2006 Season Preview (Game 10): Kentucky

After the announcement that Joe Tereshinski III would start the Western Kentucky game, Bulldog Nation's collective attention turned to one central question: "When, oh, when will the Dawg Sports preview of the Kentucky game be posted?"

Fear not; the day has arrived. If you haven't checked them out already, be sure to give my Western Kentucky, South Carolina, U.A.B., Colorado, Ole Miss, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, and Florida previews a look, as well.

The Game

Georgia v. Kentucky
Commonwealth Stadium
Saturday, November 4

The Opponent

Although the first game between these current S.E.C. East squads did not occur until 1939, the 'Dawgs and the 'Cats have squared off on the gridiron in each of the last 50 seasons and the 2006 renewal of the rivalry will be the 60th series meeting between the Red and Black and the Blue and White. Believe it or not, Georgia has played Kentucky more times than the Bulldogs have taken on South Carolina.

The Classic City Canines hold an all-time advantage of 47-10-2 over the Bluegrass State Felines and Georgia currently has a nine-game winning streak against Kentucky. The Bulldogs' longest winning streak in the series is 10 in a row, from 1978 to 1987.

Although the Wildcats usually appear on the Red and Black's fall slate, U.K. can show up at any point on the schedule. Georgia opened the 1942 campaign against Kentucky and the 'Cats were the Bulldogs' third opponent three times between 1944 and 1948. The 'Dawgs also have faced Kentucky fourth (in 1939, 1945, 1947, and 1949), fifth (in 1940 and 1958), sixth (in 1956 and 1957, from 1959 to 1970, and in 2001), seventh (from 1971 to 1986, in 1988 and 1989, and from 1996 to 2000), eighth (in 1987, from 1990 to 1995, and in 2002), ninth (in 2004), and 11th (in 2003). This year, for the second time, the 'Cats are the 10th opponent on Georgia's schedule.

A Brief History of the University of Kentucky

In 1865, when the rest of the states which are home to Southeastern Conference institutions were busy losing a war, the University of Kentucky was founded. The agricultural and mechanical college in Lexington "grew from the vision of one man, John Bowman."

"In every revolution, there is one man with a vision."

The school formally became the University of Kentucky in 1916, two years before it occurred to someone to consolidate the institution's trio of engineering schools into one college. At the turn of the last century, U.K. began its basketball program . . . its women's basketball program. A men's program was added a year later.

The latter-day University of Kentucky consists of 16 colleges and, when the Chandler Medical Center is factored into the equation, the institution's total enrollment is approximately 27,000. Alumni of the Bluegrass State's flagship school have won eight Pulitzer Prizes and two Nobel Prizes.

A Brief History of Wildcat Football

Here is a fact you absolutely are not going to believe: Kentucky headed into last year's game between the hedges with an all-time won-lost record above .500. No, seriously . . . the Wildcats' lifetime ledger stood at 536-535-44 following U.K.'s 2005 triumph over Vanderbilt.

Back-to-back season-ending losses to Georgia and Tennessee (by a combined margin of 72-21) dropped the Blue and White to 536-537-44 over their whole history, but, honestly, who'd have thought Kentucky was anywhere close to having a winning record as a program?

The Wildcats haven't finished a season undefeated and untied since 1898. Kentucky football teams have produced just three winning records in the last 21 years. Since winning 10 games in 1977, the Blue and White have posted 20 losing seasons, including two years with 10 losses. Blanton Collier was the last U.K. head football coach to leave Lexington with a winning record and he departed in 1961 . . . a dozen years before Commonwealth Stadium opened.

Still, the Wildcats have had their moments since embarking upon intercollegiate gridiron competition in 1881, nine years earlier than any other current Southeastern Conference squad. Four of Kentucky's first six football games were played against Transylvania College.

I'm guessing they were night games.

