The SEC is considered by most to be the best conference in the NCAA's. Since 2007 (including this season), Florida, Georgia, LSU, Auburn, Alabama, Arkansas, and Tennessee have entered New Year's bowl games, or, even better, BCS bowls, including a representative in all three national championship games. South Carolina often does well in getting to good bowl games.
The other four teams, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky have been left in the basement. Ole Miss came out this season and took Auburn's spot. I believe Kentucky could rise to the level the other eight teams are on as soon as next season.
This may seem far-fetched, considering that in Kentucky's bowl game in 2007 we were seeing clips of teams backs in the 1970s and 1980s. You also might not believe because the Wildcats lost all of their offense before this season.
Andre Woodson, an NCAA record holder (not to mention Kentucky record holder, who has seen talent like Tim Couch), left along with Jacob Tamme, Steve Johnson, Keenan Burton, and Rafael Little, as well as one of the hardest working defensive players in UK history, Wesley Woodyard.
However, Kentucky has quietly put together a very respectable recruiting class. They have signed two of high school's greatest quarterbacks this season in Morgan Newton and Ryan Mossakowski (who wouldn't love that name on the back of their jersey?), rated three and four stars by Rivals, respectively (however, some sources list Newton as a five star prospect).
Quarterback has been an issue all season long, beginning in the preseason when Curtis Pulley, the likely starter, was kicked off the team. Mike Hartline played a little too inconsistently, and settled for too many short throws, which he often threw too high.
Hartline wasn't a complete disappointment, but he wasn't great. He was eighth in the SEC in passing yards per game, and was 9th in passer efficiency, but threw only eight touchdown passes all season.
After Pulley and Hartline, it seemed as though Kentucky were out of options. A freshman, Randall Cobb, who was listed as an athlete, stepped in and played quarterback. He wasn't much better, unfortunately. His passer rating, completion percentage, and TD-INT ratio were all lower than Hartline. However, Cobb had big play ability that Hartline did not have. He was mobile, while Hartline was more of a pro-style quarterback.
Although Cobb wasn't extremely successful at quarterback, he did succeed in other areas. Cobb was also the second leading rusher from his quarterback spot, and was second in receiving yards before Hartline was swapped.
The rest of Kentucky's offense was raw as well. The receiving corps took a huge hit when Dicky Lyons Jr., one of the best wide receivers in the SEC, was injured and taken out for the rest of the season, thus ending his career. If anything else were more tragic, the simple fact that he only played five full games, and was still the leader in receptions, yardage, and touchdowns.
The running game wasn't all it was labeled to be. After having six rushers last season average five or more yards per rush last season, the Wildcats had three this season (but if you don't count Tim Masthay's 17 yard scramble, his only rush of the season, and A.J. Nance, who had three carries all season, one).
To make things worse, Derrick Locke, their second best offensive player behind Lyons, was injured and taken out for the rest of the season. Locke had averaged 4.8 yards per carry and had two touchdowns. Tony Dixon averaged 3.3 yards per rush, Alfonso Smith 4.1, Cobb 4.0, and Moncell Allen 5.3.
So with so much offensive failure, just how can I expect it to heal next season?
The recruiting class is one of the strongest in Kentucky history. UK has two of the top rated quarterbacks coming in, Morgan Newton and Ryan Mossakowski (who wouldn't want that on the back of their jersey?). Newton and Mossakowski are rated three and four stars by Rivals, respectively. Newton has also been rated five stars on other sources.
But besides the quarterbacks, Kentucky adds two top-rated wide receivers coming in. Chris Matthews and LaRod King, rated four and three stars respectively, are both deep threats that Kentucky has locked all season. Throw them in with Randall Cobb, who will most likely move to receiver all time, and Aaron Boyd, a four star prospect last season, who has been hurt for most of this year, and this could be a pretty good group of receivers.
Kentucky also has some good offensive linemen coming in to help. Sam Simpson and Larry Warford, both top-end three star prospects, come in to remedy the run blocking Kentucky needs. Anthony Kendrick, a three star tight end, joins Maurice Grinter and T.C. Drake at tight end. Kendrick should add some youth to this position; the other four are all seniors (Grinter, Drake, Tyler Sexton, and Ross Boque).
Sure, all these players will need time to mesh things together. However, Kentucky's defense should give the offense enough time to work, that is, if three key players return. Jeremy Jarmon, a Kentucky defensive end, Micah Johnson, a linebacker, and Trevard Lindley, a cornerback. Lindley is projected to be a first or second round pick this draft. Johnson is also expected to be a choice in the middle rounds.
If the three return, Kentucky's defensive unit is one to fear. Kentucky was fifth this season in sacks, and return two defensive line starters, Corey Peters and Jarmon. However, these positions will be filled by other great defensive players. Ricky Lumpkin is a defensive tackle who has suffered some injuries, but in his playing time, has been very successful. Mark Crawford, a four star defensive tackle, could also back up Lumpkin and Peters.
At defensive end, the candidates include Chandler Burden and Donte Rumph, again, an upperclassmen and a freshman. Rumph is rated three stars on Rivals, while Burden has been backing up Ventell Jenkins, a graduating defensive end, this season.
Kentucky also loses two starting linebackers, Braxton Kelly and Johnny Williams. However, there are some talented freshman as well as upperclassmen at this position. Qua Huzzie, a high three star, is quick, but uses more power than speed to bring down opponents. Sam Maxwell, a back-up this season, should also see a start, considering he had a successful 2008.
In the secondary, safeties Matt Lentz and Ashton Cobb, both of who have started at different points in the season, return. Lindley may return at cornerback, and Winston Guy will likely be his partner. However, Kentucky lacks depth, as only one other upperclassmen cornerback returns. Look for Kentucky to go after some more cornerbacks and safeties this offseason, seeing that they have no freshman at either position.
Indeed, Kentucky is going to have enough talent next season in terms of stars. But whether this translates into field success remains to be seen.