I'm not sure one should use the adjective favorable to describe any SEC football schedule, in any year, but the 2010 Kentucky pigskin slate is as close as it gets. With the always brutal SEC East experiencing a marginal downturn in experienced talent, resulting in no one team other than Florida being considered dominant, the up-to-now charmed life new UK coach Joker Phillips has been living since taking over the reigns of the Kentucky football program has him positioned to enjoy a season to remember.
In addition to inheriting an actual winning ballclub, and putting together a 2011 recruiting class which will rival any of UK's previous efforts in quality, the advantageous schedule Phillips and his Cats will battle this season is chock full of "winnable" games. And with five of the final seven contests of the regular season being in the confines of comfortable Commonwealth Stadium; do we dare dream big? Do we dare dream of the possibility of a double-digit win season? Or is 10-win-wonder-lust simply the result of a Big Blue Nation hallucination?
To determine the sanity of optimistic Kentucky football fans, we will take a comprehensive look at the feasibility of UK experiencing its winningest football season since 1977's 10-1 mark. Today we will examine the final four regular season games on Kentucky's schedule: Mississippi State, Charleston Southern, Vanderbilt, and Tennessee.
Mississippi State Bulldogs: October 30 @ Davis Wade Stadium
2009: MSU 31 UK 24
Last season's UK/Mississippi State contest represents what may have been the low point of the season for Kentucky football in many areas: UK gave up a season-high rushing total to running back Anthony Dixon (252 yards); the season's longest individual rush to backup quarterback Chris Relf (53 yards); the season's longest pass completion, by the starting MSU quarterback, Tyson Lee (67 yards); and the season-high yards per carry average by a team (7.7 yards per rush). Of course, all of the defensive shortcomings resulted in the Cats losing at Commonwealth to a team which ended up with a losing record (5-7, 3-5).
Head coach Dan Mullen enters the 2010 season without star running back Dixon who rushed for 1,391 yards and 12 touchdowns, as well as the man who cleared the path for Dixon, fullback Christian Ducre (263 yards; two touchdowns). Also gone is starting quarterback Tyson Lee who threw for 1,444 yards, four touchdowns, and rushed for 175 yards and two touchdowns. For a team which averaged 25.6 points per game (9th SEC) and 371.9 yards of offense per game (7th SEC), Mullen will be counting on some fresh faces to propel the Dogs up the offensive ladder.
And it all begins with dual-threat signal-caller Chris Relf. In 10 games last year Relf rushed for 500 yards (6.6 yards per carry) and two touchdowns, while passing for 283 yards and five touchdowns. If Relf proves inconsistent or ineffective, Mullen may choose to give freshman quarterback Tyler Russell a shot at the big time.
Although the Bulldogs lost two of their top receivers from last season in O'Neal Wilder (14 receptions for 236 yards and one touchdown) and Brandon McRae (14 receptions;116 yards), the Dogs return their top receiver Chad Bumphis (32 receptions; 375 yards; four touchdowns), as well as the speedy Leon Berry (14 receptions; 170 yards). Berry is also a kick-off return specialist, running back 38 kicks for a 26.7 average and one touchdown in '09.
Sophomore receiver Brandon Heavens also returns. Mullins likes to get Heavens the ball in a myriad of ways, evidenced by his seven catches for 36 yards, and nine carries for 27 yards in limited action. Look for Heavens to become a very large part of the Bulldog offense in 2010. Another player who will get the ball on a regular basis is running back turned tight end, Marcus Green. Last season Green was a top-target, catching 27 passes for 306 yards and three touchdowns.
Replacing Dixon in the Dog backfield will be a group of runners led by JUCO transfer Vick Ballard (1,728 yards; 22 touchdowns at Gulf Coast CC), junior Robert Elliott (44 carries; 221 yards; one touchdown in '09), freshman LaDarius Perkins, and freshman Montrell Conner.
Returning to protect the quarterback and open holes for the Bulldog runners is All-SEC offensive lineman, senior Derek Sherrod.
Although MSU gave up 220 yards per game through the air in 2009 (11th SEC), and 366.0 total yards per game, defensively, the Dogs boast an experienced secondary led by senior K.J. Wright (82 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss). Defensive back, sophomore Corey Broomfield (six interceptions), will help Wright anchor a defensive backfield which should show significant improvement for new defensive coordinator Manny Diaz.
