There are two ways for the Kentucky football program to take a step forward in 2009.
One is to break through the victory ceiling so far of the Rich Brooks regime and win more than seven regular-season games.
The other would be to beat someone — say Tennessee and/or Steve Spurrier? — that UK has not bested during its recent football uptick.
The latter option looks like Kentucky's best chance for making 2009 memorable.
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Sept. 5 vs. Miami (Ohio)
at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati
Story line: Miami has a long tradition as an "upset team," including 11 wins (vs. 13 losses) against Southeastern Conference schools. But the Redhawks are coming off a 2-10 season and have a new coach in former Notre Dame offensive coordinator Mike Haywood. If the Kentucky program really has taken a step up, the Cats put this game away before the fourth quarter.
Story's line: Kentucky 34, Miami 21
Sept. 19 vs. Louisville
Story line: In the modern history of the UK-U of L rivalry, Kentucky has never won three years in a row. In attempting to make that happen this year, UK has the more experienced quarterback (Mike Hartline) and far more positive program momentum. Louisville has better offensive skill players (other than QB) and more of them, and should come in with a massive chip on the shoulder. In rivalries, the more desperate team often finds a way and, given his seemingly tenuous hold on his job, Steve Kragthorpe has every reason for desperation.
Story's line: Louisville 28, Kentucky 24
Sept. 26 vs. Florida
Story line: Kentucky hasn't beaten Florida since 1986. With Tim Tebow and 17 other starters returning from the team that obliterated UK 63-5 on the way to winning the national title in 2008, this isn't going to be the year that changes.
Story's line: Florida 38, Kentucky 10
Oct. 3 vs. Alabama
Story line: The mammoth (6-foot-5, 365 pounds) nose guard Terrence Cody is among nine starters back from the defense that limited UK to 35 rushing yards a year ago. Alabama has only four offensive starters back, however, and will have a new quarterback. If Kentucky can keep this one close into the fourth quarter, it could be a viable upset opportunity.
Story's line: Alabama 21, Kentucky 13
Oct. 10 at South Carolina
Story line: Steve Spurrier is only 13-12 over the past two seasons, with back-to-back defeats against Vanderbilt. But against Kentucky, he's still "Steve Superior," having won all 16 games he's coached against the Cats. Overall, UK has lost nine straight against Carolina, a program it needs to start beating if it aspires to advance in the SEC East.
Story's line: South Carolina 31, Kentucky 20
Oct. 17 at Auburn
Story line: After a 4-1 start a year ago, Auburn melted down and won only once more. Included were losses at Vanderbilt and at home to the same Arkansas team that Kentucky later beat. The collapse cost the capable Tommy Tuberville his job. Few think Gene Chizik is a coaching upgrade. Still, Auburn has 15 starters back, and everyone on The Plains at least figures to be pulling in the same direction after last season's turmoil.
Story's line: Auburn 24, Kentucky 19
Oct. 24 vs. Louisiana-Monroe
Story line: The last time the Warhawks invaded Commonwealth Stadium, in 2006, they played the tails off the Cats before losing 42-40. The next season, the school formerly known as Northeast Louisiana beat Alabama. Last season, ULM lost by one at Arkansas. This year, Monroe has 17 starters back (but not at quarterback) from a 4-8 team. If UK really starts the season 1-5, will a true freshman QB get the call under center for Rich Brooks in this game?
Story's line: Kentucky 35, Louisiana-Monroe 24
Oct. 31 vs. Mississippi State
Story line: The road team has won the past three seasons in this annual matchup. A year ago, UK gained bowl eligibility with a fortunate 14-13 win in Starkville (MSU missed a 27-yard field goal and had an extra-point blocked). New MSU Coach Dan Mullen was the offensive coordinator at Florida, but he won't have Tim Tebow.
Story's line: Kentucky 27, Mississippi State 20
Nov. 7 vs. Eastern Kentucky
Story line: In the only two prior meetings (1998 and 2007) of these intrastate foes, UK went over 50 points both times in easy victories. Dean Hood's EKU defense won't allow that in 2009, but the winner will still be the same.
Story's line: Kentucky 38, Eastern Kentucky 14
Nov. 14 at Vanderbilt
Story line: Vandy broke a four-game losing streak against Kentucky in Commonwealth last season and earned bowl eligibility in the process. The Commodores have 17 starters back from the Music City Bowl champions, but Cats killer D.J. Moore — two interceptions and two TD receptions in last year's game — isn't one of them.
Story's line: Kentucky 17, Vanderbilt 16
Nov. 21 at Georgia
Story line: UK beat Georgia in 2006 and led in the second half against the Bulldogs in 2007 and '08 before losing. With Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno both gone to the play-for-pay, Georgia is flying beneath the radar in 2009. That's usually when Mark Richt is most dangerous.
Story's line: Georgia 37, Kentucky 20
Nov. 28 vs. Tennessee
Story line: At 24 years old, The Streak now has its master's degree and is set to begin work on a Ph.D. As is seared into the soul of every Long Suffering UK Football Fan, the Cats haven't beaten UT since 1984. In Knoxville, Phil Fulmer and his 16-0 record against Kentucky were sent packing after last season. Could Fulmer's unproven successor, Lane Kiffin, be exactly what UK ordered to end The Streak?
Story's line: Kentucky 23, Tennessee 21
With a late push, UK goes 6-6 and earns a berth in the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La., opposite a Big 12 foe.