One tough stretch run

The University of Kentucky 2009 football schedule was finally completed this week, and it will have a drastically different look from the past couple of seasons.

First off, the Wildcats will open a season outside the state of Kentucky for the first time since 1982 when they face Miami University at Cincinnati's Paul Brown Stadium. The Cats will take the next week off before hosting Louisville on Sept. 19 and then will play 11 straight weeks to close the season. UK did manage to spread out its non-conference games, as they will play two non-SEC teams during the last half of its schedule.

Like last year, much of the non-conference portion of the schedule seems built for success: The combined 2008 record of Miami, Louisville and Louisiana-Monroe was 11-25. The Cats will replace Arkansas with Auburn as its rotating SEC West opponent.

Here's a quick look at the 12 teams on the Wildcats' schedule next fall, with the 2008 won-loss record in parenthesis.

Miami (Ohio) (2-10): The Red Hawks are breaking in a new coach, former Notre Dame offensive coordinator Mike Haywood. On paper, Haywood appears to have a tough row to hoe to get a program back on track after it lost 27 of 37 games over a three-year period. Miami also has to replace a pair of All-MAC linebackers in Joey Hudson and Clayton Mullins. The quarterback battle should be interesting, as incumbent Daniel Raudabaugh will try to fight off freshman Austin Boucher, who turned down a late offer from Ohio State to sign with Haywood.

Louisville (5-7): This figures to be a make-or-break year for U of L Coach Steve Kragthorpe. The first order of business for the Cards is to get the quarterback situation figured out. Junior college transfer Adam Froman and Lexington Catholic grad and N.C. State transfer Justin Burke figure to get first dibs. Louisville has some nice skill-position talent returning in running back Victor Anderson and receiver Scott Long, but the Cardinals will need to revamp their defense after losing coordinator Ron English, who took the head coaching job at Eastern Michigan.

Florida (13-1): The Gators return a good chunk of their roster from last year's national championship squad and will be gunning for a third title in four seasons. It's always about quarterback Tim Tebow, but Urban Meyer will need to find capable replacements for receivers Percy Harvin and Louis Murphy. The defense should be scary, with all 11 starters set to return, led by All-America linebacker Brandon Spikes.

Alabama (12-2): The Tide lost three important offensive anchors in quarterback John Parker Wilson, tailback Glen Coffee and left tackle Andre Smith. But Nick Saban still has plenty of pro prospects left in Tuscaloosa, including receiver Julio Jones, linebacker Rolando McClain and nose guard Terrence Cody.

South Carolina (7-6): Fans in Columbia have started to grow impatient waiting for Steve Spurrier to break through in the SEC East. Spurrier seems to have settled on sophomore-to-be Stephen Garcia as his quarterback, at least for now. Linebacker Eric Norwood should contend for national honors. Perhaps the biggest task for Spurrier this spring will be breaking in five new assistant coaches.

Auburn (5-7): New coach Gene Chizik will try to silence critics who questioned his hiring. Working in Chizik's favor is offensive coordinator Guz Malzahn, who brings his high-octane offense over from Tulsa. The Tigers spent much of last year flip-flopping between Kodi Burns and Chris Todd at quarterback; Chizik will need to settle on one guy. The defense should be its usual stout self led by lineman Antonio Coleman.

Louisiana-Monroe (4-8): The Warhawks won't be intimidated by coming into Commonwealth Stadium. ULM lost a narrow 42-40 decision at UK in 2006 and made road trips to Arkansas, Auburn and Ole Miss last year. The Warhawks' best player is senior linebacker Cardia Jackson, who was named to the Lombardi Award Watch List for 2009.

Mississippi State (4-8): Excitement is high in Starkville with former Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen taking over and one of the school's best-ever recruiting classes arriving in the fall. Mullen is slowly trying to implement his spread offense this spring, with senior Tyson Lee currently the odds-on favorite to win the quarterback job.

Eastern Kentucky (8-4): The Colonels are coming off an Ohio Valley Conference title but must replace two-year starter Allan Holland at quarterback. EKU must also replace six defensive starters but does return its top four running backs.

Vanderbilt (7-6): Things seem to be on the uptick for Vandy. The Commodores are coming off their first bowl win in 54 years and return a whopping 18 starters from that squad. Mackenzi Adams and Larry Smith will battle for the quarterback job in the spring and fall.

Georgia (10-3): The aspirations figured to be toned down a bit this year for the Bulldogs, who finished a disappointing 10-3 after starting the season as the consensus No. 1. Replacements must be found for quarterback Matthew Stafford and tailback Knowshon Moreno, both of whom declared for the NFL Draft. But A.J. Green should be one of the nation's best receivers next season, and All-SEC linebacker Rennie Curran will help to try to improve a defense that got gashed regularly last year.

Tennessee (5-7): Lane Kiffin has come in and ruffled some feathers with braggadocio; he better be prepared to produce on the field. Kiffin is installing new systems on offense and defense and needs to figure out whether B.J. Coleman or Jonathan Crompton fits his scheme, which relies on the short passing game and power running. The Vols may have the best overall player in the country in junior safety Eric Berry.

Cats numbers look good

Expect a slightly quicker and stronger group of Wildcats when Kentucky opens spring practice this week, as UK's speed and strength numbers have improved since last March.

In the 40-yard dash, 27.5 percent of the Wildcats were timed at 4.63 seconds or better, up from 23 percent a year ago.

The 20-yard shuttle, which measures lateral movement and ability to change directions quickly, featured 70.6 percent of the team timed under 4.5 seconds.

That's a jump from 66.3 percent of the squad that was under 4.5 seconds last year. In judging strength, progress was made in all three of the primary lifts: the squat lift, the bench press and the power clean.

The speed testing was conducted on the new playing surface at Nutter Field House. The new FieldTurf is much softer than the previous hard surface, which led strength coach Marc Hill to suspect that this year's times would be slower than previous years.

But the opposite occurred.

"I was concerned that the softer turf might lead to slower numbers, but that didn't happen," Hill said. "The bottom line is that the coaches continue to recruit better players and better athletes, and that's showing up in our testing."

Brooks inducted into Northern California Hall of Fame

University of Kentucky head football coach Rich Brooks was inducted into the Northern California Sports Association Hall of Fame at the group's annual dinner Saturday night in Yuba City, Calif.

Born in Forest, Calif., Brooks started his athletic career at Nevada Union High School in Grass Valley, Calif., where he competed in football, basketball, track and boxing.

Brooks later served as an assistant coach at Norte Del Rio (Calif.) High School, UCLA and with the Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers.