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UK Football: Reevaluating Optimism

Prior to the start of the football season, I wrote a three-part series examining the prospects for the Kentucky season, from an overly optimistic point of view.  Spying the upcoming season through a "cockeyed optimist's" spectacles, I did all I could to wring-out 10 regular season wins for the Cats and first-year head coach Joker Phillips.   At the end of the exercise, the best I feel good about, even as an optimist, were eight wins, two toss-ups (Ole Miss, Tennessee), and two losses (Florida, South Carolina).

That isn't 10 wins, but it's close.

So, with three games under the belt of the Wildcats, it's time to determine if the optimist in me was just whistlin' Dixie, or had a firm grasp on reality.  Today, we'll look at UK's eight SEC opponents, how they have performed thus far, and if a tamping down of Mr. Optimist's feel-good attitude is in order, or, if fans should ready the RV for a January 1 bowl game.

Follow me after the jump for the verdict:

Florida Gators: 3-0 (1-0) Ranked #9 (AP) #8 (Coaches)

Optimist's Preseason Pick: Loss 

Date with the Cats: This Saturday in Gainesville.

Wins: (H) Miami (OH) 34-12, (H) South Florida 38-14, @Tennessee 31-17

SEC Rank: Points Per Game 34.3 (4th in SEC): Opponent's Points Per Game 14.3 (5): Total Offense 317.3 (11): Total Defense 276.6 (4): Rush Offense 166.7 (8): Rush Defense 92.3 (4): Pass Offense 150.7 (10): Pass Defense 184.3 (8). 

Individual Numbers

  • Quarterback: John Brantley -- 49-79 (62.0%) for 452 yards, five touchdowns and zero interceptions.
  • Running Back: Jeffery Demps -- 45 carries for 310 yards (6.9 yards per carry) and two touchdowns; Eight catches for 59 yards (7.3 yards per receptions).
  • Running Back: Mike Gillislee -- 18 carries for 111 yards (6.1 ypc) and three touchdowns.
  • Wide Receiver: Deonte Thompson -- 13 catches for 162 yards (12.5 yards per reception).
  • Wide Receiver: Omarius Hines -- Seven catches for 70 yards (10.0 ypr) and one touchdown.

Florida is still Florida.  Yes, they miss Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin on offense, but the Gator defense looks to have not skipped a beat with the loss of Carlos Dunlap and crew ... still strong, still fast.  Brantley has been "managing" the games very well (zero interceptions), and Jeffery Demps is always a threat to break-off a long one for six.

A win at Florida would certainly qualify as a marquee win for the Cats, but I've seen nothing in either team to make me believe UK has anything other than a fighter's chance in this one.

One detail to keep an eye on: The Gators have failed to score an offensive touchdown in the first quarter this year.  If the Cats come out quick, like they've done in two of their three games, it could make for an interesting second half.

Ole Miss Rebels: 1-2 (0-1)

Optimist's Preseason Pick: Toss-up

Date with the Cats: October 2 in Oxford.

Win: @ Tulane 27-13

Losses: (H) Jacksonville State 49-48 (2OT), (H) Vanderbilt 28-14

SEC Rank: Points Per Game 29.7 (7): Opponent's Points Per Game 30.0 (12): Total Offense 412.7 (5): Total Defense 322.3 (9): Rush Offense 174.7 (7): Rush Defense 141.3 (9): Pass Offense 238.0 (4): Pass Defense 181.0 (7).

Individual Numbers

  • Quarterback Jeremiah Masoli -- 40-65 (61.5%) for 580 yards, one touchdown and four interceptions; 33 carries for 160 yards (4.8 ypc) and two touchdowns.
  • Running back Brandon Bolden -- 34 carries for 182 yards (5.4 ypc) and two touchdowns; Seven receptions for 92 yards (13.1 ypr).
  • Running back Enrique Davis -- 39 carries for 118 yards (3.0 ypc) and two touchdowns.
  • Wide receiver Markeith Summers -- 10 receptions for 235 yards (23.5 ypr) and two touchdowns.
  • Wide receiver Jesse Grandy -- Seven receptions for 100 yards (14.3 ypr) and one touchdown.

This game I listed as a toss-up in the preseason, but I think an upgrade is in order.  The Rebels lost a ton of talent last year, and it's going to take another year or so for the program to recover.  Although Masoli is a very dangerous offensive weapon, I don't think he can score enough to offset the Rebel defensive weaknesses. 

Even though I like the Cats in this game, a fairly major concern for me going into this contest is the play of Ole Miss running back Brandon Bolden.  Any team, ANY TEAM, with a strong ball carrier could potentially cause the Cats much trouble, and Bolden is a strong ball carrier.

Auburn Tigers: 3-0 (1-0) Ranked #17 (AP) #14 (Coaches)

Optimist's Preseason Pick: Win

Date with the Cats: October 9 @ Commonwealth Stadium

Wins: (H) Arkansas State 52-26, @ Mississippi State 17-14, (H) Clemson 27-24 (OT)

SEC Rank: Points Per Game 32.0 (t5): Opponent's Points Per Game 21.3 (t9): Total Offense 460.0 (4): Total Defense 342.0 (11): Rush Offense 259.3 (1): Rush Defense 115.7 (6): Pass Offense 200.7 (8): Pass Defense 226.3 (11).

