For all the hell Kentucky catches for caring only about basketball, it might be easy to forget that 70,902 were in attendance in Lexington when the Wildcats beat No. 1 LSU to move to No. 8 in the country on October 13, 2007. (Yes, that probably included a healthy percentage of LSU fans, but UK's average attendance was 68,824 that season.) That really wasn't very long ago. But in just a small handful of seasons, the regression was complete. In 2007, Kentucky ranked 30th in F/+, 10 spots ahead of Alabama. In 2011, they ranked 89th, 11 spots behind Louisiana-Lafayette. When you aren't a historical power in college football, you typically can't afford much of a slip. You can win games and develop a reasonably healthy program, but a couple of injuries, a couple of poor recruiting classes, or an only average coaching hire can take you pretty far down the hill.
Use whatever adjective or descriptor you choose to describe SEC football at this point. If you're a fan of an SEC school, you are probably going to go with something akin to "greatest conference in the land," or "deepest conference in the land," or "SIX (national titles) IN A ROW!" If you are a fan of a school from a different conference, however, maybe you're more likely to go with "top-heavy" or "Come on, it's not like the SEC is THAT much better than all of the other conferences." Whichever side of that line you fall on, one thing is inarguable: even in the SEC, either the greatest or most top-heavy conference in the country, somebody has to lose. No matter how many different programs have achieved some level of recent greatness -- Alabama, LSU, Florida, Auburn, Georgia, Arkansas, conference newcomer Missouri, and even Ole Miss have found themselves ranked in the AP top five at some point in the last five years; that's over half the conference, and it doesn't even include 2010 SEC East champion South Carolina -- for every conference game there is a winner and a loser. Historically, the most likely losers have been Vanderbilt and the basketball-first Wildcats of the University of Kentucky.
There are plenty of tidbits you could use to illustrate this point. From 1985-2005, Kentucky finished with a winning record three times (6-5 in 1989, 7-5 in 1998, 7-5 in 2002) and never won more than seven games. The last time the Wildcats lost fewer than five games in a season was 1977. (UK went a startling 8-4 in 1976 and 10-1 in 1977.) All-time Southeastern Conference titles: two (one in the last 60 years). Et cetera.
Strangely, though, while Kentucky has almost never been the best team in the SEC, they have also rarely been the worst. In the last century or so, the Wildcats have won between four and six games 50 times. Fifty! They've done it twice in Joker Phillips' two seasons in charge, in fact. After Rich Brooks retired following four consecutive bowls (the Wildcats basically established residence at the Music City Bowl), Phillips made it a fifth straight in 2010 and finished 6-7, then went 5-7 in 2011. It doesn't sound like that much of a dropoff from Brooks' tenure, but on paper, Kentucky was quite a bit worse in 2011 than it had been in quite a while. An offense that had ranked 20th in Off. F/+ in 2010 (thanks in part to Randall Cobb) fell to 110th, and a decent defense (40th in Def. F/+) wasn't enough to make up the difference. The Wildcats beat only Western Kentucky (84th in F/+), Central Michigan (101st), Jacksonville State (FCS), Ole Miss (95th) and Tennessee (57th), losing their other seven games by an average score of 35-10.
Heading into 2012, then, Phillips is tasked with rediscovering the
magic general competency from Brooks' tenure. But that offense … oh, that offense … might struggle to recover.
Kentucky's got money, fans and money, and while the state of Kentucky is not, in and of itself, as strong a recruiting base as others in the SEC ... come on. Twelve winning seasons in 45 years? Zero BCS bowls in 60 years? About 116 straight losses to Tennessee?
Instead of dwelling on the past, however, the question for the future is simple: is Joker Phillips' ceiling at Kentucky any different than anybody else's? Before he retired in 2009, Rich Brooks led the Wildcats to four consecutive winning seasons, the first time they pulled that off since 1953-56. Phillips kept the bowl eligibility train rolling despite a young defense in 2010, but his ceiling is still very much undefined.
Then again, looking at UK's history, his ceiling might actually be very well-defined. […]
The historical precedent at Kentucky is not particularly high, so five straight bowls is nothing to scoff at for the Wildcats. Games against Western Kentucky (in ... Nashville?), Central Michigan and Jacksonville State should get them halfway to a sixth straight, but the rest will depend on, obviously, how much the defense can rebound and how much the offense can avoid regression. A rebound in both fumbles luck and YPP margin (both of which were poor in 2010) will help, but only so much.
With a good offensive line and at least marginal experience at the skill positions, I don't see too significant a drop-off on the offensive side of the ball, but clearly the defense is going to be a hindrance here. UK's recruiting rankings don't really hold up in the SEC, and if Joker Phillips has any chance of taking Kentucky to a higher level, it is going to be a slow go. Kentucky could be interesting and somewhat entertaining in 2011, but despite an SEC East in transition, the Wildcats' ceiling should still be around 7-5.
