This is the second in a series of three posts taking an in-depth look at the 2010 Kentucky football schedule. For the first installment, go here.
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 wining ball club, 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 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 campaign since 1977's 10-1 mark. Today we examine the three-game SEC home-stand on Kentucky's schedule: Auburn, South Carolina, and Georgia.
Auburn Tigers: October 9 @ Commonwealth Stadium
2009: UK 21 Auburn 14
Second-year head coach Gene Chizik and his offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn (he of the 'wildcat offense') put the fun back into football for Tiger fans on The Plains last fall. Bouncing back nicely from the messy divorce with Tommy Tuberville the year before, Auburn posted eight wins on the year (8-5, 3-5), which is about three more than most prognosticators predicted prior to the season.
But, behind the improved play of quarterback (and Elizabethtown native) Chris Todd (2,612 passing yards; 22 touchdowns), and the solid running of running back Ben Tate (1,362 yards rushing; 10 touchdowns), Auburn made operating the Tiger scoreboard a full-time job, averaging 33.3 points per game on the year (3rd SEC). So good were the Tigers last year that they set three school records; in points scored (433), total offense (5,613 yards), and passing touchdowns (25). But, the flip-side of that coin; the Tigers gave up a program worst 358 points on the season (27.5 per game), setting a new Auburn record for defensive futility.
This season, the Tigers go forward without the two offensive stars of last year, Todd and Tate, but the replacements both ooze potential. First, JUCO transfer, and former Florida Gator Cameron Newton is the presumed starting quarterback for the Tigers (Tyrik Rollison, the #2 rated QB in his '09 high school class, is reportedly transferring). The highly mobile, strong-armed signal-caller should give the Tiger offense a legitimate double-threat option. Replacing Tate in the Tiger backfield will be senior Mario Fannin. Fannin backed-up Tate last year and put up some impressive numbers: 34 carries for 285 yards (8.4 yards per carry), as well as 42 receptions for 413 yards and three touchdowns.
Others coming back on the offensive side of the ball are wide receivers Darvin Adams (60 receptions for 997 yards; 10 touchdowns) and Terrell Zachary (26 receptions for 477 yards and five touchdowns).
While the Tigers have a couple of outstanding defensive players, overall, the defensive side the ball is the missing element that would make this team very, very good. Off an already porous defense the Tigers lose leading tackler Josh Bynes, and the SEC leader for tackles for loss (16.5), Antonio Coleman, who also had 10.0 sacks last year. Auburn does, though, bring back linebacker Craig Stevens (95 tackles), who is on the preseason Bronko Nagurski watch-list, which goes to the nations top defensive player. The secondary is filled with question marks related to how well three returning members (Mike McNeil, Zac Etheridge, Aairon Savage) come back from injuries. The loss of defensive back Walter McFadden (six interceptions) only adds to the uncertainty.
Playing Auburn at Commonwealth certainly makes me feel better about UK's chances in this year's contest. In what should be a very close, possibly high scoring game (the opposite of last year), I see the 'Cats pulling out a tight contest ... only because it's at home.
South Carolina Gamecocks: October 16 @ Commonwealth Stadium
2009: South Carolina 28 UK 26
South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier must feel like he's living in the Bizarro World: Up is down, front is back, and an offensive genius is an offensive bust.
Last year the Gamecocks scored 20.6 points per game (11th SEC), and averaged only 347.9 yards of offense per game (9th SEC). I can remember ("unfondly") days when Spurrier-led teams had 350 yards of offense at halftime.
But, the saving grace of last season's 7-6 (3-5) record is that SC gave up only 20.4 points (5th SEC) and 330.7 yards per game to their opponents (5th SEC). This season, though, there are concerns on the SC defensive front, except for the play of All-SEC defensive end Cliff Matthews (47 tackles; 10 tackles for loss and 10 sacks). The loss of All-SEC linebacker Eric Norwood (11.5 tackles for loss; 7.0 sacks) also leaves a large hole to fill. Leading a speedy secondary is returning defensive back Chris Culliver who had nine pass breakups last season.
