Coming off the state of Kentucky's greatest men's NCAA basketball tournament ever, it is going to take something special for college football in the commonwealth to make an impact in 2012.
Are our state's scholarship-granting NCAA Division I programs up to the challenge?
Here are 10 reasons to pay attention to college football in Kentucky in 2012.
10. Not just another guy named Smith? Joker Phillips did not seem in any hurry this pre-season to name sophomore Maxwell Smith Kentucky's starting quarterback. But other than Smith, what other QB option would have made sense for UK? Senior Morgan Newton is coming off shoulder surgery and in 17 career starts at UK has thrown for more than 200 yards in a game twice. True freshman Patrick Towles brings the buzz of a home-state hero, but throwing the Fort Thomas Highlands product to the SEC wolves would be cruel.
Smith, a Granada Hills, Calif. product, showed late-season promise a year ago (completed 57.7 percent of passes for 769 yards and four touchdowns with two picks in his last four games) when pressed into action by Newton's injury. For UK to have its best chance to succeed in 2012, it had to be Smith under center.
9. Charlie Strong's expectations game. The Louisville head coach enters his third season with a new challenge — big outside expectations on his team. The overwhelming pre-season choice to win the Big East Conference title, Louisville will begin the 2012 season ranked No. 25 in the AP poll. It's a far cry from Strong's first two seasons, in which he essentially had only to be better than Steve Kragthorpe to keep his fan base satisfied.
8. Ex-Cats thriving a step down the ladder. Former UK walk-on Matt Denham blew up into an FCS All-American (1,570 yards rushing) last season as a junior at Eastern Kentucky. Meanwhile, ex-Kentucky linebacker Que Huzzie led the Ohio Valley Conference in tackles for loss (14) in 2011 at Murray State. Both will be expected to play vital roles in 2012 for teams expecting to contend for playoff berths.
7. No more 'Rainey days' at Western. A season ago, Western Kentucky star running back Bobby Rainey accounted for a whopping 52.6 percent of WKU's total offense. With Rainey now trying to make the Baltimore Ravens, Western Coach Willie Taggart has to figure out how to replace all that production if the Hilltoppers are to build on 2011's momentum (won seven of final eight games, with sole loss at No. 1 LSU).
Look for a running back by committee approach in Bowling Green with ex-Madison Central star Keshawn Simpson, 2009 Kentucky Mr. Football Antonio Andrews, Leon Allen and Marquis Sumler getting chances. Will be interesting to see if prized recruit Anthony "Ace" Wales from Louisville Central also gets in the mix?
6. Can Cats play catch? It won't much matter who Kentucky's quarterback is if the Wildcats don't put a more productive receiving corps on the field than they did a year ago. UK needs senior La'Rod King (40 catches, seven TDs in 2011) to be far more consistent. It also needs several members of its kiddie corps of wideouts — true sophomore Demarco Robinson; redshirt freshman Daryl Collins; true freshmen DeMarcus Sweat and A.J. Legree — to emerge as SEC-caliber playmakers.
5. Dean Hood's expectations game. In Richmond, EKU has an experienced quarterback (T.J. Pryor), two pre-season All-America offensive tackles (Aaron Adams and Patrick Ford), a star running back (Matt Denham), a standout wide receiver (Tyrone Goard) and a veteran defense all back. Eastern backers are planning for Hood's fifth season as Colonels head man to restore some "Kidd-ian" luster to the Eastern program — including winning an FCS playoff game for the first time since 1994.
4. Tim Couch-like numbers. Murray State head coach Chris Hatcher is a Hal Mumme disciple who was a Kentucky assistant during the days of Tim Couch. Running the "Hatch Attack," Murray quarterback Casey Brockman (3,276 passing yards with 25 TD passes a year ago) has a chance as a senior to rewrite the OVC career passing marks while helping the Racers battle EKU and Jacksonville State for the conference title.
3. Taking on the big boys. Sure, it's a money grab, but Kentucky schools will get a chance to play on some of college football's biggest stages in 2012. In week two, Western travels to defending national champion Alabama. Murray State opens its season at Florida State. One of the more interesting openers in the country will have EKU visiting Purdue — coached by ex-Eastern head man Danny Hope.
2. Putting a 'Hurtt' on U of L? Just before last season, ex-Miami assistant Clint Hurtt, Louisville's recruiting coordinator and associate head coach, turned up prominently mentioned in the Yahoo Sports investigation of alleged NCAA violations by the Hurricanes program. Last year, the Miami situation did not become a distraction that hurt the U of L season and Hurtt has so far survived with job intact. Still, with the all the good feelings around Louisville football, the Hurtt/Miami situation holds the potential to bring stormy weather to The Ville.
1. Joker's moment of truth? With an 11-14 overall record and two losing seasons in the book, is Joker Phillips' third season as head man at his alma mater a make-or-break year for the coach? If so, can a team heavily reliant on young players in the offensive skill positions and facing a rugged schedule produce enough to allow Phillips to hold onto his dream job?
Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com