To coincide with the start of Kentucky football training camp today, we are going to take a look at the football team and the schedule from a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats standpoint. The first two will generally apply to the football team itself, and the last two to the season and program as a whole.
Let's get started:
Usually when we talk about the strengths of a Kentucky Wildcats football team, we are talking about the skill players. Over the years, especially in the Mumme/Brooks/Phillips eras, Kentucky has always had very good players at multiple skill positions. In the Mumme era, it was Tim Couch, Jared Lorenzen, Jim Whalen and Craig Yeast among others. In the Brooks era, it was André Woodson, Raphael Little, Keenan Burton, Dicky Lyons Jr. and Jacob Tamme. So far in the Phillips era it has been Derrick Locke, Randall Cobb, Chris Matthews and Mike Hartline.
This year looks different from the outset. The strengths of this football team appear to be in the offensive line and the defensive backfield. Kentucky returns a very experienced and pretty talented offensive line which figures to be one of the best in the SEC. Chandler Burden, Billy Joe Murphy, Stuart Hines and Larry Warford form an experienced and imposing line. Center Matt Smith is the youngest lineman in terms of experience. All of them other than Burden are backed up by players with at least some experience.
The defensive backfield is also laden with experience and talent. Randall Burden, Anthony Mosely and Winston Guy Jr are all seniors, and all capable defenders with multiple letters. Martavius Neloms also saw significant time last year, as did Mychal Bailey. and Cartier Rice. The defense also returns the core of an excellent linebacking corps in Danny Trevathan and Ridge Wilson.
So for the first time in a while, it could be that the defense is actually more promising, at least starting out the year, than the offense. A lot depends upon how the defensive line does with talented new additions like Mister Cobble and Donte Rumph, both who have had trouble getting on the field due to injuries and academics.
Overall, though, the defense looks like it could be markedly improved from last year, which isn't really hard since last year's squad set such a low bar.
The offensive line looks capable of protecting the passer and blocking the run as well as any line in the SEC, but can the skill guys run and pass the football?
One definite weakness of this year's squad is experience in the offensive skill positions. With only one proven receiver returning in La'Rod King, little-used backups like Matt Roark, E.J. Fields and Gene McCaskill will be getting their chance, but can they deliver? Tyler Robinson, Nick Melillo and Jordan Aumiller performed capably if not exceptionally last year at tight end, but the lack of true deep threats on this year's roster may force them to step up a lot more underneath. Morgan Newton has enough experience to be good, so I don't really count him as a weakness, although he is unproven as "the man."
Another weakness that has previously been a strength is the punt and kick return game. Raymond Sanders has some experience returning kicks, but when it comes to punt returners, there are no proven players at that spot. Randall Cobb was so great at these positions that he pretty much took them with him when he left.
Finally, there is the fullback position. After four years of having a strong player at that spot in John Conner and Moncell Allen after him, the fullback position has no heir apparent. Cody Jones, a 5'11" 208 lb. sophomore is penciled into the depth chart right now, but he has neither the size nor the proven blocking and ball-carrying ability of Allen or Conner.
Turning now to the schedule, lets see where this team has opportunities in 2011:
- Vs. the Louisville Cardinals 09/17 -- As usual, this game is a key for both Louisville and Kentucky, and is the hardest non-conference game the Wildcats will face, as it usually is. Win this one, and Kentucky should be 3-0 heading into it's first home game, which brings us to:
- Vs. the Florida Gators 09/24 -- Kentucky gets the formerly mighty Gators in Commonwealth Stadium with a ridiculous 24-year losing streak to the Florida on the line. With a new coach in former Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp and a relatively new Florida team, this represents a chance for the Wildcats to end a streak and enter SEC play with a bang.
- Vs. the Mississippi St. Bulldogs 10/29 -- MSU will be a tougher order for Kentucky than in previous years due to the return of Chris Relf and an experienced offense. MSU's defense is inexperienced, though, and road trips to the Bluegrass always seem tough for the Dawgs.
- Vs. the Mississippi Rebels 11/05 -- Gone is stud QB Jeremiah Masoli who put up four touchdowns against UK last year, three passing and one rushing. Gone also is his favorite target, Markieth Summers. This is a game Kentucky likely must win in order to have any shot at a bowl.
- Vs. the Tennessee Volunteers 11/26 -- This is an excellent opportunity,
but not an exceptionally good one since Kentucky must travel to Knoxvillesince we get to play the Volunteers in Commonwealth Stadium. There is a possibility that NCAA sanctions may keep the Vols from reaching their true potential next year, but there is little doubt that they are at least as good and certainly more talented than Kentucky. so getting them at home will be very tough. Still, this ought to be a competitive game and UK has the edge at home. Kentucky has perhaps its best chance in a decade to end the UT winning streak at 26.
- Vs. Louisville -- Just as the Cardinals represent an opportunity, they are also a threat to derail any chances that Kentucky might have of getting to a bowl in 2011. They are good enough this year to beat Kentucky, unlike the last two. But this game is in Commonwealth, so Louisville isn't quite as threatening as they might otherwise be.
- Vs. the Central Michigan Chippewas 9/10 -- Central Michigan was weak last year but will be better this year. They are the kind of team that traditionally plays very good football, and if Kentucky is not paying attention, this game could be a dangerous one.
- Vs. the Vanderbilt Commodores 11/12 -- Vanderbilt at Vanderbilt, for some reason, is never easy for Kentucky, and if new Vanderbilt coach is anywhere near as good at coaching as he is at recruiting, this could be a tougher game even than usual. Lose the Vandy game and odds are a bowl is out of reach barring a major upset or two.
- Streak of bowl appearances -- This is the year that streak could realistically end. Unlike the previous couple of years when Kentucky didn't have a particularly strong team, Louisville and at least one SEC opponent, and usually more than one, was relatively weak. This year, Louisville is much stronger and the SEC is not much more manageable.
- UK fan goodwill -- Joker Phillips had plenty of opposition, albeit a minority, when he took over as the coach in waiting. A disappointing season this year could make his seat warmer than he'd like, and put a lot of pressure on the results for next season.
That's it. We'll be talking about the schedule more in depth as we get closer to the season opener. Kentucky has a chance to really make some noise this year, but it looks doubtful they can threaten the division race. If the Wildcats can hold serve against Louisville, pick up one genuine upset and defeat Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, Joker will have done reasonably well. There is hope that this Kentucky team can be really good, but I can't go there yet because of the number of new players in critical offensive skill and defensive line positions.
But there is hope.