2011 Record: (5-7, 2-6 in SEC)
Head Coach: Joker Phillips (11-14 at Kentucky, 4-12 in SEC)
Last Bowl Game: 2010 season BBVA Compass Bowl: lost to Pitt 27-10
Out of Conference: 9/2 at Louisville
Stat to Cheer: held opponents to 77.78% score rate in the red zone (4th in SEC)
Stats to Fear: converted only 28.98% of third downs in 2011 (last in SEC, 115th in Nation), had 105 plays of 10 or more yards in 2011 (last in SEC, 118th in Nation)
Phil Steele's Returning Starters: (Offense: 6; Defense: 5; Specialists: 1)
Key Defensive Returnees: S Martavius Neloms (71 tackles), LB Avery Williamson (49 tackles)
Key Offensive Returnees: QB Maxwell Smith (4 TD, 4 INT), WR La'Rod King (40 rec, 7 TD), OG Larry Warford
Inside Scoop with A Sea of Blue:
CFBZ: Kentucky struggled mightily on the offensive side of the football in 2011. Why should we be optimistic that the Wildcats will improve in 2012?
A Sea of Blue: Mainly because the young players who saw only spot minutes last year are older and better, and the redshirts should be ready to take on some responsibility. Kentucky potentially has a very deep and reasonably talented running back corps, especially so if Josh Clemons, Dy'Shawn Mobley and Justin Taylor are all recovered from their injuries.
There figures to be a fight at QB, as the word is that Morgan Newton has recovered from his off-season shoulder surgery and is ready to challenge Max Smith for the starting spot, who right now sits in the presumptive starter position. Highly-ranked freshman Patrick Towles will also get a look, although the smart money is on a redshirt for him unless he proves ready to guide an SEC football team as a true freshman.
Receiver-wise, things are less settled, but E.J. Fields, La'Rod King, and Demarco Robinson have all passed the "look" test, and King had a good season the year before last. If they can deliver on their considerable potential, UK's offense should be head and shoulders better than last year.
CFBZ: How will Kentucky replace two of the three leading tacklers in the SEC this season (Danny Trevathan and Winston Guy Jr)?
A Sea of Blue: Kentucky has some potentially great talent in the wings that didn't get any time last year. The trick will be to get them flying around the field early in the season rather than having a long development time. Alvin DuPree and Avery Williamson have both been pretty impressive early, particularly Williamson.
At the safety spot, Martavious Neloms, a former DB, has been moved in there at one position, but a name that has not been heard much about is likely to assert himself during the summer at the other position, Glenn Faulkner. Faulkner is one of the most highly thought of players on Kentucky's squad, but got off to a slow start academically, although he did make an impression last year late. Look for him to be the guy that replaces Winston Guy Jr. at the hybrid spot, and he is more than talented enough to make a big impact.
CFBZ: Is Joker Phillips on the hot seat?
A Sea of Blue: Let's call it a warm seat. Unless this team collapses and fails to win an SEC contest, let's say 3 wins or less, Phillips is sure to return for at least one more season, in my opinion. Mitch Barnhart has been very firm in his support for Joker Phillips, and has a demonstrated track record of patience when it comes to football coaches at Kentucky.
CFBZ: What is your gut feeling on the final record for the 2012 season and what makes the season successful in your eyes?
A Sea of Blue: My gut feeling is that Kentucky will win 5 or 6 games this year. I place the odds of six at roughly 50%, and 5 at around 70%.
I think six wins would be considered a success with a team this young, and even though UK will have to upset at least two and probably three teams to get to six wins, this is the kind of team, and schedule, that could pull that off. Five wins would probably be considered about status quo with improvement required next year. Four would be a disappointment and put pressure on the Athletics Director as well as Phillips. Three or less and all bets are off.
Kentucky went from scoring 31.2 points per game in 2010 to just 15.8 points in 2011. I'm no math major but when you lose more than two TDs in scoring in one season it's not going to translate to winning football. Not only did they score less but they gained 150 less yards. To say Kentucky struggled offensively would be an understatement as they failed to reach the twenty point plateau in nine of twelve games. Kentucky lost a lot of good offensive players after the 2010 season and they simply didn't find replacements in 2011. Will it be better this season?
It has to get better on offense this year but how much better it will be remains to be seen. Maxwell Smith should get the starting nod at QB. He gained some valuable experience in 2011 as he played major minutes in four games down the stretch and quarterbacked the Wildcats against Ole Miss, which was one of their only two SEC victories last season. There is some talent at RB for Kentucky but they have to stay healthy this year and they need some help from the passing game. The question of how much can they improve will be answered if can they find a true playmaker (the Wildcats had 105 plays of 10 yards or more, which was 35 less than the #11 team in the SEC which was Ole Miss).
On defense, replacing a stud like Danny Trevathan is not going to be easy. To complicate matters, the Wildcats have to replace not just him but three of their top four tacklers from last season. Trevathan also led the team in sacks, forced fumbles and interceptions. Much like the offense, they must also find playmakers on the defensive side of the football.
With Joker Phillips getting promoted internally, my expectation was for him to be able to pick up running with this team. That has simply not happened as he's followed up four straight winning seasons from Rich Brooks with two losing seasons. It's not like Brooks was wildly successful but towards the end of his tenure he had Kentucky at a higher level than they are now. This team is going to beat Kent State, WKU and Samford but realistically those could be the only games they win this season.
2012 Prediction: 4-8
Previous 2012 Previews: