For the first time since the early 1950s, the University of Kentucky Wildcats have won three straight bowl games. The once "on the hot seat" head coach Rich Brooks has instilled a new attitude into the team and the fan base, making all who will listen believe he can keep this winning momentum going for years to come.
This year may be the toughest campaign for the Cats in quite a few years.
With several key players gone from last year's Liberty Bowl winning team, and the rest of the Southeastern Conference stacked from top to bottom again, it will be interesting to see how the returning starters and new role players will step up to the challenge.
Whether it be the offense, the defense, or special teams, each squad has their own set of obstacles and difficulties to overcome for this season.
In order for this team to thrive in the cutthroat SEC East, Kentucky will have to get much better production from the quarterback position. Mike Hartline is the returning starter, but will have to show better leadership in the huddle and be more consistent with his passes and decision making. If these things don't improve, then the Junior incumbent will be constantly looking over his shoulder at a trio of inexperienced, yet talented, backups just waiting for their chance.
Will Fidler looked good in the spring practices while leading his team to the win in the Blue-White game. Incoming freshmen Ryan Mossakowski and Morgan Newton come in highly rated nationally and will be eager to show what they can do.
Even with the loss of Tony Dixon, the Kentucky backfield still looks to be in decent shape. Moncell Allen and Alfonso Smith seem to be leading the charge early in the offseason. Derrick Locke is still recovering from knee surgery, but if the former high school track star can return to form without missing much of his speed, this is a group of tailbacks that this offense will heavily rely on to move the chains.
With the outspoken voice of the wide receivers, Dickie Lyons Jr., no longer running routes, the targets for the passing game will be mostly less familiar names. Luckily for Cats fans, all-everything player Randall Cobb looks to be the best option, since switching from quarterback, to break it big from the receiver position. With the solid play of Maurice Grinter at tight end, and the potential of the remaining young receiving corps, this is a group that may need to overachieve to keep hopes of a fourth straight bowl appearance alive.
The hardest hit by departures, the defensive unit will have to perform with a lot of new faces. The biggest adjustment will be in the trenches. Having lost Myron Pryor, Ventrell Jenkins and Jeremy Jarmon, the line will be almost brand new. The returning Rickey Lumpkin will have to be the glue that keeps this unit together. With what will probably be a rotation of several linemen to start the season, the defensive front will have to grow up fast in order to be effective at stopping the run and pressuring the quarterback.
The linebackers seem to be in better shape.
Only losing one starter, this bunch will be heavily relied upon to help control the game. With NFL Draft prospect Micah Johnson anchoring this group, look for big things from one of the most talented groups on the entire team.
The defensive backs are a promising collection of players. Lead by another NFL prospect in Trevard Lindley, the safeties and corners have the potential to make this one of the best defenses in the Rich Brooks era. They will have to bail out the young line when it makes mistakes, and they will make mistakes. However, with some timely interceptions and some big open field tackles, Kentucky's DB's should be able to keep the Cats in every game.
The specialists seem to be in decent shape going into the upcoming season. Lones Seiber is entering his third season as the place kicker. Look for Randall Cobb and a healthy Derrick Locke to return punts and kickoffs, as well as some of the talented freshmen that were recruited for their speed.
The only place of concern is with the punter.
Having All-SEC selection Tim Masthay graduate leaves Kentucky without one of its best weapons in the battle for field position. Returning pooch punter Ryan Tydlacka will take over the duties. He punted for both teams in the Blue-White game and seemed comfortable as the full time punter rather than just a situational player. If the red shirt sophomore can continue to grow into his new role and gain confidence in his ability, he too can be a weapon that can be depended on in crucial moments.
When a team in the middle of the pack in the loaded SEC loses five starters on offense, six on defense, and their best special teams player, it is hard to imagine them gaining ground on the elite of the conference. Rich Brooks has built the program his way, regardless of what the fans originally thought about him. Each and every year he has improved the depth of the team and that should pay off this year.
What the Cats have coming back are solid players with a handful of them being NFL ready. The depth will have to be there to make up for the stars that have moved on. Coach Brooks has said he recruited a lot more speed to help keep up with teams like Florida and Georgia.
Prediction: Overall 7-5 (SEC 4-4)
This team is much more talented then the SEC Media gave them credit for by picking Kentucky to finish last in the East. With a moderately difficult out-of-conference schedule, and a favorable draw of SEC West teams by avoiding LSU, Ole Miss, and Arkansas, the Big Blue Nation should be poised to finish with a trip to a fourth straight bowl game.