Individual Numbers

  • Quarterback Cam Newton -- 27-47 (57.4%) for 525 yards, seven touchdowns and two interceptions; 50 carries for 309 yards (6.2 ypc) and two touchdowns.
  • Running back Michael Dyer -- 39 carries for 212 yards (5.4 ypc) and one touchdown.
  • Running back Onterio McCalebb -- 31 carries for 225 yards (7.3 ypc) and one touchdown.
  • Running back Mario Fannin -- (Two games) Eight carries for 20 yards (2.5 ypc); Five receptions for 79 yards (15.8 ypr) and two touchdowns.
  • Wide receiver Darvin Adams -- 10 receptions for 214 yards (21.4 ypr) and two touchdowns.
  • Wide receiver Terrell Zachary -- Six receptions for 119 yards (19.8 ypr) and one touchdown.

Of all the SEC teams UK's plays this year, Auburn is the team that has surprised me the most.  The Tigers, against stiff competition, have looked very strong offensively behind the play of quarterback Cam Newton.  Newton is a true double-threat guy, and at 6-6, he's a load to take down when he decides to run. 

Auburn also has a stable full of outstanding running backs, which I feel spells big trouble for the Cats.  I'm downgrading this game from a win, to a toss-up.    

South Carolina Gamecocks: 3-0 (1-0) Ranked #12 (AP) #15 (Coaches)

Optimist's Preseason Pick: Loss

Date with the Cats: October 16 @ Commonwealth Stadium

Wins: (H) Southern Miss 41-13, (H) Georgia 17-6, (H) Furman 38-19

SEC Rank: Points Per Game 32.0 (t5), Opponent's Points Per Game 12.7 (4), Total Offense 392.3 (6), Total Defense 327.3 (10), Rush Offense 198.3 (5), Rush Defense 59.7 (1), Pass Offense 194.0 (9), Pass Defense 267.7 (12). 

Individual Numbers

  • Quarterback Stephen Garcia -- 41-60 (68.3%) for 508 yards and two touchdowns; 25 carries for 62 yards (2.5 ypc) and two touchdowns.
  • Running back Marcus Lattimore -- 70 carries for 333 yards (4.8 ypc) and five touchdowns.
  • Full back Patrick DiMarco -- Six catches for 35 yards (5.8 ypr).
  • Wide receiver Ashlon Jeffery -- 19 receptions for 306 yards (16.1 ypr).
  • Wide receiver Tori Gurley -- Eight receptions for 78 yards (9.8 ypr) and one touchdown.
  • Wide receiver D.L. Moore -- Four receptions for 35 yards (8.8 ypr).

This game comes down to one thing: Can UK score 28+ points on the Gamecock defense?  Because that's what the Cats will have to score in order to be South Carolina.  Lattimore is a stud, and Garcia has never played better.

Unfortunately, in my book this game is still a probable loss.

Georgia Bulldogs: 1-2 (0-2)

Optimist's Preseason Pick: Win

Date with the Cats: October 23 @ Commonwealth Stadium

Win: (H) Louisiana-Lafayette 55-7

Losses: @ #24 South Carolina 17-6, (H) #12 Arkansas 31-24

SEC Rank: Points Per Game 28.3 (9), Opponent's Points Per Game 18.3 (8), Total Offense 340.7 (9), Total Defense 305.0 (8), Rush Offense 128.0 (11), Rush Defense 85.3 (3), Pass Offense 212.7 (5), Pass Defense 219.7 (10).

Individual Numbers

  • Quarterback Aaron Murray -- 46-74 (62.2%) for 605 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions.
  • Running back Washaun Ealey -- (Two games) 37 carries for 162 yards (4.4 ypc) and one touchdown.
  • Running back Carlton Thomas -- 20 carries for 92 yards (4.6 ypc).
  • Wide receiver Kris Durham -- 13 receptions for 260 yards (20.0 ypr) and one touchdown.
  • Tight end Tavarres King -- (Two games) Seven receptions for 119 yards (17.0 ypr) and one touchdown.

In two SEC games, Georgia has scored only 30 points.  But of course, when the Cats play the Dawgs, stud wide out A.J. Green will be off of suspension, which will make a huge difference (e.g. complicate matters) in how the league's defensive coordinators game-plan for the Georgia passing game.

Plus, factor in a possible (gradual) improvement in the freshman quarterback -- getting Green back can't hurt in that area -- and suddenly Georgia looks like much more of a threat than they do currently.  And yes, the Dawgs boast a strong tail back in Washaun Ealey.

I still, though, like the Cats in this game ... primarily because it's in Lexington.  

Mississippi State Bulldogs: 1-2 (0-2)

Optimist's Preseason Pick: Win

Date with the Cats: October 30 in Starkville.

Win: (H) Memphis 49-7

Losses: (H) #21 Auburn 17-14, @ #15 LSU 29-7

SEC Rank: Points Per Game 23.3 (11), Opponent's Points Per Game 17.7 (6), Total Offense 361.0 (8), Total Defense 283.0 (6), Rush Offense 155.3 (10), Rush Defense 132.7 (8), Pass Offense 205.7 (6), Pass Defense 150.3 (4).

