Sept. 4 at Louisville
Story line: With coaches Charlie Strong and Phillips each in their first year, the intrastate grudge match has even more on the line than usual. A year ago, Kentucky was almost a two-touchdown favorite in Commonwealth Stadium but needed late-game heroics from Randall Cobb to eke out a 31-27 win. That near-miss should give U of L ample confidence in 2010. Still, UK's mighty-mite playmakers, Derrick Locke and Cobb, should make the difference.
Story's line: Kentucky 34, Louisville 26
Sept. 11 vs. Western Kentucky
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Story line: For the second straight week, Phillips will be a part of an intrastate matchup of first-year, African-American head coaches. Former WKU quarterback Willie Taggart gave up a job on Jim Harbaugh's Stanford staff to return to the Hill and try to end a 20-game losing streak. The Toppers lost their final three games by six points or less last season. With 18 starters back, they'll win in 2010 — but not in Commonwealth Stadium.
Story's line: Kentucky 38, WKU 16
Sept. 18 vs. Akron
Story line: Since the brutal home-field loss to Ohio University in 2004, Kentucky is 19-3 in non-SEC games and 3-0 against Mid-American Conference foes. The Zips are 17-31 over the past four seasons, and were 3-9 a year ago. New coach Rob Ianello was the assistant head coach for offense at Notre Dame in 2009.
Story's line: Kentucky 35, Akron 17
Sept. 25 at Florida
Story line: U-G-L-Y. Kentucky hasn't beaten Florida since 1986. Kentucky hasn't beaten Florida in Gainesville since 1979. In the last two seasons combined, Florida has blocked three Kentucky punts in the first quarter. Which helps explain why Florida has outscored Kentucky 59-0 over the past two years in period one. UK winning in The Swamp this year is almost certainly too much to ask; the Cats getting through the game without getting a kick blocked seems a worthy goal.
Story's line: Florida 42, Kentucky 14
Oct. 2 at Mississippi
Story line: Ole Miss lost do-everything scatback Dexter McCluster and 26 other lettermen from last season's 9-4 team. The Rebels return only four starters on offense, and will have a new quarterback. That said, Kentucky has lost its last five games against the Rebs in the state of Mississippi.
Story's line: Ole Miss 24, Kentucky 21
Oct. 9 vs. Auburn
Story line: Last season, UK turned in one of its best all-around efforts in memory at Auburn. UK won on The Plains for the first time since 1961 in spite of starting a true freshman quarterback (Morgan Newton) playing in his first college game. This season, Gene Chizik must replace former Elizabethtown star Chris Todd at QB but has 15 other starters back. After last year, you can bet the Tigers will hit Lexington fully motivated.
Story's line: Auburn 31, Kentucky 20
Oct. 16 vs. South Carolina
Story line: Kentucky has lost 10 straight to South Carolina. Of UK football's collection of negative streaks, this one may be the most frustrating. Seven of Carolina's 10 wins in a row have been by seven points or fewer. I don't have to remind you that UK has lost 17 in a row against the South Carolina Head Ball Coach.
Story's line: South Carolina 28, Kentucky 24
Oct. 23 vs. Georgia
Story line: A year ago, Georgia outgained UK by a whopping 487-260 but the Dawgs self-destructed with turnovers and the Cats took advantage to win. This season, Georgia has 10 starters back on offense and Mark Richt has brought in former Dallas Cowboys assistant Todd Grantham to revamp a shaky defense. UK has won two of the last four in this series and figures to have Georgia's full attention in 2010.
Story's line: Georgia 38, Kentucky 21
Oct. 30 at Mississippi State
Story line: The question in this series is who can overcome the home-field disadvantage. Road teams have won the last four. A season ago, MSU's Anthony Dixon shredded UK for 252 rushing yards. Dixon is gone, but UK still has to prove it can stop former Florida assistant Dan Mullen's spread option attack.
Story's line: Kentucky 28, Mississippi State 27.Nov. 6 vs. Charleston Southern
Story line: In the 2009 season opener, Charleston Southern was obliterated 62-3 by Florida. The Buccaneers also lost 59-0 at South Florida last season. This one should go comfortably into the Cats' win column.
Story's line: Kentucky 45, Charleston Southern 13
Nov. 13 vs. Vanderbilt
Story line: Since Bill Curry somehow managed to lose five times in a row to Vandy (1991-95), Kentucky has gone 11-3 against the Commodores. A year ago, the Cats just lined up and physically whipped Vanderbilt in a decisive second half. Since both teams lost 11 starters from a year ago, there's no reason to think UK can't do the same again.
Story's line: Kentucky 30, Vanderbilt 14
Nov. 27 at Tennessee
Story line: Three times in the past four meetings against the Vols, Kentucky has had the ball inside the Tennessee 10 in the final minutes of regulation with a chance to win. Three times, Kentucky has failed to capitalize. So The Streak is now 25 years old. Tennessee has only three starters back on offense; it has its third head coach (Derek Dooley) in as many seasons; and UT has been through an off-season filled with turmoil. So can Joker the UK head coach do what Joker the UK wide receiver helped do in Neyland Stadium?
Story's line: Kentucky 17, Tennessee 12
Final record: UK wins its first three and its final four, finishes 7-5 and returns to the AutoZone Liberty Bowl in Memphis.
The last time Kentucky both beat Tennessee and won nine football games in a season, Joker Phillips was a senior wide receiver for Jerry Claiborne way back in 1984. If Phillips' first season as head man at his alma mater were to yield nine victories — including one in Neyland Stadium — UK football fans might erect a statue to Joker. Predictions by Mark Story, Herald-Leader sports columnist