This is the first in a series of 10 posts which will examine, position by position, the 2009 Kentucky football team. But, first, an introduction to the season.
In last year's preseason examination of the 2008 football squad, I wrote about the opportunity presented to that team to change the culture of Kentucky football. And even though the team experienced season-ending injuries to key personnel, and was much-maligned by the press and fans alike, they seized the opportunity, and claimed it as their own. By posting a winning record for the third consecutive season, along with winning the third of three straight bowl games, the 2008 UK squad accomplished a feat never before achieved by a Wildcat team. And Kentucky has been playing football since 1881.
In 2009, Rich Brooks and Company seem primed to take the next requisite step up the SEC food-chain. It's a step not easily attained, for it's fraught with Gators, Gamecocks, Bulldogs, and the ever-irritating Vols. But in order for Kentucky to continue on the upward arc of respectability, the step simply must be conquered.
Coach Brooks confronted the next step concept head-on at SEC Media Days:
"We've changed some history at Kentucky, we have to change some more. That would be beating some of the teams in our league that we've struggled to beat over a number of years. And we're a lot more capable of having that happen now than we were three or four years ago."
"We've had success against a few teams, but we have to continue to build on that and beat more of 'em, because our goal obviously is to be a factor and have a chance to win the SEC East. To do that, we have to climb over the teams that have ruled the roost, if you will, and ruled it very well I might add, in the past 10, 15 years. Now, you know, we need to climb the ladder. This is not good enough. Going to bowl games and winning them isn't good enough. We need to compete for the SEC championship."
"Compete for the SEC Championship;" yes, that's what Papa Brooks said.
Competing for an SEC championship, in most years, equates to competing for a national championship. And that truism may never be more relevant than this year, considering SEC East rival Florida is the universe's selection as the preseason No.1 team in all the land.
But, I must applaud the coach for his attitude. For without a leader focused on that which is attainable, making history, and winning championships, are unattainable. The Kentucky football program, under Rich Brooks' passionate, positive leadership has accomplished that which very few thought possible. So no, this fan doesn't begrudge the coach for reaching high to grasp the stars that have yet to shine on the Bluegrass.
Speaking of reaching for the heavens, Brooks put it like this:
"You're reaching for a higher star, obviously, in trying to be a team that competes for an SEC championship. When you get to a certain level it's a lost easier to get to that next level, and I think that's where we are."
The next level ... the next step ... climbing the ladder ... Reaching the plateau where the serious pliers of pigskin excellence congregate demands that UK accomplish that which, for decades, seemed improbable.
Our sage coach realizes in order for stars to be lassoed, and championships competed for, Kentucky must beat (not compete with) a series of division bad-guys the boys in blue have rarely bested. Although UK boasts a three-year running record of 23-16, its SEC mark in the same time-span is merely 9-15. The perpetrators responsible for UK's less than stellar SEC record in that time are Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee. The not-so-attractive numbers look like this (brace yourself): UK - 1 Bad Guys - 11.
Sometimes statistics are party-poopers extraordinaire, but can shed light on ones shortcomings. Brooks knows:
"I think, realistically, we SHOULD (emphasis mine) beat some teams we haven't beaten in awhile, and we better beat some teams that we haven't beaten in awhile, because there's a lot of them on our schedule."
"... teams that we haven't beaten in a while ..." To the aforementioned East bandits, add Alabama and Auburn. Both UK foes in 2009: The Tide's record versus UK is 34-2-1; Auburn holds a 24-5-1 mark against the Wildcats, and have won 15 in a row dating back to 1967.
Just so we're clear: UK must play four SEC East competitors against which they are 1-11 over the last three years, as well as two SEC West teams that hold a combined 7-58-2 all-time record against the 'Cats. Now we see why most college football prognosticators are giving long odds on UK's chances of winning north of five games.
