When discussing Southeastern Conference football, the University of Kentucky rarely comes to mind unless you're an athletic director wanting to schedule a game in which your team will have a semi-off week.
SEC football brings to mind powerhouse teams like Florida, LSU, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, and Auburn, reminding fans of college football's most powerful conference. Urban Meyer, Steve Spurrier, Mark Richt, and previous Volunteer head man Phillip Fulmer remind us of the teams that have powered the Southeast.
Let this be the first warning of the change in tide that is sure to arrive next season: The Kentucky Wildcats will be a name heard around the league.
With the recent wake of coaching changes that have arrived in the SEC (Tommy Tuberville, Fulmer) and semi-new coaches riding in early seasons of their tenure (Bobby Petrino, Nick Saban, and Houston Nutt), the time is right for an overachiever to gain recognition.
A program with an experienced coaching staff, hard-working, dedicated players looking to break school records, and a fan base that is second to none could break through the masses and make a name for Kentucky.
An overachiever that has laid the groundwork with three consecutive bowl victories, an experienced and determined defense and an offense on the brink of greatness could be a threat next year.
A Wildcat team that is determined to become more than a basketball school will call Commonwealth Stadium home this season. Kentucky will make some noise.
Kentucky has one of the steadiest coaching staffs: head coach Rich Brooks, offensive head coach Joker Phillips, defensive coordinator Steve Brown, and offensive coordinator Randy Sanders.
A strong recruiting class includes two of the nation's top QB prospects in Morgan Newton and Ryan Mossokowski, immediate impact wideout Chris Matthews, and high interest from defensive end Dequan Evans.
Add this to experienced and progressing QB Mike Hartline and do-it-all wide receiver/QB/returner Randall Cobb and a returning defense rated as one of the best in the country last season, and the Wildcats have a lot of pieces in position for victories.
With a workable 2009 schedule that includes early upsettable games at home against Florida and Alabama, Kentucky will make its name heard.
The Wildcats also have been quietly bringing in top talent in the last couple of years, players that have elected to stay for their senior years. Kentucky has three defensive leaders bypassing the NFL draft in LB Micah Johnson, DE Jeremy Jarmon, and CB Trevard Lindley. These three are sure to garner All-American status in the preseason of 2009, with Lindley likely to make first team.
Kentucky's past three seasons have included three consecutive bowl wins, a first in the history of the program. These bowl wins (two Music City Bowls and the Liberty Bowl) have included victories over Clemson, Florida State, and Conference USA champions East Carolina.
Also, within these seasons Kentucky has gained back-to-back wins over rival Louisville and Arkansas and, last year, a triple overtime victory over then top-ranked LSU. With this type of experience and momentum, the Wildcats will be hard to push out of the conversation when discussing the SEC.
In a conference that seems to be dominated by write-in champion Florida and the overrated Alabama, the Wildcats have too much experience, too much passion and too much momentum to not be an SEC power. Come deep September to early October, Kentucky will be anything but a silly prediction.