Individual Numbers

    Quarterback Chris Relf -- 24-43 (55.8%) for 261 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions; 28 carries for 92 yards (3.3 ypc).
  • Quarterback Tyler Russell -- 22-35 (62.9%) for 356 yards, four touchdowns and four interceptions.
  • Running back Vick Ballard -- 23 carries for 101 yards (4.4 ypc) and four touchdowns.
  • Running back Robert Elliott -- 24 carries for 92 yards (3.8 ypc).
  • Running back LaDarius Perkins -- 21 carries for 91 yards (4.3 ypc).
  • Wide receiver Chad Bumphis -- 12 receptions for 155 yards (12.9 ypr) and two touchdowns.
  • Wide receiver Brandon Heavens -- Nine receptions for 145 yards (16.1 ypr) and two touchdowns.

The MSU defense is much stronger than I anticipated.  They are big, strong, and fast, and just good enough to keep State in most games.  Plus, the tandem quarterback (Relf & Russell) package currently being utilized by head coach Dan Mullen, is a weapon that in the past, the Cats have had trouble defusing.   

There's no Anthony Dixon on the roster, but I'm downgrading this game to a toss-up.

Vanderbilt Commodores: 1-2 (1-1)

Optimist's Preseason Pick: Win

Date with the Cats: November 13 @ Commonwealth Stadium

Win: @ Ole Miss 28-14

Losses: (H) Northwestern 23-21, (H) LSU 27-3

SEC Rank: Points Per Game 17.3 (12), Opponent's Points Per Game 21.3 (t9), Total Offense 289.0 (12), Total Defense 380.7 (12), Rush Offense 161.3 (9), Rush Defense 206.0 (12), Pass Offense 127.7 (11), Pass Defense 174.7 (6).

Individual Numbers

  • Quarterback Larry Smith -- 36-67 (53.7%) for 383 yards, one touchdown and one interception; 29 carries for 60 yards (2.1 ypc) and one touchdown.
  • Running back Warren Norman -- 33 carries for 225 yards (6.8 ypc) and two touchdowns.
  • Running back Zac Stacy -- 24 carries for 134 yards (5.6 ypc) and two touchdowns.
  • Tight end Brandon Barden -- 10 receptions for 118 yards (11.8 ypr) and one touchdown.
  • Wide receiver John Cole -- Eight receptions for 37 yards (4.6 ypr).
  • Wide receiver Jonathan Krause -- Five receptions for 77 yards (15.4 ypr).

Vanderbilt, because of their two top-notch running backs, will be a very dangerous game for the Cats, even at home.  But, I think the Cats simply have too many weapons for Vandy to keep up.

Tennessee Volunteers: 1-2 (0-1)

Optimist's Preseason Pick: Toss-up 

Date with the Cats: November 27 in Knoxville.

Win: (H) UT-Martin 50-0

Losses: (H) #7 Oregon 48-13, (H) Florida 31-17

SEC Rank: Points Per Game 26.7 (10), Opponent's Points Per Game 26.3 (11), Total Offense 386.0 (7), Total Defense 302.0 (7), Rush Offense 181.0 (6), Rush Defense 150.3 (11), Pass Offense 205.7 (7), Pass Defense 151.7 (5).

Individual Numbers

  • Quarterback Matt Simms -- 48-84 (57.1%) for 591 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions.
  • Running back Tauren Poole -- 50 carries for 295 yards (5.9 ypc) and three touchdowns; Six receptions for 55 yards (9.2 ypr).
  • Running back David Oku -- 18 carries for 109 yards (6.1 ypc) and one touchdown.
  • Wide receiver Zach Rogers -- Eight receptions for 105 yards (13.1 ypr).
  • Wide receiver Gerald Jones -- Six receptions for 86 yards (14.3 ypr).
  • Tight end Luke Stocker -- Eight receptions for 60 yards (7.5 ypr).

Like the Georgia Bulldogs; after two SEC games, the Volunteers have scored only 30 points.  And while the Vols have not looked good, they have played two very tough opponents.  The UT offensive struggles can be traced to Simms not always playing with confidence (which could change), and defensively, head coach Derek Dooley just doesn't have the same quality athlete as we're accustomed to seeing wearing orange.

But, Poole and Oku are both very good backs, which makes this team a very dangerous opponent for Kentucky.  The Vols and Cats have had some shootouts over the last five or six years, and this year I see as being no different.

Still a toss-up in my mind.

So how are those eight wins, two losses, and two toss-ups looking now?  Well, Florida is still a probable loss; Ole Miss has been upgraded to a probable win from a toss-up; Auburn and Mississippi State have been downgraded from wins to toss-ups.  Which alters the Cats' ledger to seven wins, two losses, and three toss-ups.

I still like the Cats' chances of winning eight, maybe nine regular season games, but it goes without saying; the run defense (10th SEC) must improve, and the boys in blue will need a little luck along the way.

Thanks for reading and Go Cats!