"I don't see too significant a drop-off on the offensive side of the ball, but clearly the defense is going to be a hindrance here." Tell me again why SB Nation pays me to write about football? The UK defense rebounded better than I could have imagined, especially at the beginning and end of the season, but seemingly at the expense of the offense. Without Randall Cobb, the Wildcats were completely bereft of play-makers on offense, and with the least-efficient passing attack in college football, Kentucky just couldn't get anything going offensively.
To almost add insult to injury, Kentucky pulled off its most impressive win of the season -- a 10-7 victory over 5-7 Tennessee -- with a wide receiver lined up at quarterback. Matt Roark completed four of six passes for 15 yards in that game, and his per-attempt average of 2.5 yards was barely lower than the two scholarship quarterbacks on the roster, Morgan Newton (3.5) and Maxwell Smith (4.2), managed in 2011. Their decision-making was iffy, but they had nobody to throw to and no time to throw, and it probably goes without saying that almost no quarterback in the country would thrive under those circumstances.
In 2012, Kentucky returns just about every player from its worst positions (quarterback, receiver, defensive line) and almost nobody from their best (linebacker, defensive back). If raw, uncut experience is worth something, then the Wildcats could improve. But at first glance, the play-making ability on this roster is unimpressive, to put it kindly.
You have to give UK credit for resourcefulness, don't you? Having lost both ineffective quarterbacks to injuries, the Wildcats put a receiver behind center, ran nothing but Wildcat formation ("quarterback" Matt Roark threw four times and carried 24 times for 124 yards), and took down Tennessee for the first time since 1984.
However, let's just say that if the highlight of the offense's season involved using a receiver at quarterback and winning a game with 10 points, your offense wasn't very good. In fact, let's start here by describing what Kentucky did do well offensively in 2011. It's a shorter list than the "what they did poorly" one.
- Kentucky was reasonably efficient on the ground. The Wildcats ranked 45th in Rushing Success Rate+, which means that they were able to stay "on schedule" on the ground and generate enough yardage to at least somewhat stay out of passing downs. This was due in part to a reasonably decent offensive line, but despite a complete void in the passing game, running backs CoShik Williams, Josh Clemons, Jonathan George and Raymond Sanders III were all able to average at least four yards per carry. That isn't necessarily good, but it isn't as bad as it could have been. All four backs return, though Clemons (the "best" rusher at 4.3 yards per carry and only a minus-1.8 Adj. POE, meaning he was about two points worse than the average runner given his carries, blocking and opponent) is still questionable for 2012 with injury. The big issue could be up front; only two starters (second-team all-conference guard Larry Warford and center Matt Smith) return on the line, and only two others have put together any starting experience.
- They were decent in the red zone. Not that they ever got there.
- They weren't, and aren't, lacking for size. Both quarterbacks, Morgan Newton and Maxwell Smith, are at least 6'4 and 224 pounds. Newton is 240. At running back, George is 223 pounds, as is incoming three-star freshman Dyshawn Mobley. Leading receiver La'Rod King is 6'4, 222 pounds. Warford is 6'3, 343. Backup tackle John Gruenschlaeger is, incredibly, 6'11, 339. Potential starting guard Teven Eatmon-Nared is 6'7, 342. Incoming freshman Jordan Watson is 6'4, 324.
Kentucky might look the part, but while the rest of the SEC can compete with the Wildcats from a size perspective, the Wildcats certainly have some issues competing with the rest in the speed department. Kentucky was 107th in the country in PPP+ (explosiveness) -- 94th on the ground, 110th through the air -- and as mentioned above, the Wildcats had the single least efficient passing game in the country. And they established that even before they stuck a wideout behind center. La'Rod King (598 yards, 7.6 per target, 51 percent catch rate) averaged a healthy 15.0 yards per catch, but the next nine most frequently targeted receivers combined to average just 8.5 per catch. You can possibly get away with that if your completion rate is really, really high. But Morgan Newton's was just 48 percent, Maxwell Smith's 55 percent. Plus, they both had trouble getting rid of the ball; they combined for a horrendous sack rate of 9.4 percent despite the fact that most of their pass targets were close to the line of scrimmage.
This was a truly awful passing attack in 2011. How much improvement can one expect in one offseason? Sophomore Demarco Robinson (17 yards, 1.5 per target) was a star in the spring, just like he was in camp last August, but that did not translate to on-field success last fall. Tight end Jordan Aumiller (193 yards, 7.4 per target in 2010) could make a large impact in 2012 after fading into the wood work last fall. Redshirt freshmen Bookie Cobbins (a former quarterback) and Daryl Collins each had their moments this spring. (Collins passed on an Alabama greyshirt offer to play in Lexington.) There is some reasonably interesting new blood here, but the problem is that virtually every player mentioned above needs to contribute something decent for this passing attack to improve to something resembling competence.
