The method for Kentucky football's rise to being a perennial marginal bowl participant under Rich Brooks was simple: play four tomato cans in the non-conference and win at least a pair of SEC games. For five consecutive years, some variation on that formula worked, including Joker Phillips' first season as head coach.
At some point, it was bound not to work anymore. For one thing, Louisville corrected the blunder of its Steve Kragthorpe hire and replaced him with a really good coach in Charlie Strong. That fact meant that one of those four non-conference games would get much harder. The first indication that 2011 specifically was going to be the year it quit working was in Week 1 when when we saw UK catching sass on TV from a Western Kentucky player.
Sure enough, Louisville ended its four-game losing streak to the Wildcats two weeks later. At that point, the hopes of a sixth straight bowl bid were put in jeopardy. The bad 38-8 loss to Vanderbilt, at a point in mid-November when the team had only four wins, put the nail in the coffin of the bowl streak. The only thing that kept the season from entirely being a disappointment was the season-ending win over Tennessee, one done with a wide receiver playing quarterback no less. It broke the nation's longest uninterrupted losing streak of one program to another.
Two things really stood out as problems. The first is that, a year after canning Steve Brown to turn the entire defense over to Rick Minter, the team couldn't really stop anyone. The Wildcats were one of two teams to allow over 400 yards per game in league play, and they were one of three to allow over 30 points per game. Only Auburn allowed third down conversions at a higher rate. Perhaps Minter needs more than just one year as the sole coordinator to get everything going, but it will be tough with quality defenders like Danny Trevathan and Winston Guy playing on Sundays this fall.
The other big issue is that the offense stunk too, and that's supposed to be the specialty of the head coach. The Wildcats finished dead last in conference play in total yardage, and they were basically in a three-way tie for last in scoring offense with under 12 points per game. The quarterbacks as a unit put up a passing efficiency under 90 in SEC games, easily the worst in the league. They didn't earn any style points to mitigate the poor statistical showing, as evidenced by Morgan Newton's infamous drop back form.
Kentucky football is at a crossroads. Its division has never been weaker than the past couple years, but the program made no headway in the pecking order. If James Franklin's first year at Vanderbilt wasn't a fluke, then UK has even lost ground. Plus, Missouri isn't an Alabama or LSU, but it's been well above Kentucky's level for a while under Gary Pinkel. The Brooks Plan has been made more difficult by league expansion.
It's probably asking too much of Kentucky football to reliably make a bowl every year, or even more than five times in ten years. Still though, you can just feel the program sliding back down the ladder after more than a few years of not being on the bottom rung. Can the Wildcats get back to six wins and a December bowl? Maybe, but it's not going to be easy in 2012.