We are only a couple of weeks from the start of the season, time to bring my focus back to Wildcat Football. I'm on record with my predicted standings for the SEC West and the SEC East (minus Kentucky), so it is time to take a bold look at how I see the 2011 season unfolding for the Cats. For what it is worth, this is one man's opinion. Glenn, Ken and others may have more to say on the subject. And all the silly details are a little self indulgent, but it is always nice to look back and see where you nailed the little things.
One more caveat. The fate of a football team can turn on a dime. Everyone remembers that the Cats went 6-7 last year, but we sometime forget that Derrick Locke was lost for a critical four game stretch in the middle of the season, that Mike Hartline was forced to sit for a very winnable bowl game, and that teams like Auburn and Mississippi State were better than anyone expected. This year, a lot depends on whether Morgan Newton can emerge as a dependable starter at QB, whether the Cats can find some playmakers, how well we adjust to Rick "Nuclear" Minter's brand of defense and, as always, whether UK can avoid the injury bug. For one extreme example, if Newton goes down you can basically throw everything that is said here out the window. Without further adieu ...
September 1 v. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
No sense in wasting words on this one. Cats should get a lot of people involved and get their skill players some confidence. Look for Raymond Sanders to go for close to 100 yards while sharing carries with several other backs. Freshman WR DeMarco Robinson burns redshirt and Hilltopper defense with late TD. Rise. UK 56-17
September 10 v. Central Michigan Chippewas
Fear the trap game. With an easy win under their belts and perhaps looking ahead to Louisville, Kentucky falls back into old habits by getting off to a slow start. The noon kickoff has the crowd and the team sluggish. The Chippewas come to play and hold on for about a half before turnovers and physical superiority take over. Winston Guy, Jr. and Danny Trevathan hit double digits in tackles and each force critical second half fumbles. UK 28-10.
September 17 v. Louisville Cardinals
Mental preparation is not an issue today. Morgan Newton is sharp from the beginning, finding La'Rod King for a deep TD in the first quarter. Kentucky spends the rest of the first half establishing the run while the defense holds down the fort. Cats take a 14-7 lead into half. Cards claw back in the second half, eventually scoring on a short field twice, taking a 17-14 lead. A star is born when Robinson (now a regular in the WR rotation) takes a short slant to the house a la Randall Cobb midway through the fourth quarter. This being Kentucky, the Cards block ensuing extra point and return it to end zone, leaving the Cats with a 20-18 edge. Commonwealth holds its collective breath as the Cards still have five minutes to score and need only a field goal to win. Game effectively ends on a Anthony Mosley interception in Wildcat territory. Bedlam. UK 20-18.
September 24 v. Florida Gators
Gators enter Commonwealth in a game featuring two undefeateds. Kentucky plays good defense for a half and forces John Brantley into some poor throws on blitzes by Ridge Wilson and Guy. At some point in the second half, the wheels come off and a Sanders fumble and Newton interception occur on consecutive drives. UK is never able to mount much offense and the defense eventually wears down, leading to a somewhat misleading score in a win for the Gators. Florida 34-10.
October 1 v. LSU Tigers
Things get ugly in Baton Rouge, as UK simply cannot move the ball and is forced to punt on innumerable occasions. A fair performance by the defense (considering the time on the field), including a whopping 16 tackles by Trevathan, give some reason for hope, but overall it is a dark day for the Cats. The gumbo, however, is off the charts good. LSU 42-7
October 8 at South Carolina Gamecocks
Kentucky rebounds from its rather awful performance against LSU to play its best offensive game of the year. This game gets a 12:21 SEC Network start time and Gamecock fans are stinging from an ugly home loss to Auburn the week before that dashes most hope for greater glory. Newton plays his best game as a Cat, throwing for 256 yards and two TDs. Brian Adams emerges as a reliable target, catching 7 balls. Sanders goes over 100 yards for the second time of the season, despite splitting carries. Unfortunately, the South Carolina offense has a typically good day, and even Randall Burden (who at this point is being talked about as an All-SEC candidate) cannot hold down Alshon Jeffery. Marcus Lattimore continues his Heisman campaign with a buck fifty on the ground and the defense for once cannot hold up its end of the deal. Stephen Garcia celebrates by having a lot more fun than you did in college. USClite 35-28
October 22 v. Jacksonville State Gamecocks
At an uneven 3-3, the Cats annihilate J. State. Game is everything 2010's Charleston Southern debacle wasn't, with UK clinically putting it to their overmatched opponents from start to finish, even with second and third stringers. UK 63-7.
