You can almost feel it in the confident quotes from the players and the determination from the coaching staff -- these Kentucky guys are thinking, "Yes, we can." We can be a factor in the SEC, we can compete and beat some of the better teams. We can win more than two or three games in the league, and we can get to a bigger bowl. And they aren't the only ones, considering that UK somehow managed to garner nine top-25 votes in the pre-season Coach's Poll. So obviously, some non-UK coaches think they can, as well.
But can they? Confidence is great, and you can't win without it. Determination is undeniably important and you can't win without that, either. The confidence of the opposition is great, but it doesn't matter when the whistle blows and the kickoff goes sailing toward the end zone. What it also takes is talent, at least on par with the competition, a sound game plan, consistently good execution and a few lucky breaks. Last year, we saw all these things break down. UK was out-talented at Alabama and Florida, they had a very poor game plan against the Gators and against Vanderbilt, execution was a problem versus Mississippi State, Florida and Georgia, and we had a very lucky game against Arkansas.
I personally believe that Mike Hartline and Alfonso Smith are the big keys to this year's offense. If Hartline can find a way to deliver the ball consistently and find a bit of a vertical game, UK could become a very good team. Hartline was solid, if unspectacular, in the Liberty Bowl last year and if he can build off that, it would be a very good thing. I expect Randall Cobb to be a factor in every game from virtually every offensive position. He is the kind of versatile athlete that you can use to force the defense into a mistake that can be exploited for a first down, or for seven points.
Kentucky's defense looks to be solid, but it looked a lot better last year on paper and didn't exactly deliver on their promise. Not that it would have mattered if they had -- Kentucky's offense could not keep the ball long enough to give the defense any kind of rest, and that showed up in injuries and dings later in the season.
Another critical factor if Kentucky is to succeed is the schedule. We have talked endlessly about the merits of the non-conference schedule, but the fact is, those games should represent at least three wins and four if the Cardinals are not rather stronger than most think. Of course, in rivalry games, the paper advantage means nothing, and as much as I hate to say it, the Cardinals are due.
So assuming we only win three of the four non-conference games, where can we make up the difference? Well, the way I see it, these are the pivotal games for Kentucky:
- October 10th against South Carolina -- The Gamecocks have an unreasonable streak against Kentucky, and one UK badly needs to break. We play the game in Columbia, which is always problematic, but this is a game we should have a chance to win.
- October 17th at Auburn -- Auburn has a new coach installing a new system, and the talent gap between Auburn and UK is not as great as it normally is. Winning this game on the road will take UK's best, but it looks doable this year.
- October 31st hosting Mississippi State -- MSU also has a new coach and a new system, and these two schools are on par, talent-wise. UK gets MSU after Louisiana-Monroe, so hopefully they will be coming off a victory. This is a must-win game.
- November 14th at Vanderbilt -- UK has had success at Vandy, and even though the Commodores have less overall talent, they are well-coached and will be fully capable of defending their home turf. This is another must-win for UK, though, no matter how easy or tough it is.
- November 28th hosting Tennessee -- Tennessee is a much more talented team than Kentucky, but a new coach and new system likely auger to Kentucky's advantage, as does home field. This may be the best chance in a while for Kentucky to break the long streak against the Vols, but it won't be easy as UT will have a feel for their new coach's system by the time they come to Commonwealth.
In the five games I have highlighted above, UK needs to manufacture three wins at least, no matter what happens in the non-conference schedule. If we are able to go 4-0 non-conference, good, we stand a solid chance to win seven or even eight games. If we only go 3-1, three wins in the above group of five would probably get us to a bowl, and four would have to be seen as a solid effort.
UK also gets Florida and Alabama at home early in the season, and even though they are at home, these two teams out-talent us by a wide margin, particularly Florida. Our best chance for a big upset looks like November 21st at Georgia, but defeating the Bulldogs between the hedges is a feat that no UK team has accomplished in 22 years. I'm not counting on that to change this year. But if the 2007 game against #1 LSU taught us nothing else, it is that any team can lose in Commonwealth Stadium, even the consensus #1 team in the land.
The good news is, UK has more SEC games that look winnable this year than last even if our schedule is not really favorable, particularly early. UK will have to quickly demonstrate offensive competence, and injuries, as always, will be key. Last year injuries cost us at least one game. Lets hope we have better luck this year.
The 'Cats are poised to break through. Can they pull it off?