Dead. Freaking. Last.
Every single publication, website, TV show or man on the street I’ve heard opine on the 2012 SEC East race has the University of Kentucky Wildcats dead freaking last. Not a couple of them. Not most of them. Not 99% of them. All of them. It’s unlike anything I can remember, the nadir of Wildcat football over the last 15 years. Well dammit I’ve had enough. Kentucky opens up their season on Sunday afternoon against the hated Louisville Cardinals and I’m here to tell you this is a team that can not only hang with some folks, but beat some folks. I’m so sure in fact, that I did what you’re supposed to do when you’re mad – I made a list. Here are 6 reasons that the Kentucky Wildcats will NOT be awful at football this season.
#1 Defensive Line
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my 2+ decades watching football, it’s that a good defensive line can cover up a lot of warts and make average teams look pretty good. If you can get a push up front and stop the run, all the sudden your linebackers are freed up to take some more chances. Then you’re secondary only has to cover receivers for a short amount of time. So you make some plays and get some turnovers and all the sudden your offense is getting the ball in good field position. It just makes the whole thing easier. Everyone paid attention to Andre Woodson’s flashy numbers for the Cats in 2007, but it was a front 4 with 3 future NFL draftees (Myron Pryor, Corey Peters, Jeremy Jarmon) that held things together. Not to mention that same crew came back in 2008 and not-great team to 7-6 and a bowl game win.
The Cats could conceivably have another standout crew in Mister Cobble, Dontae Rumph and Collins Ukwu. Cobble struggled to get on the field 2 years ago due to academic issues, but started the final 9 games last year and looks to make big strides in his second year under Rick Minter. Ukwu missed a trio of games mid-season due to injury and still led the D-linemen in sacks and tackles for loss. Rumph started 7 games last year and looks to continue upwards trajectory. It’s worth noting that all 3 are returning starters in Minter’s 3-4, a complex defense that takes time to understand. There is every possibility that this unit could display marked improvement from last season and if so, they could really open things up for everyone else.
#2 Streak Breakers
Much like your favorite security guard at a rowdy soccer match, Kentucky Football has taken to this whole “streak-ending” thing. Two years ago it was ending an inexplicable decade of futility against the South Carolina Gamecocks (with the ending of two decades of futility against Steve Spurrier thrown in for good measure). Last year it was the historic win in Lexington over UT. Did I mention that they BEAT THE VOLS WHILE STARTING A WIDE RECEIVER AT QUARTERBACK. Well there’s a couple candidates this season. First a 3 game losing streak to Mississippi State – a troubling emerging trend against the Cat’s every-year opponent from the West. And then the elder statesmen of losing streaks – the 26 game losing streak against the Florida Gators. You know what takes the shine off ending the nation’s longest active losing streak against one team ask UK did last year vs UT? Still having the nation’s longest losing streak against one team – a distinction that the 26 year slide against the Gators now holds. It’s time.
#3 Quarterback Play
This was abysmal last year. Terrible. Morgan Newton was wholly ineffective in every game other than the Louisville game, demonstrating an complete and total inability to lead a drive, hit a receiver and sometimes even walk backwards. It was frustrating. True frosh Maxwell Smith was a little better, but still struggled. Kentucky’s quarterbacking was so brutal that their biggest win of the season came in many ways because the QB cupboard was bear. Oh – did I mention that Kentucky broke a 26 game losing streak to Tennessee WHILE STARTING A WIDE RECEIVER AT QUARTERBACK using an offense they installed 3 days before? Well now I did. But I digress.
Max Smith took a lot of heat last year but there was some hope tucked in there, too. The offense looked the least terrible in his starts against the Mississippi brothers and Georgia (of course it also looked its worst when he started at Vandy but that doesn’t support my argument so we’re going to ignore it). He demonstrated arm strength and the ability to make throws, but the decision-making was a step behind. Well all reports out of camp are that he looks great and the hope is that an off-season of film study will pay dividends. They say you make the most improvement from year 1 to year 2, so I’m banking that Max is a little better than he showed last season. Add to that Randy Sanders’ solid track record of QB development (Andre Woodson, Mike Hartline) and it’s perfectly reasonable to expect big improvement out of the signal caller position for the Cats.
#4 Implosions All Around
I’m just saying, this ain’t your daddy’s SEC East. This thing is more cobbled together than the Egyptian government. Sure that schedule looks imposing, but you’ve got a handful of teams that could be in a full out flat spin and when they grab that ‘EJECT’ strap they better watch the damn canopy. To wit:
South Carolina: Looked painfully mortal in Nashville on Thursday night, failing to even hit 20 against a Vandy defense that had a lot of question marks. Oh – and Conner Shaw – yeah, he’s not seeing October. I respect the kid’s toughness, but that gets you through a game, not a season. He’s a separated shoulder waiting to happen.
Vanderbilt: On the other side of the coin they looked great on Thursday night. Hit some big plays, were stout on D. Boy that team was coached up. So coached up that James Franklin stayed on the top of every athletic director’s back-pocket “list.” Athletic directors of schools that could certainly sell more than 40,000 tickets for a CONFERENCE opener in PRIME TIME coming on the heels of the program’s most exciting season in recent memory. And if you don’t think Franklin noticed those empty seats and that he’ll remember them when the time comes to “do what’s best for his family” you’re a new kid on this college football block. So even if Franklin coaches his team up all year, I would fully expect to hear his name making the rounds when they head to Lexington in November, and who knows what that does to the locker room.