The glory days of U.K. football, obviously, occurred during the eight-year tenure of Bear Bryant following the Second World War. The Bear went 60-23-5 in the Bluegrass State, posting an 11-1 record in 1950 that likely would have produced a national championship had the poll voters then waited until after the bowls to cast their final ballots.

It's been all downhill from there, which brings me to . . .

Returning Starters

Oh, what difference could it possibly make?

All right, that was a bit harsh. Actually, Kentucky will field an experienced squad this season. Eight starters are back on offense, including quarterback Andre Woodson, tailback Rafael Little, tight end Jacob Tamme, and five offensive linemen. The wide receivers, though, are all new and Woodson may not be the main man called upon to line up under center this season.

Almost as many first-team players return on defense, too. Seven starters remain in the mix, among them two defensive linemen, two defensive backs, and all three linebackers. However, the loss of safety Muhammad Abdullah, cornerback Antoine Huffman, and defensive tackle Trey Mielsch will be felt.

For the first time under the current coaching regime, the Wildcats will have more than 80 players on scholarship, as the effects of the probation left by Hal Mumme in his wake have passed.

Coaching

Uh, yeah, about that. . . .

Rich Brooks began his coaching career at Oregon on September 10, 1977, when he took his Ducks to Sanford Stadium to take on the defending S.E.C. champion Georgia Bulldogs. Oregon came up short between the hedges, falling by a 27-16 final margin.

In 18 seasons in Eugene, Coach Brooks compiled a 91-109-4 ledger but turned around a program that hadn't been to a bowl game since 1963. His final six Oregon squads made it into postseason play four times, including a Rose Bowl berth following the 1994 campaign. Along the way, though, Coach Brooks's Ducks posted records of 2-9 in 1977, 2-9 in 1978, 2-9 in 1981, and 2-8-1 in 1982.

Perhaps that means the Wildcats are due for a turnaround following three straight losing seasons under Coach Brooks, whose Kentucky squads have gone 4-8 in 2003, 2-9 in 2004, and 3-8 in 2005. It is more likely the case that he is a placeholder coach who only kept his job because his athletic director didn't want to disrupt the continuity of the program or didn't think there was a better option available.

After nine combined wins in the last three years, this may not be a good thing, but Coach Brooks's staff returns largely intact. Defensive coordinator Mike Archer returns, as does offensive coordinator Joker Phillips, who is also known as "the Space Cowboy," "the Gangster of Love," and "Maurice."

How do you game plan for a guy who's drawing up new plays in his cell at Arkham Asylum?

The only new addition to the U.K. coaching staff is Randy Sanders, who was ousted as Tennessee's offensive coordinator following the Volunteers' disastrous 2005 season. Coach Sanders will serve as the Wildcats' quarterbacks coach this fall.

One coaching change that should have occurred was the firing of the strength and conditioning coach, assuming that the Wildcats have one. Given the number of injuries sustained by U.K. players last season, the 'Cats either are the unluckiest squad in the conference or their conditioning program is lousy.

Offense

Last season, Curtis Pulley threw 50 passes for 31 completions, 208 yards, three interceptions, and no touchdowns . . . and he managed to unseat incumbent signal-caller Woodson in spring practice. After the Blue-White Game last April, Coach Brooks proclaimed that "[t]he quarterback competition is going to continue through the summer and early fall."

Whichever quarterback winds up lining up under center will find a dearth of targets to whom to throw. Three of the Wildcats' top four wide receivers from 2005 are gone and the one returnee, Keenan Burton, is recovering from the foot surgery that followed the latest health reversal in an injury-plagued career.

Burton may have the departed Glenn Holt's big play ability, but he has had little opportunity to demonstrate his skills due to being sidelined by ailments on a regular basis. Nevertheless, Burton averaged 15.2 yards per reception and caught fully a third of Kentucky's touchdown passes last season . . . and, no, smart guy, that one-of-three ratio isn't literal. U.K. had more than three touchdown passes in 2005; in fact, they had six.