All-everything middle linebacker Jamarr Chaney (90 tackles; 4.5 tackles for loss; 2.0 sacks) will most certainly be missed, but MSU returns junior linebacker Chris White (75 tackles) and All-SEC junior defensive lineman Pernell McPhee (56 tackles; 5.0 sacks; 12 tackles for loss), who hope to put a dent in the nearly 27 points per game the Dogs gave up last year (11th SEC).
The last time UK visited Starkville (2008) the Cats walked away with a 14-13 win. If UK has any hope of reaching double-digit victories, this game is a must-win for Kentucky. Color me optimistic, yet wanting the game to be over.
Charleston Southern Buccaneers: November 6 @ Commonwealth Stadium
Two teams have never met.
Charleston Southern, a member of the Big South Conference, posted a 6-5 (4-2) record in 2009. Last season CSU lost to Florida 62-3, and South Florida 59-0. The Buccaneers did, though, win 14 straight games in the 2005 and 2006 seasons.
Seventh-year head coach Jay Mills, who has coached at Harvard and Boise State, likes to put the ball in air, but with a number of ball-hawks in the UK secondary, plus a new CSU quarterback, he may attempt to run the ball in an effort to control the clock.
This game should be a big win for the Cats.
Vanderbilt Commodores: November 13 @ Commonwealth Stadium
2009: UK 24 Vanderbilt 13
With Vanderbilt head coach Bobby Johnson's sudden and unexpected retirement a mere seven weeks before the start of the season, Vandy will look to offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell to lead the football program. And Caldwell's first order of business will be to find a way to get the football in the end zone after the 'Dores averaged only 16.3 points per game (12th SEC) and 306.3 yards of total offense in '09 (11th SEC).
And for Caldwell, it will all start with the ground game. The 'Dores return reigning SEC Freshman of the Year, running back Warren Norman (783 rush yards; 5.4 yards per carry; three touchdowns), and fellow sophomore Zac Stacy (478 rush yards; 4.5 yards per carry; three touchdowns), who was unfortunately injured on August 12 leaving his status for the season up in the air. Adding depth to the backfield will be senior Kennard Reeves (153 rush yards; 6.1 yards per carry; two touchdowns).
Junior quarterback Larry Smith will once again take over the quarterback spot, after losing his starting job last year to the graduated Mackenzie Adams. Prior to his benching, Smith threw for 1,126 yards, four touchdowns and seven interceptions on 106-227 passing. Smith, in a pro-set offense, will have several experienced targets which to pass to, led by Somerset High School alum, sophomore receiver John Cole (36 receptions; 382 yards; one touchdown), junior Udom Umoh (20 receptions; 267 yards; one touchdown), and redshirt freshman receiver Brady Brown (6-5, 210 lbs). Tight end Brandon Barden offers Smith another sure-handed target (29 receptions; 357 yards; one touchdown). Backup tight end Austin Monahan (10 receptions; 92 yards) was injured during fall practice, and like Stacy, his status for the season is uncertain at this point.
Defensively, the 'Dores lose star linebacker Patrick Benoist (85 tackles), and defensive backs Brent Trice (82 tackles) and Myron Lewis (eight pass breakups; four interceptions) off a team that gave up 23.3 points per game (8th SEC) and 362.8 total yards per contest (9th SEC). Those players will be missed, but Vandy does return All-SEC middle linebacker, junior Chris Marve, the team's leading tackler for two straight years -- Over the last two years Marve has executed 226 tackles; 13.0 tackles for loss; and 4.0 sacks.
Kentucky has beaten Vandy in five of the last six meetings ... 2010 will bring that streak to six of seven victories for the Cats.
Tennessee Volunteers: November 27 @ Neyland Stadium
2009: UT 30 UK 24 in OT
The Tennessee football program has experienced more drama over the last year-and-a-half than your average ill-adjusted Hollywood starlet. It all started with the hiring of the walking, talking, NCAA violation known as Lane Kiffin. Kiffin brought with him to Tennessee not only the ability to efficiently commit multiple secondary violations, but also a mouth most often moving. As if that wasn't enough, not long after Kiffin swooned Rocky Top nation with his charisma, boyish looks, and professional experience, he (falsely) accused Florida football coach Urban Meyers of recruiting violations, all the while overseeing a UT program committing secondary violations at a pace so swift, Barry Switzer shook his head in approval.
