Kentucky football is coming off its fifth straight season of playing in a bowl game. Even with last year’s record of six wins and seven losses, the Kentucky Wildcats were still bowl eligible and were selected to play in the BBVA Compass bowl.
If you were to say, “Yes, but that is a bush-league bowl game,” then you do not understand how special it is to play in a bowl game. The SEC is without question the toughest conference in the nation, and only five teams in the SEC have been to five straight bowl games.
Alabama, Georgia, Florida, LSU, and Kentucky have been in bowls, which leaves such schools as South Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, and defending National Champions Auburn missing a bowl game in the past five years.
But Kentucky is still having issues with competing in the SEC. From players leaving early to go to the NFL or lack of star recruits coming to Lexington, the Wildcats have a lot of low expectations to overcome every year.
Here are five of the worst and best situations that came up this past offseason at Kentucky.
In the summer of 2010 the big news in the college athletic world was the creation of the new Super Conferences. The Pac-10 and the Big Ten had recently fallen behind the other BCS conferences.
With the promises of lucrative TV deals, the Pac-10 and the Big Ten started recruiting other schools to join their conference. The main schools being targeted were Big 12 schools because they were in the middle of the country and could easily be added into a conference without a tremendous amount of extra travel. Gonzaga joining the ACC, for example, wouldn’t be ideal.
For a while it seemed that the Pac-10 was going to expand to 16 schools, taking several from the Big 12. This left a few schools available to join other conferences. The SEC was especially looking at Texas and Kansas.
This expansion, although it would have killed some lower-level Big 12 schools like Baylor, would have been great for other BCS conferences.
Then the Big 12 decided to stay together and only ended up losing Nebraska to the Big Ten and Colorado to the now Pac-12.
If The SEC were able to expand to 14 schools, or maybe even 16 schools, it would have been better for everyone currently in the SEC, including Kentucky football.
With the exception of Texas, no schools considered for entry into the SEC are football power houses. This means potentially more winnable games over weaker programs, and an even better recruiting pitch to get players to come to Kentucky.
If Kentucky was recruiting a player out of Texas, currently he would never be able to play in Texas, short of a bowl game. Now a player knows that at some point Kentucky will have no choice but to play near his home town.
Playing in front of old teammates and fans is a big deal and a powerful recruiting pitch. Missing out on these players has been a negative for the Kentucky Wildcat Program.
Kentucky’s bitter rival, the Louisville Cardinals, have been struggling in their football program for the past three years. Ever since Bobby Petrino left for the NFL, Cardinal football has never looked the same.
But with the addition of Charlie Strong as the head coach, the Cardinals seem to be getting back on the right track.
Recruiting is everything in the college world. It's a huge reason why John Calipari and Rick Pitino are so successful as college basketball coaches and not NBA coaches.
Rivals.com have the Louisville Cardinals as the No. 29 best recruiting class in the nation last year with four, 4-star recruits. Kentucky was not even in the top 50.
Ultimately, beating the Cardinals will not take Kentucky to a SEC Championship game, which Joker Phillips said is the new goal for the Wildcats and not just making a bowl game, but it will help recruiting in the state of Kentucky.
If you can’t out recruit your instate rival, how do you expect to take players away from the top programs in the SEC?
Several players graduated from the University of Kentucky this past year, but none who contributed more on the offensive side of the field than Mike Hartline, Derrick Locke, and Chris Mathews.
Mike Hartline was the starting quarterback for the Kentucky Wildcats last season. Even though Morgan Newton had a good game in the BBVA Bowl throwing for 211 yards on 21-of-36 passes, losing an experienced quarterback is never good for a program. Even if the replacement is supposed to be really good and even played well in a bowl game the year before—just ask Texas.
Derrick Locke was a track athlete that also played football. Because of his speed, if Locke was ever able to get into the open field, a touchdown was a given. Playing in the SEC, going up against future NFL players week after week, it is difficult to find those holes. Locke was a huge reason why Kentucky has gone to a bowl game in the past five years, and he will not be easily replaced.
Chris Mathews was a JUCO player that ended up having the second most receptions on the team both his years at Kentucky. Chris end up with nine touchdowns and 61 catches for the Wildcats his senior year.
Mathews was a threat that every opposing team had to game plan for. Next year Morgan Newton will not have the No. 2 best receiver or the No. 1 receiver.
Saying Randall Cobb was the best player on the Kentucky Wildcats football team was like saying Anthony Weiner is currently the most popular New York congressmen. You are just stating the obvious.
Last year Randall Cobb had to do everything for the Kentucky Wildcats. First in receiving, seconded in rushing, threw ten passes, and even returned punts and kickoffs. What more could you ask a player to do? Deion Sanders is the only player who was on the field more than Randall Cobb
Randall Cobb left Kentucky as soon as he became eligible to enter the NFL Draft. Being as talented as he was and voicing his displeasure's publicly via twitter about the Wildcats fan base, it wasn’t a surprise he left early.
The big issue about him leaving is it leaves this huge whole in our offense. Kentucky is losing their starting quarterback, running back, and the top two wide receivers on the team. This is big blow to any program in the nation; the way to fix the problem is by replacing those players with other great prospects by having top ten recruiting classes.
