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 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 ball club, and putting together a 2011 recruiting class which will rival any of UK's previous efforts in quality, the advantageous schedule Joker 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 UK football fans, we will take a comprehensive look at the feasibility of UK experiencing its winningest football season since 1977's 10-1 mark. We'll begin examining the 2010 Kentucky schedule, today concentrating on U of L, Florida, and Ole Miss; with minimal mention of UK's second and third games of the season against WKU and Akron.
To keep the post from being intimidatingly long in length, we'll cover the remainder of UK's schedule in the coming days.
Louisville Cardinals: September 4 @ Papa John's Cardinal Stadium
2009: UK 31 U of L 27
Former Florida Gator defensive coordinator Charlie Strong takes over a Cardinal football team that can best be described as offensively anemic (18.1 points per game in '09), and generous defensively (26.2 opponents ppg). U of L gave up an average of 371.1 yards per game to their opponents, and gained an average of 334.1 yards. Coming off a 4-8 (1-6 Big East) record, in 2010 Strong will look to the running game for the bulk of his offense, and a couple of returning defensive stalwarts to propel the defense.
Offensively, the Cards lose their top receiver in Scott Long (727 rec. yards and two), and top producing all-purpose performer, Trent Guy (1,474 all-purpose yards). That leaves senior wide out Doug Beaumont (38 receptions; 465 yards; zero touchdowns) as the lone experienced receiving threat.
On the ground Strong can count on running back, senior Bilal Powell (392 rushing yards; 3.6 yards per carry; 4 touchdowns), junior Victor Anderson (473 yards rushing; 5.3 ypc; five touchdowns). Breakout sophomore Darius Ashley (462 yards rushing; 4.4 ypc; four touchdowns in nine games) has been moved to the secondary to give Johnny Patrick some help, but if injuries occur in the U of L backfield he may find himself once again carrying the ball. Last season Louisville ran for 1,502 yards. If these three players stay healthy, the Cardinals should surpass 1,500 yards rushing by a healthy margin.
Strong currently has three quarterbacks vying for the starting signal-caller nod: Senior Adam Froman, who played in eight games last season, threw for 1,354 yards, six touchdowns (five interceptions), and completed 60.0% of his throws. Senior Justin Burke, who started the UK game last season, threw for 654 yards and three touchdowns (five interceptions), and completed 50.5% of his passes in five games. And finally, sophomore Will Stein, who played in four games last year, threw for 450 yards, one interception and zero touchdowns, while completing 55.1% of his passes. Strong has made it very clear that he intends to name the starter prior to the beginning of fall camp at the end of July.
Defensively, Strong loses linebackers Jon Dempsey (107 tackles), and Chris Campa (91 tackles; 6.0 sacks), but welcomes back defensive end William Savoy (5.0 sacks), and the player most often cited as the top Cardinal defender, cornerback Johnny Patrick (five pass breakups; two interceptions).
But, the Cardinal's offensive impetus in 2010 (the running game) has been UK's defensive weakness since Jesus was preachin' in Omaha. Like last season's scrum at Commonwealth, I expect a tough, close game in this year's Governor's Cup contest. Who wins? No prediction ... yet.
Western Kentucky Hilltoppers: September 11 @ Commonwealth Stadium
Last played: 2008, a 41-3 UK victory at Commonwealth Stadium
New Hilltopper head coach Willie Taggart will look to improve on last season's 0-11 record as WKU continues to fight for respectability in FBS football. Picked to come in last in this season's Sun Belt Conference, the Hilltopers will once again struggle to stop opponents.
This game should be an easy "W" for the 'Cats.
Akron Zips: September 18 @ Commonwealth Stadium
Akron and UK have never met on the football field.
New head coach Rob Ianello will look to improve on Akron's 3-9 2009 record. Ianello takes over the Mid-American Conference program for J D. Brookhart.
Ianello comes to Akron after spending the last two seasons at Notre Dame where he served as interim head coach in 2009.
Interesting trivia: Akron was the first team to make the leap from Division I-AA to I-A (1987).
UK should prevail fairly easily in this contest.
Florida Gators: September 25 @ Ben Hill Griffin Stadium
2009: Florida 41 UK 7
Gator head coach Urban Meyer loses a lot in 2010. From all-world quarterback/fullback Tim Tebow and his 2,895 passing yards (21 touchdowns), as well as 910 rushing yards (14 touchdowns), to top receiver Riley Cooper (961 receiving yards; nine touchdowns), to tight end extraordinaire Aaron Hernandez (850 receiving yards; five touchdowns), to All-SEC linebacker Brandon Spikes (68 tackles; 6.5 tackles for loss; two interceptions), to linebacker and leading tackler Ryan Stamper (78 tackles; two interceptions), to All-SEC defensive end Carlos Dunlap (38 tackles; 9.0 sacks; 10.5 tackles for loss), to defensive end Jermaine Cunningham (34 tackles; 12.0 tackles for loss; 7.0 sacks), to cornerback Joe Haden (10 pass breakups; four interceptions).
But shed no crocodile tears for Meyer, he returns plenty of talent, and has the top rated recruiting class in the nation coming to the Gainesville campus.