Admit it . . . deep down, you miss this grotesque monstrosity, don't you?

Former wideout Tamme has moved to tight end. Although Tamme has good hands, he, like fellow pass-catchers John Logan and Dicky Lyons, hasn't played up to his potential.

Center Matt McCutchan was awarded a sixth year of eligibility, so five starters return along the offensive line and Kentucky signed eight more linemen in its 2005 recruiting class, so there will be competition to get on the field. Since the Wildcats surrendered 34 sacks last season, that competition is a good thing, but U.K.'s cause was not helped by the announcement that offensive tackle Aaron Miller is ineligible.

The only unqualified bright spot in the Kentucky offense, obviously, is running back Rafael Little, who last year managed to lead the Wildcats both in rushing (1,045 yards) and receiving (449 yards). His 16.9-yard punt return average led the S.E.C. and Little brought back kickoffs, as well. Overall, Little ranked fifth in the N.C.A.A. with 180.2 all-purpose yards per game.

Although Little dislocated his wrist in the spring, he is expected to recover fully from the resulting surgery. On some plays, Little may be joined in the backfield by Tony Dixon, who, despite missing 2005 with a broken leg, will be featured in more two-back sets this fall.

Because true freshman Maurice Grinter prefers to play defense, U.K.'s options for fielding a fullback most likely consist of a pair of walk-ons, Terrell Bankhead and John Conner. Conner previously received playing time on special teams.

John Conner went out for football at Kentucky because his mother, Sarah, believed it would help prepare him for leading the human resistance against the machines in post-apocalyptic America.

Defense

Last year, I referred to Kentucky's football team as the Wil_cats because they had no D.

The numbers bear me out on that point, as U.K. ranked 12th in the S.E.C. in first downs allowed (245), 12th in third-down conversions allowed (45.1%), 12th in rushing defense (196.3 yards per game allowed), 12th in pass defense (243.4 yards per game allowed), 12th in total defense (439.7 yards per game allowed), and 12th in scoring defense (34.1 points per game allowed).

No team in the league surrendered as many red zone trips (52), as many red zone scores (43), or as many red zone touchdowns (36) as the Wildcats and only one team recorded fewer sacks than the 16 registered by U.K.

The final score of the spring game was 46-41 . . . although, admittedly, that involved an arcane scoring system that awarded points to the offense for gaining first downs.

Kentucky surrendered 43 or more points five times in 2005 and the 'Cats were competitive in just two of their eight losses a year ago.

The Red and Black have scored at least 28 points in 13 of their last 17 games against the Blue and White, including each of the last eight. During the period from 1987 to 2000, eight out of 14 Georgia-Kentucky games were decided by a touchdown or less and 11 of those contests were settled by 11 or fewer points.

In the Mark Richt era, though, the Bulldogs have averaged 46.4 points per game against U.K. and the Classic City Canines' average margin of victory over Kentucky over the course of the last five games has been just shy of four touchdowns. Georgia's last trip to Lexington produced the largest victory margin in series history, as the 'Dawgs beat the 'Cats by 45 points in 2004.

When Mark Richt arrives in the Bluegrass State, he will proceed directly to the Fayette County courthouse to pay his property taxes, because he owns the Wildcats. (Photograph from Georgia Sports Communications.)

In light of the foregoing facts, it must be asked whether there is any good news for Kentucky defensively.

If you're a Kentucky fan and you're searching for some good news, you can find it, but you'll have to hunt for it. The Wildcats switched from a 3-4 to a 4-3 a year ago and, while they derived little tangible benefit from this change, the players should be more comfortable in the system.

This year's U.K. defense, while less experienced, should be more athletic, particularly with the addition of incoming freshman Micah Johnson. Johnson was the Bluegrass State's "Mr. Football" and the star linebacker prospect rejected scholarship offers from Georgia and Michigan to attend his home state school.

