Premature Preview 2012: Kentucky

Previously: Jackson State, Auburn, Troy, South Alabama

Following a bye week, MSU plays its second SEC game of the season, and it’s already October. It’s the first league road test, and Lexington is a place the Bulldogs have played well of late – they’ve won two in a row there.

Matter of fact, the road has been very kind to Dan Mullen when it comes to the SEC East. He’s 4-1 in those games over three seasons.

And yes, MSU did visit Lexington just last season. It’s one of those quirks of the new schedule the SEC had to come up with after expanding. (UK is the Bulldogs’ permanent East opponent.) What this ultimately means is, I get to take another tour of the Woodford Reserve distillery.

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Kentucky Wildcats (Oct. 6, in Lexington)

Conference: SEC

2011 record: 5-7 (2-6, T-4th Eastern Division)

Final ranking: Not ranked

Coach: Joker Phillips (11-14, two years)

Returning starters: 12 (6 offense, 5 defense, 1 specialist)

Last meeting: MSU, 28-16 (Oct. 29, 2011, in Lexington)

On the Web: ukathletics.com

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Kentucky just might be the worst team in the SEC. An 0-8 ledger in league play is a real possibility, and this team is rapidly slipping further away from the Rick Brooks era, which was a golden age sorts for UK football, relatively speaking. Kind of.

Youth is a big culprit here, as 24 lettermen were lost. There is experience at quarterback, however, where senior Morgan Newton returns. He missed the spring because of a shoulder injury, though, which gave sophomore Maxwell Smith plenty of reps, and he’ll give Newton a run for the job.

Smith played plenty last year, especially after Newton hurt his shoulder (against MSU). Smith passed for more yards (819 to 793) and had a better completion percentage (54.9 to 47.7) than the senior. So Newton’s job is hardly safe, although he is a better runner than Smith.

The two main returning offensive skill players are tailback CoShik Williams and receiver La’Rod King. Williams had 486 yards and three touchdowns for one of the worst rushing offenses in the SEC (124.2 ypg), while King caught 40 passes for 598 yards and seven TDs. The Wildcats really have nowhere to go but up, as they ranked last in the SEC last year in scoring (15.8 ppg), total offense (259.8 ypg) and passing offense (135.6 ypg).

The offensive line lost three starters, which might not be a bad thing, because Kentucky gave up a league-high 35 sacks last season.

So, let’s look at UK’s defense. Surely it’s a stronger group than the offense. Yeah, well, the Wildcats lost a couple of really good players, linebacker Danny Trevathan and safety Winston Guy. Trevathan led the SEC in tackles with 143, and Guy was third with 120. The leaders of this group now are safety Martavius Neloms (71 tackles, five PBUs), linebacker Avery Williamson (49 tackles) and defensive end Collins Ukwu (6.5 TFLs, 2.5 sacks). The D-line has experience and will need to lead the way.

Rick Minter is entering his second season as defensive coordinator, and by SEC standards, that group wasn’t very good last season. But at Kentucky, where basketball rules year round, patience shouldn’t be too hard to come by for this fan base. Even if Kentucky does go 0-8 in the SEC this fall, the fans probably won’t notice because of the lingering euphoria of that basketball national title.