Mark Story: Joker Phillips' seat will still be hot next season

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJanuary 10, 2012 

Now that the Mad Hatter's Men and the Forces of Saban-ic Influence have decided the national championship, it means only one thing.

Time to turn the page to the next college football season.

Even here at the epicenter of planet hoops, this morning is the start of anticipating the 2012 college pigskin campaign.

Let's get to it with a look ahead at the locals.

Kentucky Wildcats

2011 record: 5-7 (2-6 Southeastern Conference)

When last we saw them: Were playing a wide receiver (Matt Roark) at quarterback and running the single-wing to snap a 26-year losing streak to Tennessee and end a disappointing season on a massive uptick.

Heat under coach's seat: Even after the UT upset, Joker Phillips (11-14 in two seasons) is feeling ample warmth.

Reason(s) for hope in 2012: Quarterback Maxwell Smith showed significant promise when pressed into a starting role as a true freshman late last season. Due to injuries and other factors, the California product did not bring a great deal of experience playing high school football to UK, meaning he could take a major step upward next season.

Reason(s) to worry in 2012: Two big ones: 1.) Kentucky loses its two best defensive players, linebacker Danny Trevathan and hybrid safety Winston Guy; 2.) Last season, UK's receiving corps was a severe disappointment and, on paper, an upgrade in 2012 looks far from certain.

New face to watch: Lexington Christian product Zach West turned down scholarship offers from Penn State and Tennessee to stay at home at UK. Though he redshirted as a true freshman, West was listed No. 2 on the Kentucky depth chart at offensive guard by the end of the season. With three starters departing from the UK offensive line, the 6-foot-4, 296-pound West should have a prime opportunity to claim a starting job in 2012.

Dominant story line for 2012: Can Phillips win enough to calm a highly restive fan base and secure his hold on his dream job?

Louisville Cardinals

2011 record: 7-6 (5-2 Big East)

When last we saw them: Were falling behind North Carolina State 31-10 in the Belk Bowl before rallying furiously, albeit futilely, in a 31-24 loss.

Heat under coach's seat: Charlie Strong (14-12 in two seasons) is, well, strong with his fan base. No heat under this seat.

Reason(s) for hope in 2012: Louisville won five of its last seven games and did it with a youthful team that returns 16 of the 22 starters from the Belk Bowl. True freshman quarterback Teddy Bridgewater looked like an emerging star in the North Carolina State game, and his kiddie corps of receivers (DeVante Parker, Michaelee Harris, etc.) seems capable of generating some stardust of its own.

Reason(s) to worry in 2012: Replacing graduating standout Dexter Heyman at middle linebacker is one. The loss of defensive linemen William Savoy and Greg Scruggs lessens the depth in an area that was not overly deep to begin with. No obvious heir apparent for departing tight end Josh Chichester.

New face(s) to watch: Louisville loses only one starter (right tackle Ryan Kessling) from its offensive line. Freshmen Ryan Mack and Aaron Epps sat out last season as redshirts but could be in the mix to start in 2012.

Dominant story line for 2012: If West Virginia is successful in immediately bolting the Big East for the Big 12 — and maybe even if the Mountaineers have to stay — Louisville could be the conference favorite in 2012. It means, for the first time in Strong's tenure in The Ville, he will coach with outside expectations on his team.

Western Ky. Hilltoppers

2011 record: 7-5 (7-1 Sun Belt)

When last we saw them: Were winning seven of their final eight games (with the sole loss a credible effort against Louisiana State in Baton Rouge) after an 0-4 start.

Heat under coach's seat: Having led Western to its first winning season as an FBS school, Willie Taggart (9-15 in two seasons) finds his seat heat free.

Reason(s) for hope in 2012: Nine starters back on offense and eight on defense are pretty good places to start. Returning tight end Jack Doyle and middle linebacker Andrew Jackson are star-caliber players.

Reason(s) for worry in 2012: Did any one player in all of college football mean more to his team than Bobby Rainey in 2011? Combine his rushing, receiving and the two passes he completed, and the senior running back accounted for 50.25 percent of WKU's total offense in 2011. The third-team AP All-America choice will be gone in 2012. Can Western replace all that production?

New face to watch: A transfer from Florida, Jon Dowling was a five-star high school safety recruit who was dismissed from the Gators by Urban Meyer over attitude issues. The Bradenton, Fla., product is getting a second chance at WKU, and it is possible that the 6-3, 194-pounder could play defense and offense next season for Western.

Dominant story line for 2012: Can senior-to-be quarterback Kawaun Jakes — whose passing prowess has not reminded anyone of Drew Brees — throw it well enough to keep defenses honest without the threat of Rainey in the backfield?

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