SEC 2009 // Kentucky Goes for Four

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FOURTH IN A SERIES :: The 2008 Kentucky Review

Kentucky is a bit of a black sheep within the conference, given that it's the lone basketball school. Others around the conference have had successful roundball programs from time to time, but UK is far and away a basketball school and no one else really is. Just take A Sea of Blue, SBNation's outstanding Wildcats blog, for instance. Its traffic actually declined slightly at the start of the 2008 football season, but it went supernova when Billy Gillespie got canned. The site's favicon is a basketball, for goodness' sake.

Despite all that, Kentucky has perhaps found a black swan to run its black sheep program. Rich Brooks came out of several years of retirement to coach in Lexington, and after a few dismal years, he's put Kentucky into three straight bowls. The last guy to do that? Some chump named Bryant who went by a nickname that Stephen Colbert would disapprove of.

As I mentioned though in my analysis of Bobby Johnson, just because a guy has done something, it doesn't mean no one else could. Just as I think Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, and Mark Richt could get Vandy to a bowl, I think they all could get Kentucky to three straight. Either way, Brooks is the guy who did it, and he deserves a lot of credit given that most had him as a dead man walking prior to the 2006 season.

That said, Kentucky was hardly a convincing bowl team last year. UK won all four non-conference games over an underwhelming lineup (Louisville, MTSU, Western Kentucky, and I-AA's Norfolk State) but managed just two victories within the conference over the dregs of the West (Arkansas and Miss St.). That put the Wildcats officially last in the East, just behind Tennessee and its three SEC wins.

There is plenty of room for improvement to say the least, and the burden for that improvement lies squarely on the person who is the future of the program: offensive coordinator Joker Phillips.

The head coach in waiting presided over an offense that managed just over three touchdowns a game. That's not a disaster, but it's not great either. They got those points, though, on just 299 yards per game, which was good enough for 106th in the nation.

Randall Cobb provided some highlights at quarterback, but that role is now firmly in the hands of Mike Hartline as Cobb was moved to receiver this spring. His improvement is vital to the team's success this season as he's surrounded by some nice pieces in Cobb, Alfonso Smith, and Derrick Locke. If he can't improve his game, which landed him at 100th in the country in pass efficiency, then there will be some grumbles for change by midseason.

The defense should still be good, though losing Jeremy Jarmon hurts. Brooks is a defensive guy and that has paid off on that side of the ball. It wasn't too long ago that "Kentucky defense" was an oxymoron, so credit Brooks with a big turnaround there.

Kentucky has built its recent success on thinking differently, and that continued when it became the first SEC program to name a coach in waiting. That's even moreso the case since, at the moment, Phillips stands to become just the second African-American head coach in conference history. Thinking different hasn't always worked out—the words "Hal" and "Mumme" come to mind—but at least UK has shown a willingness to find its own way.

I don't know if the offense or the schedule will allow Kentucky to make a fourth straight bowl, but that's not overly important. The fact of the matter is that UK is in position to make a fourth straight bowl, something that was inconceivable in its days as a doormat just a half-decade ago.

Calipari Mania will eventually eclipse anything the football team does this fall, and in many ways it already has. The notion of the team being irrelevant though is, as its head coach is wont to say, bulls--t.

TODAY: Past as Present
TUESDAY: Excerpts from Rich Brooks' Unpublished Memoirs; The 2009 Schedule
WEDNESDAY: The Depth Chart
THURSDAY: Predictions
FRIDAY: Feedback and Conclusions

Previous Previews: Mississippi State, Auburn, Vanderbilt

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