Weak side linebacker Wesley Woodyard, the team's leading tackler in 2005, is on the Butkus Award watch list. Woodyard gained weight in the offseason and, as a converted safety, he adds needed speed to the Wildcat D. Ventrell Jenkins and Myron Pryor both played as true freshmen last year, with Pryor starting the season's last two games at defensive tackle. He should continue to be an effective pass rusher this fall.

The last bit of good news for U.K. is that cornerback Bo Smith is back in the secondary, where he will continue to excel.

Beyond that, Kentucky has serious concerns about depth, durability, and size. Defensive end Durrell White, a former linebacker, lacks the bulk to stuff the run. One defensive tackle, Lamar Mills, tore a ligament in his knee in last fall's season opener and never returned to the lineup, so it remains to be seen whether he can regain his 2004 form.

Ricky Abreu played hurt last year and his coaches are hoping he will step up in 2006. Middle linebacker Braxton Kelley is looking to return from a season-ending knee injury suffered in 2005. Marcus McClinton, who appeared in two games last year, is likely to start at free safety, despite having torn a patellar tendon and dislocated a kneecap a year ago. Roger Williams, last season's most improved U.K. player, may succeed, but will not replace, Abdullah in the defensive backfield.

Kentucky's defense will get better because it can't get worse, but the improvement should be incremental.

Special Teams

Little's substantial positive impact on Kentucky's return game has been addressed already, so let's get right to the bad news for the Wildcats.

How bad is the bad news for U.K.? Rafael Little's yards per carry average is higher than Rich Brooks's wins per year average.

Punter Tim Masthay averaged 36.4 yards per punt and he was inconsistent. Reliable placekicker Taylor Begley is gone and Lones Seiber, a true freshman, may be the only available option at his position.

I told you it was bad news.

Dawg Food

(Photograph from Kentucky Bourbon Festival.)

Sorry, Il Duce . . . but, when in Kentucky, do as the Kentuckians do.

What Worries Me Most

Honestly, as long as they don't switch sports and move this game from Commonwealth Stadium to Rupp Arena, Kentucky worries me only slightly more than Western Kentucky.

The 'Dawgs are one of seven teams appearing on the Wildcats' home schedule this fall, along with Central Michigan, Louisiana-Monroe, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas State, and Vanderbilt.

Fortunately for Kentucky, Scott Bakula's eligibility has expired by now.

U.K. has gone 7-12 at home in the Rich Brooks era . . . and that's counting wins over Murray State and Idaho State. As Paul Westerdawg points out, the Wildcats are even worse on the road, but a 5-2 homestand in 2006 isn't outside the realm of possibility for the squad from Lexington.

Georgia unquestionably represents the toughest test the 'Cats will face in Commonwealth Stadium this season and, as Kentucky shoots for six wins and bowl eligibility, there can be little doubt that the Bluegrass State Felines have their date with Georgia penciled in as an L.

What Will Happen on Saturday

Let's not mince words here. The only thing keeping Kentucky from being the Vanderbilt of the S.E.C. is the fact that Vanderbilt is a member of the S.E.C.

The process of improvement is a slow and incremental one, although the Wildcats' prospects are bolstered by the fact that U.K.'s 2006 signing class represents the best recruiting haul of Coach Brooks's tenure in Lexington.

Kentucky's incoming freshmen include seven wide receivers, six defensive backs, and as many players from the Peach State (10) as from the Bluegrass State. That bodes well for the future, most probably under Coach Brooks's successor, but, in the short term, it offers more hope than help.

Of the 10 previous Georgia teams to have lost to the Wildcats, six went on to lose at least half a dozen games, only three made it into postseason play, and just one finished the season with more than seven victories.

Simply stated, even passably good Georgia squads don't lose to Kentucky. Even in a rebuilding year, Coach Richt's team is more than passably good. The word "Western" in the current poll question may have been mere surplusage.

Coming soon: Auburn.

Go 'Dawgs!

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