October 29 v. Mississippi St. Bulldogs
Cue "in the Air Tonight", and all that jazz. I spend all week wringing my hands and saying things like, "This is the biggest game of the year", "This is our whole season, right here", "We can still get to 8-4", "We aren't out of this race yet" and "Pass the Cheetos" (because I say that every week). ESPN 2 mercifully gives us the 7:00p.m. starting time (as opposed to the 12:21 stinker) and once again the school calls for a "Blackout" from the fans. Mitch Barnhart and Joker Phillips spend all week explaining that the team will not wear black to the chagrin of seemingly everyone else in the world. Five minutes before the players come out from the tunnel, however, Joker surprises the team with black jerseys. Commonwealth goes B-A-N-A-N-A-S.
Vick Ballard is bottled up by Trevathan, Guy and Co. all night. The Cats take a two touchdown lead 21-7 midway through the third quarter and the Bulldogs are forced to throw. Minter's defense works to perfection, getting Chris Relf out of a comfort zone. Though he acquits himself fairly well, another TD is all Mississippi State can muster. UK puts it away with a late field goal to hand Dan Mullen's crew only its second loss of the season. UK 24-14
Except, I don't really think this is going to happen. I just got so worked up by the black jersey thing I got carried away. Please, Joker, I am begging you. Mississippi State 24-17
November 5 v. Mississippi Rebels
With the loss to Mississippi St., this becomes a game that the Wildcats have to have, sitting at 4-4 with no more "gimmies" remaining. Fortunately, they are up to the task on this day. Jerrell Priester sets the tone with an early TD in the return game and Newton finds eight different receivers on the way to a good game managing performance. The defense takes it from there, including an interception returned for a touchdown courtesy of Martavius Neloms. UK 27-16
November 12 at Vanderbilt Commodores
With the Cats at 5-4, I decide to take a spontaneous road trip to Nashville for this one. (OK, not so spontaneous, I've had my "just in case I decide to go later" hotel booked for six months). The 'Dores still don't have a ton of talent, but as is often the case, they play the Wildcats tough. The game is chippy, with several small skirmishes and unsportsmanlike penalties. Newton is less sharp than in recent weeks, and the Cats are forced to try to grind it out behind their vaunted offensive line. Freshman RB Josh Clemons comes off the bench to play a role in this one, powering his way to first downs. WR Aaron Boyd bolsters a depleted receiving crew by making his first important contribution as a Cat, a late 28 yard reception that sets up a field goal. In front of a crowd that is 75% Blue and White, the Cats make it six straight bowl seasons. A stick figure of a Vandy freshman accosts me in the parking lot to talk smack about whatever silly Calipari story is in the news that week. UK 24-21
November 19 at Georgia Bulldogs
Kentucky is now 6-4 with a realistic shot to make the Outback or Chick-FIl-A Bowl. Spirits are high, but for once the Cats aren't able to bring the pressure on D. Aaron Murray has time and picks the Wildcats apart with short passes. Offense stalls and even though the Cats play very hard and mistake free, homestanding Georgia is just better. Robinson does get back on the board in this one, but his season had previously cooled down after his Louisville heroics. Georgia 28-13
November 26 v. Tennessee Volunteers
Overtime loss, heartbreak, despair, another January in Birmingham (maybe, though more on that another time). I really cannot talk about it. It kills me, but until UK beats UT once, I just cannot pick them to win this game. UT 37-31
So there you go. Kind of vanilla, for sure. I see the Cats going 6-6 overall and 2-6 in the SEC. I'd be satisfied with this given that it would set the stage for a 2012 with some holes on defense but a lot more upside on the offensive side of the ball. But, like other 6-6 regular seasons (2008, 2010) Wildcat Nation will probably judge the success or failure of the season by what happens in our bowl game.