After 2011, Kentucky Remains a Program-in-Waiting in the SEC East

Wrapping up the season for each of the SEC teams

It wasn't that long ago that Joker Phillips taking over at Kentucky for Rich Brooks was cited as one of the few examples where the head-coach-in-waiting arrangement worked. At Florida State, it had led to the poorly-managed end of the Bobby Bowden Era. Texas lost its head-coach-in-waiting to Florida; Maryland lost it's head-coach-in-waiting to Vanderbilt, then decided to fire its head-coach-in-reality as a result; West Virginia's head coach decided to try to get the head-coach-in-waiting fired, only to end up fired himself.

But Joker Phillips' first season, while not exactly everything that Kentucky fans hoped it would be, at least kept the Wildcats' unprecedented bowl streak going. An offense that had at times looked moribund while Phillips was the coordinator instead became one of the better units in the SEC. All of this after Rich Brooks had left on what appeared to be his own terms.

Then, 2011 happened. With Randall Cobb gone, the Wildcats seemed to lack any semblance of a dynamic player, and the offense slid to the bottom of the conference in every major offensive category -- save rushing offense, where the 'Cats finished the season in 11th place. At 118th in total yardage, the offense was better than just two other teams in the FBS: Kent State and Florida Atlantic. And to top things off, Kentucky missed the bowl season for the first time since 2005.

But it's not fair to blame it all on the offense. Kentucky's defense was also awful. In fact, the Wildcats placed higher than 10th in the SEC in just four of the 17 stats the NCAA tracks: net punting (2nd), turnover margin (6th), passing yardage defense (8th) and pass efficiency defense (9th). And when the Wildcats lost three games in a row by 28 or more points, it's not hard to wonder how much of those passing defense numbers were earned.

At the same time, Phillips has shown a knack for breaking the streaks that have long made Kentucky a laughingstock or also-ran in the SEC East. Last year, the Wildcats took down the eventual SEC East Champion Gamecocks to end a 10-game losing streak, though South Carolina got its revenge this year in a 51-point waxing. At the end of 2011, Phillips' team beat Tennessee for the first time since 1984. And it knocked Tennessee out of bowl contention as well, which made the win against an archrival all the sweeter.

The question is, how much is that worth to Kentucky fans. If Kentucky defeats Florida but only goes 5-7 in 2012 -- something that isn't exactly likely but also isn't impossible -- is that enough to keep Joker Phillips gainfully employed? What if he charts another win against any of the streak teams, goes to a bowl, but returns home after another loss in Birmingham or Nashville knocks the team below .500?

Those are tricky questions for Kentucky to have to answer. If UK wants to send a message that it expects to be a player now, it will be hard to keep a coach who goes three years without a winning record when bowl games are accounted for. On the other hand, how does a program like Kentucky plausibly fire a guy that continues to take them to bowl games and provides more success against its most critical division rivals than anyone in the program's recent history?

Joker Phillips can save all that by proving to be the head coach he looked like he would be when he was head-coach-in-waiting. But if he doesn't, Kentucky faces a difficult set of decisions.

EARLIER:
Tennessee | Derek Dooley Finishes 'Year One.' Will He Make It to Year Four?
Mississippi | The Iceman Cometh: Ole Miss and the End of the Houston Nutt Era

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