What if you had pulled aside any college football coach in America at the conclusion of spring practice and told him that he'd lose an NFL-quality defensive end before the first game, that his All-America-caliber cornerback would miss four games with an ankle injury, and that he'd have to play the second half of the season with a true freshman quarterback who was deemed not quite ready for prime time?
All of the above has happened to Kentucky's Rich Brooks.
Defensive end Jeremy Jarmon had to enter the NFL Supplemental Draft after being ruled ineligible for his senior season. Cornerback Trevard Lindley hasn't been himself since the Alabama game because of a high ankle sprain. And a knee injury to quarterback Mike Hartline forced Morgan Newton to become the starter earlier than the coaching staff anticipated.
But instead of the season going into the tank, Brooks has the Cats in position for their best season in 25 years. If UK beats Tennessee on Saturday, it will be the first time since 1984 that Kentucky has won eight games during the regular season.
"If you had told me before the season that all of that was going to happen and we'd have a chance to win eight games, I'd have taken it — right then and there," UK head coach for offense Joker Phillips said. "It's been an amazing year."
Brooks isn't one to toot his own horn, but ESPN.com's Chris Low wrote this week that if UK beats the Vols, Brooks should be awarded the Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year.
"Regardless of what happens this weekend in the Bluegrass, Brooks has accomplished something that hasn't been done at Kentucky in nearly 100 years — win at least seven games for four consecutive years — and he's turned in some of his best work in the twilight of what's been a long and illustrious coaching career," Low wrote.
Brooks would certainly get the SEC Coach of the Year vote from his players.
"He's just one heck of a coach," sophomore Randall Cobb said. "He's brought us together, and he's held everything together through some tough times."
"Losing all those guys in the off-season and to injury, I can't even describe how good of a job Coach Brooks has done," senior center Jorge Gonzalez said.
Two other factors have contributed to UK's ability to overcome adversity and set itself up for a landmark season: A handful of under-the-radar veterans who have played at an All-SEC level; and a handful of fresh faces who have stepped in and filled the voids left by injuries and defections.
"It's a testament to the character of our players," defensive coordinator Steve Brown said. "They've played with heart and, when guys have gone down, they've come in and played hard. It's just been a positive experience. These players are just getting what they deserved."
"That's the kind of program we feel we've built here," Phillips said. "We don't care who's in there. We've lost guys before. Everybody's got to step up. When we lost Jarmon, nobody panicked. We just got the next guy ready."
Cobb was expected to blossom in his second full year in the program, and tailback Derrick Locke shook off a major knee injury to become one of the best all-around backs in the SEC. Sophomores Danny Trevathan, Winston Guy and Randall Burden made the transition from spot players as freshmen to solid, full-time contributors.
But it's the previously unsung guys who have made the biggest difference.
Senior tackle Corey Peters has spent the last three seasons in the shadows of Jarmon and Myron Pryor but has dominated the interior. Linebacker Sam Maxwell, in his first year as a full-time starter, is tied for second in the league in interceptions with five. Left tackle Zipp Duncan and center Jorge Gonzalez have been the key cogs to what has turned out to be one of the SEC's best offensive lines, and fullback John Conner has continued to quietly help pave the way for a running game that has carried the offense.
"Those are the big-name guys to me on this team," Cobb said. "They may not be household names, but they make the biggest impact in the game. Those are the guys I look up to on this team."
Brooks says Peters is definitely All-SEC material.
"Corey, as much as anybody, has been responsible for some of the great things this year because he's almost pulled this team by his bootstraps, which he did the second half at Georgia," Brooks said. "His play was All-American-caliber the last 30 minutes at Georgia. He was dominant. He killed their offensive line and made plays all over the field."
On one play, Peters split a gap and swatted the ball out of the hands of Georgia quarterback Joe Cox on a pitch sweep.
"I've never seen that done in a football game, and I've been coaching way too many years," Brooks said. "And the very next play, (Peters) comes around on a stunt and clobbers the quarterback as he's getting ready to throw the ball, and he had a receiver open. That got us off the field on that series. He was just dominant. I'll be disappointed if he doesn't get the proper post-season recognition because he's been a huge, huge player for us."
You won't find fullbacks on many SEC or All-America lists, but Conner's contributions never get overlooked in the locker room.
"He's been phenomenal," Brooks said. "He's an unselfish, unsung guy. I'm not sure you couldn't make an argument he's not one of the most important guys in our offense, period."
"He's the best fullback in the nation," Cobb said.
Bowl reps coming
Representatives from the Outback and Chick-fil-A bowls will be at Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday to scout the Tennessee-Kentucky game.
The Outback Bowl will take place New Year's Day at 11 a.m. in Tampa's Raymond James Stadium. The Chick-fil-A Bowl will be played on Dec. 31 at 7:30 p.m. in the Georgia Dome.
All bowl selections will officially be announced on Sunday, Dec. 6.