But, laughing at long odds is Brooks' specialty, and the need to overcome feeds Brooks' fire. Just take a gander at the circumstances he has beat-down over the last three years. Circumstances he's overcome which have enabled him, today, to be in a position to talk about taking steps, and "reaching for a higher star:"
- In 2006, UK sat at 3-4 after a 49-0 drubbing at the hands of LSU. His team, also having lost to Louisville by 31 points, was at a crossroads. His career at UK was stopped at the same crossroads, blinker on, ready to turn for home and the rocking chair. But no, not yet. Brooks rallied his charges in the face of dire circumstances, finishing the season 5-1, with one of those victories coming over Georgia, a team UK had lost to in 14 of its last 15 meetings.
- In 2007, after losing an ugly, mistake-filled game against South Carolina 38-23, Brooks refused to allow his team to wallow in the misery caused by falling to a team they should have beaten. For coming to town was the No.1 team in the country, the LSU Tigers. And in what may be the preeminent moment in UK football history, the 'Cats coaxed unlikely victory into paying a visit to Commonwealth Stadium, even though victory visiting was the longest of shots.
- In 2008, after losing his probable starting quarterback (Curtis Pulley), his All-SEC caliber receiver (Dicky Lyons), his star tailback (Derrick Locke), and his most explosive performer (Randall Cobb), Brooks once again magically propelled his offensively-challenged team to another winning season, and a UK record-setting third bowl win in a row.
Of course I've not even mentioned the fact that Brooks, upon arriving at UK in 2003, inherited a roster depleted by probation, and ravaged by attrition. And over the course of his first three years, facing overwhelming media and fan disillusionment, his steely fortitude enabled him to persevere and execute his program-saving game-plan. So far be it for me to sit here at my keyboard, in air-conditioned comfort, and question a warrior's optimistic outlook.
So from Brooks' mouth, to your screen, comes additional thoughts from the coach on why he believes the 2009 'Cats will break down barriers, and tug at Orion's Belt:
"I think that this years Kentucky football team, going into the season, is going to be a better team than I had going into last season. The reasons I feel that way, is I believe our offense will be much more productive, which it needs to be, because we were not very good a year ago. (Quarterback) Mike Hartline should show marked improvement, and I believe he will. All I have to do is think back three years ago, Andre' Woodson's sophomore season, what he accomplished his junior season, and it was significantly improved. I think Mike Hartline will see a lot of that same type of improvement. The people around Mike Hartline will be more experienced and better, as well. I mean, we played five freshmen receivers last year. (Hartline's) understanding of the offense will be greater, and his accuracy I think will improve along with that experience."
On sophomore Randall Cobb and some of the other performers on offense, Brooks had this to say -- "(Randall Cobb) will be a receiver most of the time and we'll have a package for him in our Wildcat formation in the backfield. He has exciting play-making ability. He can run it. He can catch it. He can return it. He can throw it. We have our players; Kyrus Lanxter came on and had a good bowl game. Gene McCaskill came on and had a good bowl game in our win over East Carolina at the Liberty Bowl. We have a young man by the name of Chris Matthews out of junior college who caught 86 balls, who's 6'6", 210, and runs in the 4.4's (in the forty-yard dash). I think the experience at tight end with T.C. Drake, Maurice Grinter, and Ross Bogue returning; all of those guys are going to be better than they were a year ago. And Mike's ability to get the ball to them will be enhanced because of their experience, as well as his own improvement."
Speaking about the defensive side of the ball, coach Brooks said: "Defensively, we lost some very good players, but the great news is winning three bowl games in a row, we've established (through recruiting) some depth and better SEC-ready talent. And we have some young people that I think are going to be impact players for us on the defensive side. And I do not see us slipping on the defensive side, (just) because we lost some good players."
In any sport, a vital part of being a successful coach is displaying a positive outlook to ones team. But even more important, having an established track-record which solidifies ones optimistic mind-set is key to selling ones team, and fan-base, on realizing the dreams and aspirations of all involved. Coach Brooks possesses such credibility.
Even though for many fans the expectations for the upcoming season are tempered due to UK's rigorous SEC slate, I have to believe. I have to believe because Brooks leaves me no choice. I have to believe, because I believe in Brooks. I believe, before he takes his final bow as UK coach (presumably in the next two years), that he will fulfill the promise demonstrated by his previous accomplishments. I believe he's the man to take UK to the next level ... the next step ... and to climb the ladder skyward toward the stars that he will someday grasp.
Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!