With this receiving corps, it was difficult to get a read for quality at the quarterback position last year. The stats were abhorrent, but neither Newton nor Smith really had much of a chance to truly succeed. Newton is still working back from a torn labrum, Smith has earned some praise (though one wonders how accurate such praise is since Smith hasn't been able to overtake a less-than-100% Newton in practice), and for all we know, four-star freshman quarterback Patrick Towles could be starting by November, but we might not be to the point where quarterback talent matters yet. There's some work to be done on the rest of the offense first.
While far from amazing, Kentucky's defense improved quite a bit in 2011. For that, grizzled old defensive coordinator Rick Minter deserves quite a bit of praise. A former coordinator at Ball State, Notre Dame, South Carolina, Notre Dame again and Marshall, Minter oversaw a defense that improved from 94th to 68th in Rushing S&P+ and from 53rd to 44th in Passing S&P+. (The pass defense was good, but not "21st in the country," which is what you'd get if you used the yards-per-game stats we always tell you not to use. Opponents ran a lot on Kentucky, partially because Kentucky wasn't as good against the run, and partially because opponents were typically up by quite a few points.) Despite a porous line, the Wildcats were better at forcing passing downs and quite a bit better at preventing big plays, and this might have mattered a lot more had the Kentucky offense not scored 17 or fewer points in nine of 12 games.
(I'll repeat that: the offense scored 17 or fewer points in nine of 12 games. That would have been pretty poor in 1971, much less 2011.)
Minter has his work cut out for him in 2012. Not only is offensive improvement less than assured, but he must rebuild the best part of the defense, the back seven. Gone are the defense's two best playmakers, linebacker Danny Trevathan (11.5 tackles for loss, five forced fumbles, four interceptions, five passes broken up) and safety Winston Guy (14.0 tackles for loss!, two interceptions, two passes broken up), plus both starting cornerbacks (Randall Burden and Anthony Mosley) and two other contributing linebackers (Ronnie Sneed and Ridge Wilson). The replacements have proven very little, especially at linebacker.
There is hope here, however. Junior middle linebacker Avery Williamson had a lovely spring, and sophomore Alvin Dupree (2.5 tackles for loss among his 16.5 tackles last year) could be an absolute (and absolutely enormous, at 6'4, 249 pounds) missile at strongside linebacker. (Never mind that those are just two names, and UK will often utilize four linebackers.) Plus, senior safeties Martavius Neloms and Mikie Benton (combined: one interception, 12 passes broken up, 3.0 tackles for loss) return to man the back line of the defense. But let's go ahead and call cornerback a concern: redshirt freshman Marcus Caffey, a converted running back, was able to win a starting corner job in his first spring at the position (a red flag) and was recently deemed academically ineligible for the fall.
Up front, it's a "good news, bad news" situation. Six of the top seven tacklers on the line return, but they return from a line that ranked an egregious 117th in Adj. Line Yards. Despite solid size (junior tackles Donte Rumph and Mister Cobble combine to weight a solid 629 pounds), the Wildcats could be pushed around up front in 2011, and at first glance it is unclear why that would be different in 2012. But you can afford to get pushed around a little if you are also making some plays; Kentucky's line did not last fall. Senior end Collins Ukwu recorded 6.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks last year, but the five other primary returnees combined for just another 9.5 and 3.0, respectively. Some new blood would be a very good thing, but nobody in the pipeline is assured of making an immediate impact. If high-three-star freshman tackle Thomas Chapman can get up to speed quickly, however, there is playing time to be won. Joker Phillips claims to be excited about the depth up front, but let's just say I need convincing.
When you go to five straight bowls and then miss a year, it is easy to set the bar at six wins and bowl eligibility. And to be sure, anything less than that will make this recent blip feel like a more permanent step backwards. But Kentucky plays only three teams projected worse than 50th, meaning they will have to win all three of those games, take out Mississippi State and Vanderbilt at home, and pull an upset to get to six wins. That seems like quite a bit. The Football Outsiders Almanac 2012 gives UK just a 10 percent chance of reaching bowl eligibility, so I'll set the bar closer to four wins.
It takes quite a few if's to make Kentucky good in 2012, and the schedule doesn't help. The Wildcats will need a serious boost from either last year's bit players or this year's star recruits, and counting on that is typically a good way to lose a lot of games.
Joker Phillips is an easy coach to root for -- he was a star at UK in the early-1980s and worked his way through the coaching ranks for 20 years (from Kentucky, to Cincinnati, to Minnesota, to Notre Dame, to South Carolina, back to Kentucky) before finally getting a shot to guide his alma mater -- but his program's momentum has fizzled, and while he did bring in some interesting pieces in the last couple of recruiting classes, most of the SEC has brought in more. That usually isn't a good sign when it comes to the length of a coaching tenure.
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