This summer in Kentucky has had an all-hoops, all-the-time tenor. The anticipation for the 2011-12 college basketball season in the commonwealth is intense.
If the coming college football season in our state is going to break through the basketball buzz, it better produce something special.
Here are my 10 best reasons to pay attention to college football in the commonwealth in 2011.
10. Newton's moment of truth. I'm not sure I've ever seen one player more important to a head coach's ultimate destiny than Kentucky quarterback Morgan Newton is to Joker Phillips. The junior from Carmel, Ind., is the only scholarship QB on the UK roster who has ever dressed for a college football game. In nine career starts, Newton has not yet performed close to the level suggested by the rampant recruiting hype he brought to Lexington but, as a third-year junior, he's still got time to develop. If he doesn't, UK and Phillips are in trouble.
9. 'Rainey' day. A season ago, Bobby Rainey accounted for a staggering 49.3 percent of Western Kentucky University's total offense. The Griffin, Ga., product ran for 184 yards against UK and 155 yards at Nebraska and finished third in the nation in rushing yards a game (137.4). For the 5-foot-8, 205-pound senior to attract the national acclaim he deserves, the Hilltoppers (2-10 in 2010) need to win more games. Paradoxically, the best thing for Rainey in 2011 might be if WKU can develop other options and diversify its offense.
8. A Cards reunion ... in the SEC? Louisville's fans might have more interest in the goings on in the SEC West this season than Kentucky's. The reason is four former Cardinals head football coaches are working in the division. Bobby Petrino runs the show at Arkansas, and his U of L predecessor, John L. Smith, is coaching special teams and outside linebackers for the Hogs. In Baton Rouge, Steve Kragthorpe is tutoring LSU's quarterbacks while Ron Cooper handles the secondary. We're guessing most U of L fans think Arkansas has the better end of the ex-files.
7. An exploding scoreboard at Murray? A season ago, it took Hal Mumme disciple Chris Hatcher half a season to get his version of the Air Raid offense fully functioning at Murray State. But starting with a 72-59 comeback win over Missouri State, the 'Hatch Attack' became lethal. Murray finished its initial season under Hatcher, the former UK assistant, with its first winning season (6-5) since 2004. With quarterback Casey Brockman returning this season, the Racers could make scoreboards light up like the Vegas strip.
6. Kiddie Cats. Randall Cobb and Derrick Locke were two of the most dynamic playmakers in Kentucky football history. Mike Hartline and Chris Matthews had strong senior years in 2010. They're all gone now. True freshman wide receivers Darryl Collins and Demarco Robinson and running back Josh Clemons could all be asked to fill big roles in a UK offensive attack that enters 2011 with one (wideout La'Rod King) proven playmaker.
5. A restoration in Richmond? For all its regal football tradition, Eastern Kentucky has made all of two playoff appearances since 1997 and hasn't won a playoff game since 1994. In seeking to produce his second post-season trip at EKU, fourth-year Colonels coach Dean Hood returns nine offensive starters (including quarterback T.J. Pryor) and seven on defense from a team that beat both of this season's Ohio Valley Conference favorites (Jacksonville State and Murray State) down the stretch last season.
4. Victor's victory? After Louisville's Victor Anderson ran for 1,047 yards as a freshman (2008), the former St. Xavier standout seemed to be on a collision course with stardom. However, injuries and the emergence of Bilal Powell sidetracked the Anderson star ship. With Powell now gone, the 5-11, 189-pound senior has one year left to achieve the heights that his freshman year seemed to herald.
3. Chill of Minter: Wanting a more risk-taking defense, Kentucky hired former Cincinnati head coach and Notre Dame defensive coordinator Rick Minter to implement it. The underlying premise behind Minter's scheme — getting more speed on the field and closer to the line of scrimmage while confusing offenses with deception — makes sense for UK. The question is, can the Cats pick up Minter's system without going through a transition filled with missed assignments that lead to big plays for foes?
2. A big 'Hurtt' at U of L?Charlie Strong has had almost no public-relations adversity since coming to Louisville as head coach. However, when ex-Miami aide Clint Hurtt, Strong's recruiting coordinator and associate head coach, turned up prominently mentioned in the Yahoo Sports investigation of NCAA violations by the Hurricanes, it put Strong and U of L in a bit of pickle. Will the situation become such a distraction that it hurts the 2011 Louisville season?
1. Sophomore jinx? A year ago, all three of Kentucky's FBS schools had new head coaches, and the trio produced some good moments. Louisville's Charlie Strong had a winning season (7-6) and a bowl victory. UK's Joker Phillips beat a top-10 team (South Carolina) and led the Cats to a fifth straight bowl. WKU's Willie Taggart coached the Hilltoppers to their first two victories since becoming a major-college football program.
With both U of L and UK having significant graduation losses, Strong and Phillips will need big-time coaching jobs in their second years just to match last season. With 15 returning starters, it is Taggart who looks best positioned to avert the sophomore jinx with a move upward in the victory column.