It will, though, be a difficult task putting up the strong stats the 2009 Gators put on the board: 35.9 points per game (2nd in SEC) on 457.9 yards per game (1st), versus giving up only 12.4 points per game (2nd), and 253.2 yards per game (2nd). The opus for successfully following up Florida's 13-1 (8-1) 2010 record falls squarely on the shoulders of new quarterback John Brantley (410 passing yards; nine touchdowns in '09). Brantley, who UK fans got a good look at after Tebow went down with a concussion in the third quarter of last year's contest, is a pro-style quarterback, rated the top QB coming out of high school two years ago. His arm is strong and accurate, and defensive coordinators are already losing sleep.
Brantley, though, loses the top two Gator receivers in Cooper and Hernandez, but he does return uber-athletic wide receiver Deonte Thompson (24 receptions; 343 yards; four touchdowns), and five-star recruit Andre Dubose who underwent hamstring surgery and missed last season. Protecting Brantley, and clearing the way for Florida's stud running backs are five new offensive linemen ... I do use the term "new" loosely, for all five players have starting experience.
And speaking of the Gator running game: The top two Gator ball carriers (other than Tebow) are back for the 2010 season. Led by speedy Jeffery Demps (745 yards rushing; 7.5 ypc; seven touchdowns), and Chris Rainey (575 yards; 6.5 ypc; five touchdowns), Florida will be very difficult to contain on the ground.
As mentioned above, defensively, the Gators lose a lot of talent, but new D-coordinator Teryl Austin will run his 4-3 defense with returning starting linebackers A. J. Jones (37 tackles; 4.5 tackles for loss in 11 games) and Brandon Hicks (38 tackles; 5.0 tackles for loss; 4.0 sacks).
If there is such a thing as a certain loss, this is it.
Mississippi Rebels: October 2 @ Vaught - Hemingway Stadium
Last played: 2006, a 31-14 UK victory at Commonwealth Stadium
Head coach Houston Nutt, in his first two years in Oxford, has led the Rebels to back-to-back nine win campaigns (9-4, 4-4 SEC in '09) for the first time since the early '60's. Making the string of nine win seasons a terrific trifecta, though, will be considerably more difficult considering the personnel losses suffered by the Rebs.
Leading off the "miss" parade is running back Dexter McCluster. Last season McCluster burst onto the scene in his senior year with 1,169 yards, averaging an outstanding 6.5 yards per carry. He scored eight rushing touchdowns. McCluster's effectiveness running the ball was a nice counterbalance to quarterback Jevan Snead's 2,632 yards through the air, and 20 touchdown passes. And who was Snead throwing the ball to? How about Shay Hodge (1,135 receiving yards; eight touchdowns), who is also gone from last year.
Losing the top three offensive weapons on the team will most assuredly impact the Rebels' terrific offensive numbers from last season -- 29.5 points per game (5th SEC), and 402.4 yards of total offense per game (5th SEC) -- but in 2010, the offense will be built around the capable running of tailback Brandon Bolden. Last season Bolden spelled McCluster quite nicely, running for 614 yards on 129 carries (4.8 ypc) and four touchdowns. Bolden also proved very effective in the passing game, catching 20 passes for 209 yards (10.5 yards per reception) and one touchdown.
Which player hands-off and throws the ball to Bolden is the mystery.
There are three possible replacements for Snead; the only quarterback with any major college experience is sophomore Nathan Stanley, who threw for 163 yards, one touchdown and one interception last season. The other candidates to run new offensive coordinator Dave Rader's scheme are: Redshirt freshman Raymond Cotton and JUCO transfer Randall Mackey.
Considering the Rebels lost their top four receivers, are breaking in an inexperienced quarterback, but have a running back with proven ability, it's a safe bet Nutt will keep the ball on the ground.
Adding to the concerns of Rebel fans is the loss of a significant portion of last season's top unit: the defense. In 2009, Ole Miss defenders gave up a miserly 17.7 points per game (4th SEC), and 314.7 yards per game (4th SEC). But they lose off the unit; leading tackler Kendrick Lewis (84 tackles), and one of the best linebackers in the SEC, Patrick Trahan (69 tackles; 12.0 tackles for loss). Also, both starting defensive ends have matriculated; Emmanuel Stephens and Marcus Tillman (both 5.5 sacks in '09).
The good news is the defensive line should once again be a force in stopping Rebel opponents from dominating on the ground. Senior defensive lineman Kentrell Lockett returns (13 qb pressures; 10.0 tackles for loss; 5.0 sacks), as does senior Jerrell Powe (12.0 tackles for Liss; 34 tackles). Nose tackle Ted Laurent (senior) is also back in Oxford (12 tackles; 2.5 tackles for loss). In addition, the Rebels return middle linebacker Jonathan Cornell who had 71 tackles and 8.0 tackles for loss in 2009.
Once again, the Ole Miss strength, running the ball, is a Kentucky weakness defensively. But the sheer inexperience of so many Ole Miss offensive starters certainly makes this game very winnable. If the contest were played in Lexington, I would pick the 'Cats without pause, but any and all road games are likely to produce at least one of the following: head-scratching incompetence, or infuriating mental errors at the most inopportune moments.
But, since we're dreaming, I'll pick the 'Cats in a close one. Side-note: If UK has any hopes of attaining a magical 10 win season, they have to win this game.
*Remember, we'll take a comprehensive look at the remaining games on UK's football schedule in the coming days.
*Of course, today begins SEC Football Media Days. If anything salacious or felonious occurs, we at A Sea of Blue will inform you of the details as we ascertain them.
Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats!