On November 23, 2013 the Georgia Bulldogs will close out the 2013 SEC schedule in the friendly confines of Sanford Stadium against the Kentucky Wildcats. What do you need to know about the men from Lexington a full three months before kickoff? A lot . . .
The Wildcat Files
2012 record (2-10, 0-8 SEC)
Head Coach: Mark Stoops (1st year, because when you're Joker Phillips and you finish 0 for the conference, even at Kentucky, they don't invite you back.)
Last Meeting: A 29-24 Bulldog victory witnessed by intrepid attendees of the 2012 Dawg Sports Sacrificial Goat Roast.
SB Nation Affiliate: A Sea of Blue
Mascot: A thimbleful of bourbon Babe Parilli brought home from a bar in Paducah. He nicknamed it Dweezle.
A New Day In The Bluegrass State?
Stoops takes over a team that was awful in almost every way in 2012. In addition to losing every single, solitary SEC football game they played (including a 40-0 curb stomping at the hands of Vanderbilt for Heaven's sake) , they also fell to Western Kentucky and Louisville. No SEC team's showcase victory should be over Kent State, even in a year such as 2012 in which Kent State actually fielded a football team that nearly made it into the BCS.
Mark Stoops has already made some waves on the recruiting trail where he has the Wildcats sitting higher in the recruiting rankings than they have been since Bear Bryant's assistants were fanning out with horse money in one pocket and bourbon in the other. He even coaxed a record crowd of over 51,000 to attend the Blue and White game. Or whatever it is they call the Kentucky spring game. Hell, half the people in attendance probably didn't know themselves. But they were more excited than a fat kid who happens upon an abandoned ice cream truck, and you have to give the Stoops troops credit for that. Now comes the hard part: actually winning football games.
An Offense That Was, Literally, Offensive Goes Airborne
The sad fact is that Joker Phillips' team wasn't as bad going into 2012 as they were coming out of it. Injuries were a major reason for that, but not the only one. Quarterbacks Morgan Newton and Maxwell Smith both went down to injury. It's hard enough for the Alabamas and LSUs of the world to win with their third string signal callers. For a team like the Bluegrass Boys, it's essentially impossible. And that was before star tailback Raymond Sanders missed one game and was slowed by injury in others, and before CoShik Williams missed most of the year.
The Wildcat offense might improve simply by having Smith (or fellow sophomore QBs Patrick Towles or Jalen Whitlow) healthy for a full year. All three saw significant time in 2012, though Smith was by far the most effective (completing 68.7% of passes for 8 touchdowns and 4 interceptions).
Raymond Sanders returns, along with his 5.4 yard per carry average. He'll be joined by fellow senior Jonathan George, who chipped in 504 yards on 108 carries in 2012. However the biggest factor in determining whether Kentucky has a passable rushing attack in 2013 will be a) whether their offensive line can overcome the loss of two key starters and b) whether new Offensive Coordinator Neal Brown bothers to run the ball at all. On the first point, Kentucky lost veteran starting center Matt Smith to graduation. Guard Larry Warford, spotlighted in last season's Kentucky preview on this site, did in fact earn the distinction of playing on Sundays (he'll be blocking for Matthew Stafford in Detroit, by the by).
The Wildcats however return junior left tackle Darrian Miller, senior right tackle Kevin Mitchell, and sophomore guard Zach West. While it sounds great to have three returning starters up front, it should be noted that none of those guys has started more than a season's worth of games, and they have a combined 39 starts among them. Heck, Ken Gates and Chris Burnette each have 20+ starts for Georgia, and Dallas Lee, David Andrews, and John Theus (all of whom have 14 career starts) would each be the most experienced lineman in Lexington were they not situated in Athens.
On the second, Neal Brown may not be known to SEC fans, but he's well known in football coaching circles as a proponent of wide open offense from way back. He coordinated the pass happy attack at Texas Tech in 2012, and is likely to bring his "throw first, run if you just run out of other stuff to do" approach to the Bluegrass State.
But Are You . . .Experienced?
On defense, the good news is that the Wildcats return eight juniors and seniors from last year's defensive line. The bad news is that those guys were members of the 87th ranked defense in the nation. Nevertheless, Mister Cobble is still the best named man in college football, and no one can take that away from him. Because he weighs 340 pounds, so you ain't taking jack away from Mr. Cobble.
Behind them the Wildcats look to reap the rewards of a hard knock 2012. A host of young Wildcat linebackers played last season, and they'll be back, albeit in a new system in 2013. Keep an eye out for Wilkinson County native and linebacker Alvin Dupree, who led the team with 12.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. Also back is senior leading tackler Avery Williamson at middle linebacker and sophomore Demarius Rancifer. I don't know anything about him, I just like the name Demarius Rancifer. The Wildcats also return nine defensive backs who played in 2012. Nine. Crazily, Dakota Tyler (who only appeared in five games) is still the only senior in the defensive backfield. All of which means that Kentucky may not be great this season on defense, but could eventually be alright if those guys continue to improve.
It's hard to know exactly what to expect from the men in blue and white in 2013. I expect they'll take some serious lumps early as a lot fo young players learn new systems on both sides of the ball. I will say that Brown's Air Raid offense is designed to be implemented quickly, and I expect the young men of Lexington will catch on pretty quick. As a result they'll score some points. The key may be keeping Maxwell Smith upright and healthy. If that happens, by the time they roll into Athens they should be ready to light up the scoreboard.
The defense will likewise probably be coming into its own by the time we see them. All that being said, I expect Georgia to win this one with superior talent, superior experience, and superior depth. Final score: UGA 44, UK 13.
Kentucky will still struggle again in 2013, and may well finish last in the SEC East. But with the talent coming in, the depth Stoops will return in 2014, and another year in the system, keep an eye on the Bluegrass State Feral Felines in 2014. I'm not saying they'll be playing in the Georgia Dome in December, but I expect a big step forward. Don't say I didn't warn you. Until later . . .