Quarterback Stephen Garcia (2,86 yards passing; 17 touchdowns and 10 interceptions) returns on the offensive side of the ball, but if he falters Spurrier won't hesitate to pull the trigger on rookie quarterback Conner Shaw. SC allowed an SEC-high 37 sacks last season, so protecting whomever the quarterback might be will be of the utmost concern for Spurrier in 2010.
Freshman First Team All-America, wide receiver Alshon Jeffery (46 receptions; 763 yards and six touchdowns), returns to Columbia, along with senior wide out Moe Brown (33 receptions; 491 yards and three touchdowns) and Tori Gurley (31 receptions; 440 yards and two touchdowns), which gives the Gamecocks a trio of speedy, talented receivers. Also coming back is tight end Weslye Saunders (32 receptions; 353 yards and three touchdowns), who is presently ensnared in the agent-player controversy which has seemingly swallowed half the players in the SEC.
Even though Spurrier returns ample talent, the Gamecocks most exciting player might turn out to be true freshman running back Marcus Lattimore. Lattimore, the top running back recruit in the nation, will have to unseat junior ball carrier Kenny Miles (626 yards rushing; one touchdown) for playing time. Senior Brian Maddox who led the team with six rushing touchdowns on 307 yards rushing is also back.
Steve Spurrier has made a fine living out of beating UK. Seventeen straight times Spurrier's teams have whipped the 'Cats, and although this year's contest is played in Lexington, I don't see the streak stopping in 2010.
Georgia Bulldogs: October 30 @ Commonwealth Stadium
2009: UK 34 UGA 27
Coming off a season that saw the Bulldogs (8-5, 4-4) give up 30+ points in four games, and 40 or more points twice, head coach Mark Richt will be relying on his Dogs' defense to improve dramatically. Overall, the Bulldogs gave up an average of 25.9 points per game (10th SEC).
In 2010, Richt is charged with improving on 2009's lackadaisical defensive effort, but he'll have to do it without All-SEC performer, linebacker Rennie Curran (130 tackles), and speedy corner back Reshad Jones(73 tackles; seven pass breakups and four interceptions). Richt does return defensive end Demarcus Dobbs who had 4.5 sacks in '09.
Georgia added new defensive coordinator Todd Granthem to help shore-up the defense with his 3-4 set.
Offensively, the Dogs must replace quarterback Joe Cox who threw for 2,584 yards and 24 touchdowns. As of now, the Georgia depth chart lists true freshman stud athlete Aron Murray, the 13th rated quarterback in high school in '09, as the top Dog QB. Murray is a threat with both his legs and arm, and has impressed the staff with his accuracy and arm strength. Also vying for time as signal-caller is junior Logan Gray. Gray, who is also a dual-threat quarterback, threw for 31 yards last season on 5 of 12 passing, with two troubling interceptions.
Catching passes in 2010 will once again be All-SEC player A.J. Green (10 games; 53 catches; 808 yards and six touchdowns). Richt also has Green returning punts in an effort to replaced graduated punt returner Prince Miller. The receiving corps also brings back sophomore receiver Tavarres King (18 catches; 377 yards and one touchdown), and sophomore tight end Orson Charles (374 yards receiving; three touchdowns), as well as experienced tight end Aron White (198 yards receiving; four touchdowns). The Dogs do lose exceptional receiver Michael Moore (249 receiving yards) who scored five touchdowns last year.
Running the ball in 2010 for the Dogs will be sophomore ball carrier Washaun Ealey. Ealey, who played in nine games in '09, rushed for 717 yards (5.7 yards per carry) and three touchdowns. Joining Ealey in the Georgia backfield will be junior Caleb King who rushed for 594 yards (5.2 ypc) and seven touchdowns in 10 games last year.
The 'Cats have experienced some success versus the Dogs in recent years, splitting the last four games. I look for UK to make it two-in-a-row in 2010.
In the coming days look for the final installment of the series.
Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats!