In part two of our season preview, Phillips’ Cats face pivotal mid-season stretch.
When fans perform the annual summer rite of predicting their team’s fall football record, they invariably follow the same pattern. Looking down the schedule, the fan places a mental “W” next to each assumed win and a corresponding “L” next to each probable loss. Once this exercise is complete, there generally remains one or two games on the schedule where the outcome is more uncertain. The results of these swing games generally tell the story of a season. The 2010 Kentucky Wildcats’ schedule contains not a swing game, but a swing month.
Assuming our prediction for the first four games of this season holds, the Cats will carry a three and one record into October. Between October 2nd and October 23rd, Kentucky faces four critical conference contests. (It’s called alliteration, homes.) Kentucky has the ability to beat each team in this stretch, but will likely not be the favorite against any of them. If Kentucky can manage a two and two split, the Cats would almost certainly be back playing post-season football, though that mark may result in yet another Grand Ole Opry tour or a second jaunt to Memphis, to visit Graceland and attempt to ward off death. Find a way to win three or more, and a trip further south may be the reward.
Game 5: October 2nd, at Ole Miss
Kentucky visits Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, home of the International Bowl Haircut Hall of Fame, on October 2nd. Ole Miss suffered massive attrition from their 2009 nine and four Cotton Bowl Championship team, as evidenced by their paltry 9 returning starters. Most significantly, the Rebels lost explosive flanker Dexter McCluster, the first player in the history of the SEC to amass 1,000 yards rushing and 500 yards receiving in a season. Ole Miss also lost quarterback Jevan Snead, who may some day be remembered as a bit of a trailblazer, having broken the barrier of declaring for the NFL draft despite being terrible. Kentucky’s chances of victory in this game may have diminished dramatically within the last couple of weeks, when Coach Houston Nutt picked up former Oregon Duck Jeremiah Masoli off the waiver wire. Nutt decided to make this controversial move when he determined that Masoli needed Pastor Houston’s guidance to get back on the straight and narrow, and simultaneously realized his incumbent quarterback was some guy named Nathan Stanley, who I think did my taxes. While Masoli won’t find SEC defenses as easy to carve up as those he routinely demolished in the PAC 10, the Cats do not boast a strong history of defending dual threat quarterbacks. Barring being slowed significantly by his electronic ankle monitor, I think Masoli will make just enough plays to hold off the Big Blue.
Prediction: Ole Miss 31 Kentucky 24
Game 6: October 9th, Auburn
Following Gene Chizik’s 8-5 debut season at the Loveliest Village, media types seem to be very smitten with the Tigers. I’m not buying. First, let’s remember that these world-beaters went 3-5 in the conference, including a stunning home loss to the Cats. The Tigers finished twelfth in the conference in scoring defense, which will continue to happen as long as offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn insists on running their absurd spread offense. (Anyone here think Kentucky would have even come close to beating the Tigers had they just handed off to Ben Tate every play?) The Tigers will hitch their wagon to former Florida Gator QB Cam Newton, a 6-6, 247 pound athletic specimen. Newton possesses the wow factor, but some question his maturity and decision making. I’m predicting that a late turnover by Newton will seal a second straight Auburn triumph for the Cats.
Prediction: Kentucky 34 Auburn 31
Game 7: October 16th, South Carolina
Late in Bob Knight’s coaching tenure, he transformed from a reviled and feared competitor to an amusing and harmless crazy-uncle-type. Steve Spurrier is in danger of meeting the same fate as he fades into irrelevance at South Carolina. Few Gamecock fans would have predicted that the first five years of Spurrier’s glorious Columbia reign would produce just one season season with a conference mark above .500, and would culminate in a 20-7 loss to UConn in the Papa John’s.com Bowl. Still, Kentucky cannot seem to vanquish even the current shell of the former Coach Superior. South Carolina’s 2010 squad looks to be very similar to Spurrier’s last several in Columbia. Specifically, very strong defensively and bafflingly pedestrian on offense. USC finished 11th in the SEC in scoring offense in 2009 and last in the league in rushing. Kentucky has been agonizingly close to beating USC multiple times in recent years. The odds will finally catch up in Commonwealth in 2010.
Prediction: Kentucky 21 USC 17
Game 8: October 23rd, Georgia
The seat of Mark Richt has warmed appreciably in recent years as Florida has continued to widen the gap between the two programs in this former rivalry. This divide was never more apparent than in 2009 when Georgia finished eight and five overall and four and four in the conference while Urban Meyer’s Gators completed an undefeated regular season run. Fortunately for Richt, he is fully supported by (former) AD Damon Evans, who now sleeps on Richt’s couch. Georgia should actually be back in contention in 2010, largely based on 10 returning offensive starters, including running backs Washaun Ealey and Caleb King and stud receiver AJ Green. The only real offensive question mark is redshirt freshman quarterback Aaron Murray, who has to be an upgrade over the abysmal Joe Cox. The defense will be a work in progress under new coordinator Todd Grantham as he installs a 3-4 scheme (which typically does not work in college football unless you are Nick Saban). Kentucky is two and two in its last four games against the Dogs, and all four games have been very much in doubt well into the fourth quarter. Still, Georgia and Richt need this game, and I think the Dogs will have enough to avenge their ’09 home loss.
Prediction: Georgia 34 Kentucky 24
The optimist in me says that Kentucky beat three of these four opponents in their last match-ups. The pessimist annoyingly factors in the historical record. Kentucky is 37-113-5 against these four all-time, a winning percentage of just 24%. Still, I like Kentucky’s chances of getting the split, and moving to a solid 5-3 entering the stretch run. Am I nuts? I would love to see the KSR family’s picks for this stretch of games in the comments.