LOUISVILLE — Life is good for University of Kentucky football these days.
The program will be gunning for a third consecutive bowl bid for the first time in 57 years. The Cats are putting together their best recruiting class in years, and Saturday's ESPN appearance by commitment Morgan Newton basically amounted to a free infomercial for Wildcat football. Student season tickets are sold out for the first time in school history, and general-public season tickets are almost sold out. Expansion plans are in the works for Commonwealth Stadium. And at least 750 people crammed into a banquet room at the Louisville Downtown Marriott on Monday to hear Coach Rich Brooks address the local chapter of the UK Alumni Association, more than double the crowd of three years ago.
Though Brooks has won over the local crowd, he and the Wildcats still have work to do on the national front.
Many expect the Cats to take a few steps back this year after losing quarterback Andre Woodson and a host of talented receivers to the NFL. Brooks said his main objective for 2008 is to build on the positive momentum as the program strives to reach an elite level.
"I think this is a real key year for us," Brooks said. "Recruiting is going well finally after two back-to-back bowl wins, and if we can make it three years in a row to the post-season, then I think (national prominence) is possible. We need to build continuity in the program and recruit well, but we also have to win games."
Brooks called this his most talented team at Kentucky despite the big personnel losses.
"Now it's just a matter of whether we're going to move forward and if the new faces will make their own names, or whether they'll slide and not be as productive as I anticipate we can be," Brooks said.
Brooks said he's not surprised that Louisville's a slight favorite, citing the fact that the Cardinals are at home and have an experienced quarterback in Hunter Cantwell. In fact, Brooks sees a lot of his team in Louisville. Like the Cats, U of L also lost one of the country's top quarterbacks (Brian Brohm) and a host of offensive firepower.
"They've got the same situation as us this year," Brooks said. "They've got a lot of new guys stepping into positions that have been manned by some pretty prominent players in recent years as well."
Louisville has a new offensive coordinator (Jeff Brohm) and defensive coordinator (Ron English), but Brooks said the most difficult aspect of scouting the Cards is trying to get a read on their personnel, not the schemes. Brohm is a U of L lifer, and the UK staff has film on English from when he was the defensive coordinator at Michigan. But Louisville will be relying on several junior-college transfers and first-year players at key positions.
"The biggest question marks are the players and what their talent level and execution levels are going to be on both sides of the ball," Brooks said.
The Kentucky defense will be the most experienced unit on the field Sunday, but the Cardinals enter the game as five-point favorites..
While Brooks is used to the underdog role, he said he wouldn't mind eventually sitting on top of the perch.
"I'd rather be a clear-cut favorite," Brooks said. "I'd rather be Georgia this year going in and saying we're the No. 1 team in the nation. I'd like to deal with that someday."
When asked if that could be accomplished at Kentucky, Brooks said, "Absolutely. We're not in that position yet, and for us to have continuity and respect in the pre-season we have to beat the teams Kentucky hasn't beaten on a regular basis, not just one or two years in a row."
Brooks said that most of the depth chart has been set, with the exception of two positions: wide receiver and right guard. Brooks said sophomore Kyrus Lanxter and junior E.J. Adams are battling to start opposite Dicky Lyons Jr. at receiver; sophomore Brad Durham and senior Jess Betts are fighting it out at right guard.