I'm not personally convinced that Joker Phillips should have to put up a winning season in his third year as Kentucky's head football coach to earn a fourth season.
But if that is the standard the UK head man must meet in 2012 against a rugged schedule, it is not going to be easy.
Sept. 2 at Louisville
Story line: Just as Guy Morriss and UK did in 2002, Phillips and the current Cats could flip the script on the negativity surrounding Kentucky football with an upset road victory over the Cardinals. Louisville's Charlie Strong has 19 starters back and far more positive "program momentum" than Kentucky. But UK is 3-2 in its last five visits to The Ville.
Story's line: Louisville 28, Kentucky 20
Sept. 8 vs. Kent State
Story line: Will anyone score? Out of 120 FBS schools, Kentucky finished No. 118 (259.75 yards per game) and Kent State No. 119 (253.50) in total offense last year. Kent State ended last year winning four of its final five games and has 16 starters back. Former Kentucky wide receiver Eric Adeyemi caught five passes for the Golden Flashes in 2011 and is back for his senior season.
Story's line: Kentucky 27, Kent State 19
Sept. 15 vs. Western Kentucky
Story line: Last year in Nashville, UK pulled out a 14-3 win over WKU though the plucky Hilltoppers outgained the Cats 234-190. This year, Western does not have do-everything running back Bobby Rainey (now in the Baltimore Ravens' training camp) but does have 16 other starters back.
Story's line: Kentucky 26, Western Kentucky 17
Sept. 22 at Florida
Story line: In his two years as Kentucky head man, Phillips has ended the Cats' oh-for-all-eternity losing streak against Steve Spurrier and the embarrassing 26-year skid against Tennessee. But given that Kentucky has been out-scored 200-36 in the last four meetings with the mighty Gators, breaking the current skid of 25 straight losses against Florida (which has 17 starters back) might be too much to ask.
Story's line: Florida 38, Kentucky 10
Sept. 29 vs. South Carolina
Story line: Last year in Columbia, Carolina annihilated the Cats 54-3 in a game in which the Gamecocks scored more points than UK ran offensive plays (53). On the plus side for Kentucky, Cat-killing wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, as well as defensive stars Melvin Ingram and Stephon Gilmore, are all gone. On the debit side, star running back Marcus Lattimore is back.
Story's line: South Carolina 31, Kentucky 14
Oct. 6 vs. Mississippi State
Story line: To elevate the Kentucky program, Mississippi State (UK's permanent foe from the SEC West) is a team UK has to consistently beat. So it is discouraging that State has won the last three games in this series and has won on its last three trips to Commonwealth Stadium.
Story's line: Kentucky 24, Mississippi State 23
Oct. 13 at Arkansas
Story line: After his ill-fated motorcycle ride, former Louisville coach Bobby Petrino is out and another former Cardinals head man, John L. Smith, is in as boss Hog on an interim basis. In quarterback Tyler Wilson, running back Knile Davis and wide receiver Cobi Hamilton, Arkansas has, arguably, the best set of "triplets" in the SEC.
Story's line: Arkansas 42, Kentucky 20
Oct. 20 vs. Georgia
Story line: Of all the "big" SEC East schools, UK plays Georgia tougher than any other. The Cats have two wins over the Bulldogs since 2006 and two other near misses. Mark Richt's Dawgs have to replace three starting offensive linemen and, unexpectedly, running back Isaiah Crowell (kicked off team). But Georgia returns a veteran quarterback (Aaron Murray), five of its top six receivers and, arguably, the most talented defense in the SEC.
Story's line: Georgia 30, Kentucky 20
Oct. 27 at Missouri
Story line: The Tigers have only 12 starters back from last season's 8-5 team that beat Texas and Texas A&M, but quarterback James Franklin (not to be confused with the Vanderbilt head coach of the same name) is one of the returnees. He is one of those dual-threat QBs (981 yards rushing, 2,865 passing last season) who have historically given Kentucky fits. Mizzou tabbed UK as its first SEC homecoming foe.
Story's line: Missouri 35, Kentucky 21
Nov. 3 vs. Vanderbilt
Story line: Vandy humiliated UK 38-8 last season in Nashville. UK will give a far better account of itself in 2012, but with Vanderbilt returning all its key offensive skill players (including QB Jordan Rodgers, RB Zac Stacy and impressive receiver Jordan Matthews) that might not be enough.
Story's line: Vanderbilt 27, Kentucky 21
Nov. 17 vs. Samford
Story line: During Pat Sullivan's Heisman Trophy-winning (1971) career as quarterback at Auburn, the Tigers went 3-0 against UK. Now in his sixth season as head man at Samford of the Football Championship Subdivision, Sullivan will be trying to lead the Birmingham school to a second straight winning season in 2012. Last year, Samford was competitive in a 35-16 loss at Auburn.
Story's line: Kentucky 38, Samford 21
Nov. 24 at Tennessee
Story line: At kickoff, UT will face the mental block of a streak of 725 straight days without beating Kentucky in football. Other question is, after Matt Roark's heroics a season ago, which wide receiver will UK start at quarterback? This is a matchup of the two head coaches, UK's Phillips and Tennessee's Derek Dooley, thought to be on the hottest seats in the SEC. Will this game determine the fate for one, both or neither?
Story's line: Tennessee 24, Kentucky 13
Kentucky's record: 4-8