Spring practice is wrapping up across the country and we are a little over four months away from kickoff. To make the time go a little faster, I will count down my top 50 teams one team at a time.
No. 50 South Carolina Gamecocks
No. 49 KENTUCKY WILDCATS
The verge is something Rich Brooks has seen before.
Two seasons ago his team was on the verge of something special behind quarterback Andre Woodson. The Cats were 6-1, including a thrilling three-overtime victory over then-No. 1 LSU, before losing four of their last six.
Last season, despite being forced to start third-string quarterback Mike Hartline, the Cats started 5-2. The two losses—a three-point loss to No. 2 Alabama and a seven-point loss to South Carolina—were no help in explaining what happened in a 58-point dismantling at the hands of Florida, a loss that sent the season into a tailspin.
Despite all of that, Kentucky is one of only 11 BCS teams to have won its last three bowl games and it has the nation's second-longest non-conference winning streak, including bowl games, at 14 games. Only LSU has a longer streak, with 19 straight wins outside of SEC play.
But when it comes to competing in the SEC Kentucky is barely a .500 team and Brooks is tired of being on the verge of breaking through.
"I would like to have a Southeastern Conference championship run and a BCS run," the coach said.
And so the Kentucky football program has made an effort to get more commitments from some of the top recruits in the country.
“We want anything that keeps us from being just above .500. I’m excited about this (recruiting) class," Brooks said.
He also has to be excited about the return of All-America caliber defenders Micah Johnson, Jeremy Jarmon, and Trevard Lindley who decided to forego the draft and return for their senior seasons.
"They want to be a factor in the conference championship. Our chances of doing that are better with these three players.”
Still there is reason for concern. The Cats never found a big-play receiver to fill the void after Dicky Lyons Jr. suffered a career-ending injury midway through the 2008 season.
The passing attack struggled all season, and the Wildcats eventually utilized a run-oriented offense with Randall Cobb at quarterback.
Brooks plans to move Cobb back to receiver while giving Hartline a chance to regain the starting quarterback position as they attempt to throw the ball more. The Wildcats certainly need someone to step up in the receiving corps.
There is also very little depth in the backfield this spring. The Lexington Herald-Leader’s Chip Cosby reports rising junior Moncell Allen, who was suspended for academic reasons at the end of last season, and senior Alfonso Smith will be the only two healthy scholarship tailbacks this spring.
There are some talented newcomers on the way. Two of the top-rated quarterback recruits in the country, Ryan Mossakowski and Morgan Newton, will report to the Kentucky campus this summer.
KEEP AN EYE ON
Winston Guy: One of the best athletes on the team, Guy could grab an expanded role in the secondary—whether it's at cornerback or safety.
Danny Trevathan: Although he only recorded five tackles as a part-time player last season, Trevathan impressed the coaching staff with his ferocious hitting ability.
Collins Ukwu: After arriving on campus last year weighing just 220 pounds, Ukwu has added 30 pounds to his 6'4" frame. Now that he has grown a bit, Ukwu could challenge for a starting spot. Jarmon is a sure starter at one end spot, but the other starting position is up for grabs.
The key position battles in Lexington this spring will be at quarterback, on the offensive line, and at several positions across the board on defense.
Hartline will get a chance to claim the job for 2009, and put some distance between himself and prized recruits Mossakowski and Newton.
“Mike Hartline is the quarterback until he does not perform well enough or someone performs better than him,” Brooks says. “We will have three scrimmages of significance in the spring, and we will decide after that.”
The Wildcats will work with two new tackles on the offensive line this spring after the loss of left tackle Garry Williams, a three-year starter, and an injury to starting right tackle Justin Jeffries, who will be limited to non-contact drills following offseason shoulder surgery.
According to Chip Cosby of the Lexington Herald-Leader, Zipp Duncan will move from left guard to left tackle. Jake Lanefski finished last season at right guard, and he will contend with Stuart Hines and Christian Johnson for a spot this spring. Billy Joe Murphy, Brad Durham, and Trevino Woods could fill in at either tackle spot.
“We’ve got a much better starting position than we’ve had in past years,” Brooks said. “I think we’ve got some choices. It’s always difficult when you lose a guy like Jeffries, but it also gives you an opportunity to get a long look at some other guys.”
Key defensive losses are tackle Myron Pryor, linebacker Johnny Williams, and free safety Marcus McClinton.
Up Next: The ACC checks in at No. 48. This team finished strong after a dismal start in 2008. Will that momentum carry them into 2009?