While the general consensus is that Kentucky Football is a program on the rise after last year's shocking 8-4 finish and the emergence of Andre' Woodson as a premier SEC QB, I'm not buying it, a position I'm sure will endear me to our friends at A Sea of Blue. They've done some fine work resisting their urge to talk basketball and only basketball, chronicling the "Return to Glory" of Wildcat football, and even they seem a little trepidatious at calling for a second consecutive UK bowl appearance while facing their demanding schedule. Quite simply, while the offense should be as, if not more, potent as last year's, the defense will need to do far better than I believe they are capable in order to match last year's success. So let's take a look at the individual units and see what needs to be done if UK plans on traveling during the postseason this year.
QB Andre' Woodson
|WR Keenan Burton
In the backfield, UK welcomes back RB Rafael Little, who managed 1,405 all-purpose yards last season despite missing four games due to injury. A 1st Team All-SEC pick in '05, Little is dangerous as both a rusher and receiver, running for 673 yards on 140 carries while also catching 31 for 392 and 2 TDS and returning 14 punts for 317 yards and 1 TD. Backing him up are Tony Dixon, who had 87 carries for 303 yds and 4 TDs last year, and Alfonso Smith.
The two biggest question marks for the offense are the O-line and, wait for it Bama fans...the Red Zone. Only two starters return for the 'Cats this year, LT Garry Williams and LG Christian Johnson, and Johnson was forced to miss spring practice and focus on his grades. Likely joining them on the line will be converted TE Eric Scott at Center, Jason Leger at RG (a converted DT who saw playing time last year), and Justin Jeffries at RT. This is a young group, but last year's line only opened holes for 99 ypg rushing and allowed 39 sacks so they probably can't be any worse.
As for the Red Zone, despite finishing in the top half of pretty much every major offensive category last year, the 'Cats fell way down the scale in two categories; Rushing and Red Zone offense. The ground game finished 11th in the conference, averaging 98.6 ypg and 3.1 ypc, while the Red Zone offense finished tenth in the league. In 51 trips to the Red Zone, the 'Cats scored 37 times (72.5%), scoring 27 TDs and making 10 of 16 FG attempts. Drives were stopped by 4 turnovers (1 fumble and 3 picks), and three turnovers on downs. With a more experienced group returning, these problems could be remedied this season, but a lack of an effective running game will be a sure hindrance.
With all that firepower returning on offense, there's still plenty of opportunity for UK to stumble badly if the defense puts on a repeat performance from last year. About the only thing it had going for it was an astouning +15 turnover margin. UK finished at the bottom of every nearly every category not only in the league but in the nation, save, weirdly enough, Red Zone Defense, where they finished fourth in the SEC thanks to those helpful turnovers. New DC Steve Brown has his work cut out for him if he wants to improve this bunch, but there doesn't look like there's a whole lot to work with.
The two top sack men on the line return, with DE Jeremy Jarmon earning all four of his in the last four games, and DT Myron Pryor had five last season. Joining them on the line will be Corey Peters, where he saw two starts last season as a true freshman, and Nii Adjei Oninku at DE where he saw five starts last year. Though there is experience on the line, this unit needs to be more productive, as the defense was routinely gashed for yardage on the ground, allowing 184.5 ypg and 5.0 ypc.
LB Wesley Woodyard
Talk about a group in serious need of improvement, the UK DBs were burned for HUGE yardage last season, allowing 3496 yards through the air for a league worst 268.9 yards per game. There is potential for improvement here, though, as returning starters SS Roger Williams and FS Marcus McClinton are solid in the middle, combining for 127 tackles, 9 PBUs, and 6 INTs, and CB Trevard Lindley showed promise as a shutdown corner, breaking up 12 passes and picking two off as a redshirt freshman.
Despite serious problems with the defense early on, the unit seemed to gel at the end of last season, holding Tenneessee to 17 in the 17-12 regular season ending loss, and holding off Clemson in the Music City Bowl. If the defense can manage a few stops here and there instead of relying on turnovers, the 'Cats have a reasonable chance to outshoot a lot of teams on their schedule.
1-AA Eastern Kentucky kicks things off with a gimme for the 'Cats, and a week two date with Kent State should see UK at 2-0 going into their annual rivalry match with Louisville. The Cardinals have won the last four, and held the 'Cats to 22 yds rushing last year. They'll be breaking in a new coach this season, so if UK intends to pull a shocking upset, this is the time to do it. Their first road trip is to Arkansas, and with UK's notable inability to stop the run, that one could get ugly fast. Florida Atlantic, the last gimme win on the schedule, comes calling next, and fater that things get a lot harder for the 'Cats. A visit to South Carolina will test the UK secondary before UK welcomes LSU, Florida, and Mississippi State to Lexington for three straight home games. LSU spanked the 'Cats 49-0 last year, Florida held them to a single TD, and the 'Cats were barely able to hold off State in a 34-31 thriller. Of the three, State seems like the likeliest win, though I suspect State's improved offensive decision making will be the difference this year in what will surely be another shootout. After a week off, they hit the road to Nashville and Athens, and I've already called for a Vandy win based on homefield advantage and improved decision making from Nickson. Finally, the 'Cats host UT, a team they haven't beaten since 1984. I've already called this one for UT, but the 'Cats had a chance to shock the Vols in Knoxville last season, but were unable to convert inside the UT 10.
I'm with the fellas at A Sea of Blue on this one; There are three clear wins, three clear losses, and the need for some big upsets to get this team back into the post season. Eastern Kentucky, Kent State, and FAU should all be hands down wins, while LSU, Florida, and UGA all look like hands down losses, leaving Louisville, Arkansas, South Carolina, Mississippi State, Vandy, and UT. The 'Cats will need a win over three of those to get bowl eligible, a feat that seems unlikely but wholly possible.