Florida: Uncertainty at QB, questions about the offense, a volatile coach – what’s NOT to like here? Hell, I was about to say something about the Gators possibly dropping an early one to Texas A&M or Tennessee, but as I type this I am cackling like a madman as they struggle past BOWLING GREEN. The coaching staff is a collection of loose screws (offensive coordinator Brent Pease just let lose a stream of expletives on national TV that would make Al Swearengen blush) who project the type of frantic desperation that could be the match that sets this kerosene-doused dumpster a-blazin’! Go Gata.
Georgia: Plenty of talent, but with only 69 players on the roster who were recruited to the school on scholarship (5 walk-ons have been granted schollys) a key injury here or there could cause real problems – not to mention considerations like who plays special teams, etc (h/t to a great post by GetThePicture blog on this). Sure this is quite possibly the most talented team in the East – but will they be able to keep that precious talent out or the infirmary?
Tennessee: I was actually going to use the ‘dumpster fire’ joke from the Florida section here, but the Vols actually looked pretty good on Friday night. Of course this in no way will keep their fan base from completely turning on the coaching staff should they drop the Florida game or come out flat in any game after, but I guess it holds things together for another week. But keep in mind this was a team undergoing so much turmoil that they lost their last game of the season to a team that was STARTING A WIDE RECEIVER AT QUARTERBACK. And with it being the last game of the season, the Cats could be facing an interim coach in Knoxville by then – so you never know.
Missouri: I’ll be honest – I don’t know anything about Missouri, but that doesn’t make me unique. Everyone is anxious to see how the new kid on the block fits into the big, bad SEC and while the Tigers should be fine, there’s no telling what the consequences could be of a more physical style of play week in and week out.
Again – will Kentucky win the East? Certainly not, but it’s not unreasonable to look at the above list and say the Cats could pull out a couple wins, which is all they’d need to exceed expectations wildly and make a bowl game if they can run their non-conference table. Which brings me to -
#5 Beat Louisville
Chris Rock had a great line from his “Bring the Pain” stand-up show where he talked about people who had earned a G.E.D. “You tell people you got your G.E.D. and they’re like ‘hey, now you can go to college!’ – slow down. It’s pretty evident that high school was kickin’ my ass.”
That’s kinda how I feel about Louisville. All I’ve heard all off-season is how great this team is and Vegas tells me they’re 2 touchdowns better than the Cats. But last time I checked this was a team that went 7-6, losing to Florida International and Marshall before grinding through a Big East slate and barely missing out on a BCS bowl. Yes they finished strong, but they’re hardly a sure thing.
I remember another time a lowly Kentucky team snuck into Louisville to take on a Cardinal team with high expectations and a ballyhooed quarterback – it was 2002 and the Wildcat front 4 ground Dave Raggone to dust en route to a 22-17 upset that wasn’t anywhere near as close as the score would have you believe. Could it happen again? We’ll see.
And as the Louisville game goes, so goes the Big Blue season. Of the 6 Kentucky teams to beat Louisville since 1998, the only one to not end their season in a bowl was the 2002 squad which was on probation. So if the Kentucky can shock the Cards on Sunday, watch out – the table will be set for a good campaign.
#6 They’re Just Due, Dammit.
If there is one thing that has characterized Kentucky football since I began following it during my freshman year in 1997 (and from anything I’ve ever heard, long before that), it’s just plain bad luck. Always right there at the end but unable to break through. Losing games in the final seconds. Auburn beat a pair of teams on the final play en route to their 2010 BCS Title. One was of course Oregon in the title game – and the other was Kentucky.
Certainly the Cat’s talent dificiency plays a roll in not pulling out these close games, but sometimes it just feels like more than that. It’s difficult to look at the parade of Wildcat miscues, from LSU catching deflected Hail Mary, to Hartline getting hurt in a South Carolina game where he was very effective, to basically every UK/UT game from 2001 to last year, and not feel like they’re a little snakebit. What could happen if Kentucky got a sprinkling of the fairy dust that other programs around the conference have enjoyed? Could it help them grind out an extra win or so? Hell yes.
So there you go. Six reasons that the Kentucky Wildcats will not be as terrible as the world says they will be. Will they challenge for the East title – most assuradely not – but there’s no reason they can’t catch a few breaks, make a few plays, and be right there in the end for several conference games. Sure conventional wisdom says the Cats are basement bound, but millions have been made by bucking conventional wisdom and going the opposite direction.
But I’ll simply settle for $1000. And not for me, but for Vegas. Nothing has given me more confidence that the Big Blue is in for a surprise year than a certain writer/radio personality/fledgling TV personality who has gone all in on the Cats’ certain failure. When the same sage wisdom that crippled the Middle Tennessee housing market with his “bet the mortgage” picks last year turns his powers of perception on your team, you sleep a little easier.
The journey to shock the world and bang out 6 wins starts Sunday at 2:30 PM.
Follow me on Twitter: @abpriddy
Special thanks to my buddy Lee Dossett for his help on this post. The man has forgotten more about Kentucky football than I’ll ever know