We all know the conventional wisdom: UK is going to suck at football this year. Blunt, to the point, and succinct if inelegant.
But is it true? There now seem to be legitimate reasons to doubt that it is. I don't think even the most optimistic UK fan believes this team will contend for the SEC East, but there are lots of things in between an abject suckage like, say, 3-9 and a theoretical best-case scenario of 7-5.
Kentucky's schedule this year is figured to be tougher than last year. Home games for Kentucky other than the three non-BCS teams include the likes of the South Carolina Gamecocks, Georgia Bulldogs, Mississippi St. Bulldogs and Vanderbilt Commodores. Of those, only Mississippi St. and Vanderbilt look like games that UK, given our assumption that they are not SEC contenders, would be figured as competitive in.
John Clay has an article today making ten points about the Wildcats. Of course, he is making them sight unseen. Nobody has seen Kentucky scrimmage, so he, as well as I and everyone else not automatically inclined to consign this team to history's dustbin before the first snap, are drawing conclusions from coach's comments.
Much has been made of how bad Kentucky's offense was last year, and it was loathsome. For some reason, though, few want to believe that UK will be any better this year offensively. My theory is that from were the Wildcats were last year, there is only one direction to go -- up. Also, we have heard a little bit about Kentucky's improved running back depth, the improvement of Demarco Robinson, and of course,there is always La'Rod King, who was arguably a little help away from a very good season last year.
What we don't know about the offense boils down to who will be quarterback, and how the offensive line will do. I am pretty confident that Maxwell Smith will be the starting QB despite Phillips' reluctance to name him at this point. That reluctance probably has more to do with keeping Smith sharp and competitive than anything else, but waiting too long, as we found out a couple of years ago, can be a distraction. Still, there is really not all that much controversy, as most people well informed about the program believe that the actual naming of a quarterback is more of a formality at this point. It isn't as if the Big Blue Nation is agitating for Morgan Newton to start over Maxwell Smith, as they were two years back over Mike Hartline.
There is a bit of encouragement offered by the line, and the offense in general, from the scrimmage results yesterday. Consider this from John Clay's article:
2. The offense is much further along than a year ago.
We base this not just on the 98-yard drive the offense put together (we were told) in Saturday's scrimmage. We base this on the fact that last fall the word we kept hearing was "playmakers" in that the staff was looking for "playmakers." This year, we have not heard that word. Or not as much.
The "realists" among us will rightly wonder if, assuming the drive is as advertised, whether it is something to be excited about from an offensive standpoint, or an indictment of the defense. At this point, it's impossible to say. As is usually the case from working off of reports from a scrimmage nobody but the coaching staff saw, we are working primarily off the comments of the coaches to the media afterward. In this case:
Highlighting the offense's solid day was a 14-play, 98-yard drive led by quarterback Max Smith.
"It was very satisfying to see," said offensive coordinator Randy Sanders. "Number one, just to see us go 98 yards without having a 30- or 40-yard play mixed in there means that you had a lot of guys doing the right things a number of plays in a row."
Reading between the lines, the running backs were a major contributor to this drive, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that Dyshawn Mobley and Justin Taylor were deeply involved. To have a sustained drive, you must be able to get the 3rd and 2 or 3, usually as many as three times, and previous reports indicate that Mobley and Taylor were "pile movers." It also suggests the offensive line might be just a bit better than we had any right to hope, although the biggest concern was never really the starters as much as it was the youth of their backups.
Also, comments from Phillips suggest that DeMarcus Sweat is making an impact as a freshman, and is likely to see some serious playing time. Sweat was exceptionally dangerous in high school as a punt returner, and given that Kentucky's punt return game was next to last in all of division I last year, consisting mostly of trying to catch and hang on to the football rather than to actually advance it. Is it possible that UK will have a punt return team this year that, you know, actually tries to return punts? Quite an upgrade right there.
Am I becoming more optimistic about this football team? Yes, quite a bit, actually. Reflecting on last year, practice reports always contained constant negativity about offensive production, and this year, it doesn't. While I think none of us legitimately know is whether or not the offensive success this year has more to do with defensive ineptitude than offensive skill and execution. As an optimist, I prefer to believe the latter.
In sum, I think more optimism this year is warranted at this point. Last year, it was injury after injury, dropped pass after dropped pass. This year it's 98-yard drives and praise for young skill players.
I like it a lot better, even if optimism turns out to be based on a mirage.