Kiffin, perhaps feeling the need to uncomplicate the lives of Tennessee administrators and fans alike, bolted for the head chair at Southern California not long after the end of UT's 7-6 campaign.
Enter into the lion's den of Volunteer hysteria, Derek Dooley, son of legendary Georgia football coach Vince Dooley, and lately of Louisiana Tech. The new Tennessee coach seems to be all that Kiffin isn't. First and foremost; competent.
But, competency doesn't necessarily ensure the boys in orange play well with others, for, not long after Dooley took over several Vol players were involved in a skirmish-turned-nasty at a bar near the UT campus. Suspensions and dismissals ensued. But now, finally, after what must seem like an eternity, Vol fans and players can both look forward to seeing some on-the-field action.
Not that the Tennessee season looks bright. UT lost at least as much talent as anyone in the SEC, and are therefore faced with more question marks than any team in the league. Question marks left by the departure of: quarterback Jonathan Crompton (2,800 yards passing; 27 touchdowns); running back Montario Hardesty (1,345 yards rushing; 13 touchdowns); running back Bryce Brown (460 yards rushing; three touchdowns; transferring), offensive lineman Aaron Douglas (Douglas was the only returnee from the o-line, but opted to transfer); presumed starting 2010 quarterback Nick Stephens (transferring); linebacker Rico McCoy (119 tackles); defensive back extraordinaire Eric Berry (87 tackles; seven tackles for loss; two interceptions); defensive back Dennis Rogan (69 tackles); and defensive tackle Dan Williams (70 tackles; nine tackles for loss; 2.5 sacks). Whew, that's a mouthful, even for a Vol.
Not that this Tennessee squad isn't talented (they are after all Tennessee), it is, but much of the talent is either very young, or inexperienced: For example; the quarterback position -- Battling for the starting nod are JUCO transfer Matt Simms (son of Phil and former UofL Card), and true freshman Tyler Bray, a PrepStar 150 Dream Team member -- Bray graduated early, and has been on campus since mid-December. Although both quarterbacks struggled mightily in the spring, the fall has brought better numbers for the two resulting in a tight race for the starting spot.
Continuing on the offensive side of the ball, sophomore David Oku (94 yards rushing; two touchdowns) and junior Tauren Poole (86 yards) are positioned to be the two primary ball carriers in Dooley's ground-centric offense. Freshman Toney Williams, Scout.com's No. 4 rated fullback, will also challenge for carries. Oku will also serve double-duty as kick-off returner for Dooley -- Last season Oku set a UT record by totally 836 kick-off return yards (26.2 average).
The wide receiver spot, as usual, is stocked with talent, led by seniors Gerald Jones (46 receptions; 680 yards; four touchdowns), and Denarious Moore (40 receptions; 540 yards; seven touchdowns). Freshman Justin Hunter (6-5), a top-75 prospect according to Rivals.com, has played well since the start of fall practice and may see some time on the field this year for the Vols. Freshman receiver Da'Rick Rogers, another young talent, could also rise on the depth chart as the season progresses.
Manning the tight end spot is Madison Southern grad Luke Stocker. A preseason All-SEC selection, Stocker was UT's third leading receiver last year, catching 29 passes for 389 yards and five touchdowns.
On the defensive side of the ball Tennessee returns junior standout defensive end Chris Walker (6.0 sacks).
For the last four years UK has found new and creative ways to lose games to the Vols. Kentucky has been, at minimum, on a level playing field with the Vols as far as talent is concerned during that period of time, but the boys in blue have played like they're snake bit at the most crucial moments.
Will this be the year that changes? I don't know, but I do know this; for the past four years this game has been a toss-up, and eventually the law of averages has to catch up with the Cats. But, I'm calling this game a push. There is one caveat, though: UK's only off-week of the season precedes the UT game; make of it what you will.
At Louisville -- UK victory Home vs. S. Carolina -- UK loss
Home vs. WKU -- UK victory Home vs. Georgia -- UK victory
Home vs. Akron -- UK victory At Miss. State -- UK victory
At Florida -- UK loss Home vs. Charleston -- UK victory
At Ole Miss -- Toss-up Home vs. Vanderbilt -- UK victory
Home vs. Auburn -- UK victory At Tennessee -- Toss-up
There you go, folks, optimistic UK fan's picks for the 2010 football season: Eight wins, two losses, and two toss-ups. For a Kentucky football fan, it doesn't get any more optimistic than that.
Thanks for reading, and Go Cats!