Premature Preview 2011: Kentucky

Previously: Memphis, Auburn, LSU, Louisiana Tech, Georgia, UAB, South Carolina

MSU gets a bye week after facing South Carolina, but we’re going to keep on rolling with this and look at Week 9 foe Kentucky, the Bulldogs’ permanent Eastern Division opponent. It’s turned into a decent rivalry in recent years – five of the last six meetings have been decided by a touchdown or less.

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Kentucky Wildcats (Oct. 29, at Lexington)

Conference: SEC

2010 record: 6-7 (2-6, 5th Eastern Division)

Final ranking: Not ranked

Coach: Joker Phillips (6-7, one year)

Returning starters: 18 (6 offense, 10 defense, 2 specialists)

Last meeting: MSU, 24-17 (Oct. 30, 2010, in Starkville)

On the Web: ukathletics.com

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Looky, Kentucky has some spiffy new uniforms, which I’m certain will lead to more wins. I’m pretty sure that’s what got MSU to the Gator Bowl.

Give this to the Wildcats, though: They’ve reached a bowl game five years running, and while they were lower-tier bowl games that you probably didn’t watch (I sure as heck didn’t), it’s a claim not a ton of teams can make.

The Wildcats are 36-29 over that five-year span, and that’s just not good enough for Phillips.

“I want to go to bowl games, and I want to be able to compete for championships here,” he told Athlon magazine.

It’s gonna be tough to win a championship this year for several reasons, not the least of which is the loss of some key players: receiver Randall Cobb, quarterback Mike Hartline and tailback Derrick Locke. The leading candidates to step into those big shoes are, respectively, L’Rod King, Morgan Newton and Raymond Sanders.

Phillips apparently wasn’t too happy with King in the spring. The junior made 36 catches for 478 yards and five touchdowns last year, and he’ll be pushed by sophomore Brian Adams (6-foot-4, 223 pounds), who also plays on the baseball team.

At QB, Newton has some experience with nine career starts, but Hartline grabbed the reins last season, and Newton only got into five games. He did start the BBVA Compass Bowl due to Hartline’s suspension, and on the year Newton was 25 of 43 for 265 yards and no TDs or interceptions.

Locke is tough to replace both in the running game and the return game (Cobb will be missed on returns, too). Sanders has promise, and he got into 12 games last season (68 carries, 254 yards, three TDs). He had knee surgery recently but isn’t expected to miss preseason camp.

For all the offensive concerns, UK feels pretty good about its defense, which returns 10 starters. It’s led by linebacker Danny Trevathan, whose 144 tackles led the SEC last year. He’ll be a big key in helping the defense execute new co-defensive coordinator Rick Minter‘s multiple schemes, which will include three-man and four-man fronts, along with a 4-2-5 look.

Kentucky ranked 10th in the SEC in scoring defense (28.4 ppg) last season, and it was sixth in total defense (354.2 ypg). It was better against the pass (177.1 ypg, fourth) than the run (177.1 ypg, 11th). Yes, those numbers are the same, but obviously that’s too high for a run defense.

A big question is at defensive tackle, where sophomore Mister Cobble (that’s Mr. Mister Cobble to you) is healthy and expected to do some big things. He’s joined by sophomore Donte Rumph, who’s been beset by academic and weight issues.

UK’s schedule is odd. It begins with patsies Western Kentucky and Central Michigan, then it gets tough with rival Louisville, Florida, LSU and South Carolina, the latter two on the road. After a week off, it’s Jackonsville State at home and then MSU at home.

As I mentioned, MSU will be coming off a bye week and has UT-Martin the following Saturday. So there should be no reason for guys like me to trot out the cliché of the Bulldogs being too worn down or looking ahead to the next opponent. Better beware those new UK unis, though.

Up next: UT-Martin