UK football season preview: What to expect from the Cats

what to look for and expect from Kentucky during the 2012 season

August 26, 2012 

THE SEASON

There is no buzz going into the season, or if there is buzz, it's being drowned out by the fans who are unhappy with the Cats' 11-14 record under Coach Joker Phillips. The fans who aren't voicing their displeasure on the Internet and talk radio airwaves are doing it with their pocketbooks; season ticket sales are down nearly 10,000 tickets from last season. But one victory at No. 25 Louisville could create enough buzz to put fans in the stands for a team that thinks it has enough young talent mixed with solid veterans to sneak up on some people. "We're going to be a surprise team," sophomore linebacker Bud Dupree promised this spring. "We're going to get bigger, faster, stronger. ... We're going to be a good team and shock the world, shock the fans."

RISING STAR

Demarco Robinson: After showing flashes of potential early last season, Robinson faded into freshman oblivion. Kentucky needs more than one receiver to carry the load for the offense to be successful, and the coaches make it sound like this 5-foot-10 sophomore is their guy. Big plays in the spring and in fall scrimmages have made them bigger believers.

BIGGEST AREA OF CONCERN

Wide receivers: The nation's top receiver last season, Jordan White of Western Michigan, averaged more yards a game (147) than UK's passing attack. In fact, Kentucky's 135.6 yards a game last season put it in the bottom seven in the 120-team FBS. For whatever reason, Cats quarterbacks and receivers didn't connect. For a team that likes to pass to set up the run, UK is going to need much more from its receiving corps if it wants to be successful this season.

MOST IMPORTANT UNIT

Defensive line: Coaches are calling this the potential backbone of the team for a reason: it's the most veteran of any group at Kentucky, and it's going to have the other two defensive tiers (linebackers and secondary) leaning on it as they get up to speed. If Kentucky wants to keep pestering teams into takeaways, it has to start in the trenches with Donte Rumph, Mister Cobble, Collins Ukwu and Taylor Wyndham.

TOUGHEST OPPONENT

Georgia: The Bulldogs have the highest pre-season ranking (No. 6) of any UK opponent this season, and Georgia no doubt will remember the game last season in Athens where they allowed UK to hang around long enough to scare the hometown crowd. Georgia returns 15 of its 24 starters from last year's SEC East champions, including their leading passer, rusher and receiver.

MUST-WIN GAMES

Louisville: A lopsided loss to the No. 25 Cardinals could end the season before it begins, giving an angry fan base even more reason to stay, well, angry. And it would stop any forward progress UK's staff feels like it has made in the off-season.

Mississippi State: League expansion created an SEC scheduling hiccup, which brings Dan Mullen and his Bulldogs back to Lexington for a second straight season. Kentucky needs to take advantage and grab a league win at home when it can and end its 0-for-3 losing streak to Mullen.

GAME THAT WILL PACK THE HOUSE

South Carolina: Pre-season ticket sales numbers don't give much hope of packed houses, but if any game is going to be packed, it's this one. Few coaches agitate UK fans more than Steve Spurrier, so many fans will come just hoping to see him fling his visor.

TOUGHEST ROAD TRIP

Florida: Few people think of a swamp as a hospitable environment, particularly Kentucky fans, which haven't seen their team beat the Gators there in 33 years. Heck, UK fans haven't seen their team beat Florida since 1986, so winning at the Swamp would be doubly delightful.

UPSET SPECIAL

Louisville: For the record, I predicted the end of the Cats' losing streak to the Volunteers in this spot last year. Can I go 2-for-2? UK sure hopes so. A win at No. 25 Louisville, with its first national ranking since 2007, would make UK fans nearly as happy as silencing Rocky Top.

BEST NON-UK PLAYERS WE'LL SEE

Tyler Wilson, Arkansas: Likely first-round draft pick with a cannon for an arm already has passed for more than 4,300 yards in his career.

Jarvis Jones, Georgia: Elite linebacker projected to be a top-five pick in the NFL Draft had 70 tackles, including 19.5 for a loss, last season. He also had 49 quarterback hurries and 13.5 sacks.

Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina: Steve Spurrier said the 6-foot junior running back has fully recovered from his knee injury, which is good news for college football and bad news for the Gamecocks' opponents. In less than two full seasons, he has run for 2,000-plus yards and has 30 touchdowns.

Also: QB Tyler Bray, Tennessee; WR Justin Hunter, Tennessee; DT John Jenkins, Georgia; RB Knile Davis, Arkansas; WR Da'Rick Rogers, Tennessee

BEST/WORST BOWL DESTINATIONS

For a few years, Kentucky fans and players were lamenting the fact that they might have to play another bowl game in the Music City. But after seeing the Cats' bowl streak end after five years, they'd likely square dance to Nashville if given the opportunity. In a season with so much unproven talent and questionable depth at a couple of key positions, any bowl would be a good bowl for Kentucky.

RECORDS CATS COULD BREAK

Love or hate Joker Phillips, the coach has put a stop to several key streaks for the Cats in his short head coaching tenure, including the Cats' 26-year losing streak to Tennessee and UK's 0-for-17 streak against Steve Spurrier. But there are still streaks to be slayed, like UK's 25 straight losses to Florida (now the longest in the nation with that pesky Vols record ending).

Individually, the only Cat who looks like he has a chance of getting into the record books is senior wide receiver La'Rod King, who only needs five touchdown grabs to move into third on UK's career list. He also needs 526 yards to move into the top five for career receiving yards.

HOPE FOR THE FUTURE

Going into the season, Phillip says, 26 of UK's 44 returning players were freshmen, red-shirt freshmen or sophomores, so the future looks bright and potentially talented. The Cats only lost one skill-position player off last year's team and turnover would be low again next year, which means the future is positive, especially with nationally rated QB Patrick Towles waiting for his coronation. If they can show progress this season and retain their jobs, UK's staff is full of Kentucky-centric coaches who likely would stick around and keep building on solid recruiting classes the past two seasons.

BIG BLUE METER

The season is a success if ... Kentucky manages to prove the naysayers wrong and starts a new bowl streak with six regular-season victories. But given last season's difficulties, many UK fans likely would be happy to see the team look better offensively and win more than four games.

The season will be a disappointment if ... Kentucky continues to struggle offensively and there are more lopsided losses like there were last season against teams like South Carolina (54-3) and Vanderbilt (38-8).

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