Beating the only SEC team without an athletic department (Vanderbilt), Kentucky once again does not stack up to the rest of the SEC when it comes to recruiting the best players in the nation.
The next three slides will talk about the two new players coming to Lexington next year and one the following year. These three players are the stars of tomorrow for the Wildcats. The problem is they are only 4-star recruits.
According to Rivals.com, Alabama has 14 4-star recruits, Georgia 12, Auburn 13, Florida 11 and Tennessee 12. Kentucky, according to Rivals.com, only has one.
The bigger issue at hand here is that these 4-star players are not highlights of their recruiting classes. It is the 5-star recruits. Alabama has three, Georgia two, LSU three, Auburn one, South Carolina and Mississippi each have one, as well. Kentucky has zero 5-star recruits.
In college athletics, the players you have on the field are what matter most. Having the best players gives you an excellent chance not just to compete, but also win the National Championship. With the players Kentucky is bringing in, it will be next to impossible for Joker to play for an SEC title.
Now for the five good things that developed this offseason for the Wildcats.
Patrick Towles has verbally committed to the Kentucky Wildcats. He still has one more year left of High School but is looking to be the future quarterback in Lexington.
Following in the footsteps Jared Lorenzen, Patrick Towles is the next great quarterback out of Ft. Thomas Highlands to commit and hopefully sign with Kentucky.
At 6’4”, 230 pounds, Towles is the ideal size for a quarterback at any level. He has a great arm with a tight spiral. However, sometimes Patrick does have poor mechanics. He has the tools to correct those mechanics, and if he continues to work hard and listen to his coaches, he could end up in the NFL.
At 6’5”, 305 pounds, Zach West is the next great lineman for the Wildcats.
He has the ability to come in and play his freshman year, but like most linemen sitting out his first year with a redshirt, may be the best thing for him. Freshmen typically do not have the ideal technique required to play in the SEC and a year to learn those techniques will benefit West greatly.
However, if Joker Phillips see’s West as an instant improvement to the team, which could easily be the case, he may go ahead and play him his freshman year.
West has all the tools available to play right away, it’s up to West if he can go ahead and use those tools properly in his freshman year at Kentucky.
A 6’1”, 190-pound safety is a rare occurrence. Usually if a player is as tall as Faulkner, they play wide receiver.
Faulkner is super fast and has a knack for reading plays very well. With his long stride he can look like he is leaving a space open to deceive the quarterback in throwing the football, but can make up that space very quickly and can entice turnovers.
Right now Faulkner is great in zone defense but has an issue with man coverage. More practice in college will allow him to get better in man-to-man coverage.
Faulkner may not be ready to come in and be Kentucky’s shut down corner, but in a few years Faulkner may force the opposing team to throw to the opposite side of the field.
Rick Minter was hired last year to be the co-defensive coach with Steve Brown.
Minter has been installing a new defensive scheme, as well as a new defensive mind set for the Wildcats. Minter will be putting players closer to the line of scrimmage allowing potentially more players to make plays on the ball.
Minter told ESPN’s Edward Aschoff:
“We’re going to be an aggressive, move-around defense,” Minter said. “We’re going to attack people. We’re not going to sit back and wait and we’re going to be a combination of zone coverages and zone pressures and man defenses.”
Under Minter’s guidance Kentucky’s new defense will look completely different. Hopefully, when playing against young inexperienced quarterbacks it will confuse them so much they won’t know who to pass to.
At the professional level quarterbacks might be able to handle a unique defensive scheme, but in college when you only have 17 hours a week of practice it is difficult for any coach to get his quarterback ready for Kentucky.
Even with the lack of talent we talked about earlier, forcing the opposing teams quarterback to think for just a second longer will create stops for Kentucky in previous years they would not have had.
Really, the Kentucky Wildcats are scheduled to play five games outside of Lexington. The first game of the season, however, will be played in Nashville, TN, against Western Kentucky University.
Western Kentucky has recently moved to the Football Championship Series and former Athletic Director Wood Selig worked hard to get a home and home series with The University of Kentucky. Even with Western Kentucky adding around 5,000 seats to their football stadium, it still was not enough to host the Wildcats.
So they moved Westerns home game to Nashville where many Kentucky fans live and will get a chance to see the Wildcats play.
In the other four road games, Kentucky is thought of to be the favorite in only one. That is on November 12th against Vanderbilt. The other road games are at LSU, at South Carolina, and at Georgia. Three very tough games that Kentucky is not expected to win. That means Kentucky plays Florida, Mississippi St., Ole Miss, and Tennessee all at home.
Those game only Florida has significantly greater talent than Kentucky. That being said, it is Will Muschamp's first SEC game. The lack of experience coaching in the SEC may help Kentucky enough to pull out a victory.
If Kentucky can run Rick Minters new defense successfully, while also finding new players on offense to score points, Kentucky has a good chance at going undefeated at home. Steal two or three road game victories and Kentucky could be playing for a SEC title, which is now the goal for the Kentucky Wildcats, according to its head coach Joker Phillips.