all of Oktibbeha County. The Cats will no doubt be motivated to avenge last season’s demoralizing 31-24 home loss. MSU head coach Dan Mullen is widely regarded as the league’s most promising up and coming coach despite his overall 5 and 7 record last season. Mullen has been able to successfully incorporate the spread option offense he exercised as Urban Meyer’s offensive coordinator, and seems to have escaped Florida without being infected by Meyer’s evil dirtbag gene. The Bulldogs will rely on their punishing ground attack, which churned out 227 rushing yards per game in 2010, first in the SEC and ninth nationally. They will have to replace tailback Anthony Dixon, who ran for nearly 4,000 yards and 42 touchdowns in his Bulldog career. (I’m pretty sure at least half of those yards occurred last October at Commonwealth.) Chris Relf will likely take the reins for departed quarterback Tyson Lee. Relf split time with Lee in 2009 and ran for 500 yards and two touchdowns, including a 53-yarder against the Cats. Ultimately, Kentucky and Mississippi State are very evenly matched in terms of talent. The game very well may hinge on which team has something to play for at this late point in the season. I say the Cats continue a recent series trend of road victories and get bowl eligible in Starkville.
Prediction: Kentucky 35 MSU 24
Game 10: November 6th, Charleston Southern
The Buccaneers of the Big South Conference invade Commonwealth Stadium on the first Saturday of November. If you are reading this, and you happen to be a Kentucky player who is listed 3rd team or below on the depth chart, you may want to find your helmet and do some extra hammy stretches for this one. Don’t believe me? Think anything can happen on a football field? Check out these fun facts. Charleston Southern played two BCS level teams in 2009. They lost by a combined 121 to 3. Their starting defensive line averages just under 250 pounds. The Bucs’ home stadium seats 4,000 people, approximately 1,000 less than my high school’s stadium. Finally, in the 3 weeks leading to the Kentucky game, Southern faces Gardner Webb and VMI. Provided the Cats don’t invite Billy Gillispie as special guest coach, they should be able to slip by.
Prediction: Kentucky 48 Charleston Southern 10
Game 11: November 13th, Vanderbilt
On July 14th, Vanderbilt head coach Bobby Johnson packed up his banjo and arrow through the head, and left town on the eve of fall camp for no discernible reason. This surprising move elevated previously anonymous offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell from position coach to SEC head coach in a matter of about 15 minutes. Caldwell drew rave reviews for his performance at SEC Media Days, which was reminiscent of a Blue Collar Comedy Tour movie, only funny. Caldwell is truly a breath of fresh air in a league dominated by robotic “Saban-ite” head coaches devoid of any personality. But will Caldwell’s lovable persona equate to on-the-field success in 2010? To quote my magic 8 ball, all signs point to no. The Commodores finished 2009 winless in conference and 2 and 10 overall. There appears little hope that 2010 will be appreciably better. Vandy’s traditionally stout defense lost six starters to graduation. The offense, which was Curry-esque in its 2009 productivity, lost four starting linemen. Returning quarterback Larry Smith completed less than half of his passes last season, and threw almost twice as many interceptions as touchdowns. On the bright side, I’ll go on record as saying he is the conference’s best quarterback named Larry. The only real bright spot offensively is the backfield, where sophomores Warren Norman and Zac Stacey return after combining for over 1200 yards in 2009. Still, the offense will likely be anemic again in 2010. Last season, the Cats played ultra-conservative, throwing just 13 passes for the entire game, knowing that Vandy could only win if the Cats turned the ball over. This game plan aided the Cats to a 24 to 13 win in Nashville. Kentucky should again handle the ‘Dores comfortably in 2010.
Prediction: Kentucky 27 Vanderbilt 17
Game 12: November 27th, at Tennessee
Oh how the mighty have fallen. I would be tempted to refer to the 90’s as the salad days of Tennessee football if not for the paradoxical nature of Phil Fulmer and salad in the same sentence. That said, Tennessee elevated itself from a regional power to a national one under Fulmer, culminating with a national title in 1998. Now, just over a decade later, Rocky Top is in shambles. This off-season is a perfect microcosm of just where the Tennessee program is in 2010. Players are brawling with cops in local bars, the NCAA is sniffing around campus, and the once mighty Vols are coached by a guy fresh off a three-year stint of 13 and 20 ball at Louisiana Tech. At least they have rid themselves of sociopathic Lane Kiffin. Still, with a losing streak to this one time rival program now entering its second quarter century, Cat fans want to know if this will finally be the year the misery ends. Tennessee does appear very vulnerable. The turmoil following Kiffin’s departure thinned out an already mediocre roster by Vol standards. Tennessee now has just 72 scholarship players, 13 less than that permitted by the NCAA. They must replace 11th year senior Jonathan “City of” Crompton, and have chosen to replace him with Matt Simms. Simms should now skyrocket up Kentucky fandom’s list of disdain, as he will have started at quarterback for both Louisville and Tennessee. (Hopefully with similar success.) Tennessee has solid wide receivers. Gerald Jones and Demarius Moore combined for 86 catches and 11 touchdowns in ’09. Kentucky native Luke “Benedict” Stocker also stood out in 2009 with 5 touchdown catches. However, both offensive and defensive lines are suspect, and the Vols have suffered several significant injuries in fall camp. Ultimately, I think Kentucky can win this game, even in Knoxville, but I simply cannot pick them to do it. I think this is based largely on the fact that the last time the Cats beat the hated Vols, I was wearing Underoos. (And not the ones I have now, but the ones I had when I was eight.) Please let me be wrong.
Prediction: Tennessee 27 Kentucky 24
Even with another bitter loss to the low down, dirty snitches from Tennessee, our predicted 8 and 4 would be a phenomenal first campaign for Operation Win. Of course, even with the vast resources available to me through the KSR archives, this is still just my best guess. Please provide yours in the comment section.