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An Absurdly Premature Assessment of: Kentucky

A too-soon look at next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the too-long interim.

The least you should know about Kentucky...
2006 Record
8-5 (4-4 SEC/T-Third, East)
Past Five Years
24-36 (11-29 SEC)
Returning Starters, Roughly
16 (7 Offense, 9 Defense)
Best Player
Andre Woodson went from a mediocre sophomore with a 1:1 TD-INT ratio and a tenuous hold his position to all-SEC, for those who bothered to notice before the eye-opening, three-touchdown show in the Music City Bowl. Season-by-season comparison to the left, along with a comparison to JaMarcus Russell. Given the schedule, he may fall short in yards and touchdowns, but Woodson ought to pass another number one pick,Tim Couch, as the best quarterback in Kentucky hearts sometime the team’s still over .500 on Halloween.
Bizarre Tradition
The actual lyrics to My Old Kentucky Home, as composed by Stephen Foster, adopted as state song of the Commonwealth of Kentucky and sung at UK football games, are highlighted by the lines:

Weep no more, my lady
Oh, weep no more, today
We will sing one song for the old Kentucky home
For the old Kentucky home far away.

Randy Newman’s version of the song contains the lyrics:

Sister Sue, she's short and stout
She didn't grow up, she grew out
Mama says she's plain but she's just bein' kind
Papa thinks she's pretty but he's almost blind

Now why, given the option, would they still be singing the former? That is a bizarre choice.

Bizarre Item of Dubious Interest
Kentucky lost its first ever football game by a score of 7 1/4 to 1 to A&M College, and is still unsure what is up with that score. Humiliated and confused, UK didn’t field another team for nine seasons. If you follow that link, you will also see reference to a Kentcuky national championship. In football? News to SMQ, but it is true: UK was retroactively awarded the 1950 mythical championship by Jeff Sagarin. Tennessee and Oklahoma split that title by most measures, but Bryant/Parilli-led UK beat Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl post-vote. The school should definitely hang that banner in Commonweatlh Stadium, but only if it’s in binary code.
What's Changed: Ex-LSU head coach Mike Archer had three seasons as Kentucky defensive coordinator under the legendary coach Bill Curry from 1993-95, on teams that went 11-23 and once gave up 73 points to Florida, and came back to coach with buddy Rich Brooks the last four years, with slightly worse results: UK was one of the league's bottom two or three teams by every measure all four years of Archer's return stint, growing progressively worse each year until it allowed more than 453 yards per game last season (just below Temple; only Louisiana Tech was worse) and finished last in the SEC in rushing defense, passing defense, pass efficiency defense, total defense and scoring defense. So enjoy defensive coordinator Mike Archer, NC State.

The new coordinator is promoted DBs coach Steve Brown, a former player of Brooks' at Oregon and first part of his staff when Brooks was struggling through Bill Clinton's second term with the St. Louis Rams (why couldn't a horrible knee injury to the starting quarterback facilitate his one-time Arena League backup's storybook rise to MVP and the Super Bowl in 1997 instead of 1999? Lousy Democrats*). Brown's bio reveals the coach has a degree in English literature, which will come in handy when relaying formation calls to middle linebacker Braxton Kelley through an allegorical dissection of the dichotomy between the influence of Seneca on the Italian Renaissance and the politically violent effects of the Italian presence in Elizabethan England. That's an amateur assessment, of course - any SEC offense would recognize instantly that a reference to Gorboduc means a safety blitz - but you get the picture.

What's the Same: They can throw! They can throw! The Ghost of Hal Mumme lives! Aside from leading the SEC in passing and possessing the best returning quarterback in the league (see below), one who is more efficient, more athletic and stronger-armed than Mumme's man Tim Couch, the Wildcats bring back every bit of that surprising production. Do you know who Keenan Burton is? He caught 77 passes and 12 touchdowns last year. Dickie Lyons, Jr.? Caught 50 and nine.

Efficiency: finally paying off for Rich Brooks in the end. Though that one guy's hand is a little close for comfort. That's a lap. And is the skinhead guy to the right trying to rip his teammate's head off by the cornrows? Two laps.
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The running back, Rafael Little, is somewhat better known, and wound up accounting for 1,300 total yards rushing, receiving and returning punts as a junior despite missing all of four games (could have helped against Florida and LSU, though he wasn't needed to beat Georgia) and barely touching the ball at Louisville. Healthy, Little had almost 2,000 total yards in `05 and finished last season on a complete tear (just shy of 800 all-purpose yards in the last four games). The overall running game is dismal on paper, but comes out looking perfectly adequate when Little is in the lineup.

There is a change here in the respect defenses will have to pay UK all of a sudden, for the first time since Mumme ducked out of town with his towel and shades six years ago, and this is arguably a more balanced unit than Mumme's - the Wildcats only averaged about two more passes per game than runs and only exceeded 40 pass attempts twice last year. It's certainly more efficient, but then, when comparing Rich Brooks' approach to Mumme's, how could it be otherwise? With some coaches, efficiency is not exactly the point, and these are usually SMQ's favorites, even if it does carry with it an iffy correlation to victory.

Better Know Andre Woodson: One of these SEC quarterbacks is about to be the number one pick in the NFL Draft. The other is confused with a lot of more famous players sharing his surname:

Height Weight Att. Comp. Comp. %
Quarterback A 6-6 255 342 232 67.8
Quarterback B 6-5 240 419 264 63.0
Yds. Yds. Per Att. TD INT INT %
Quarterback A 3,129 9.15 28 8 2.45
Quarterback B 3,515 8.39 31 7 1.61

This is not such a sneaky rhetorical device, since you know who the guys are: Quarterback A is JaMarcus Russell, Quarterback B is Andre Woodson, and only one of them threw three interceptions at Florida and Tennessee (Hint: Not Woodson, who threw one touchdown and no interceptions in each game).

That is not to say that Andre Woodson is as effective a quarterback as Russell, or that he'll be parlaying his size and numbers into similar first round dough next Spring. SMQ is not an NFL scout who meticulously studies mechanics and release points (win-loss records of Conference USA teams rushing for 152-181 yards, perhaps, but release points, no). It should demonstrate, though, that Woodson is among the more underappreciated players in the country - so clearly underappreciated by the time he bombed Clemson for three touchdowns on national TV in December, in fact, that he'll be plastered in every "Underrated" sidebar in every "Scouting the Nation" section in every preseason magazine this summer, and thus probably rated about accurately when Kentucky kicks off against [I-AA ALERT!] Eastern Kentucky. SMQ envisions a back-to-back thing with Brian Brohm on covers, and the headline "Bluegrass Bombers." That'll sell.

Ah, but the wise, they know that satisfaction in life is a result primarily of competition against oneself, and Andre Woodson on that level should have been a satisfied man these past few months comparing his 2006 effort to that crazy, overwhelmed kid of 2005. Remember, he started every game both seasons; the last two numbers are against winning teams:

Att. Comp. Comp. % Yds. Yds. Per Att. TD INT Yds vs +.500 TD vs +.500
2006 419 264 63.0 3,515 8.39 31 7 241.5 15
2005 253 146 57.7 1,644 6.5 6 6 156.8 2

What's up with the left hand, though? Is that like a sight or what?
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The difference? A simple "year of experience" usually counts for somewhat less than it gets credit for (players often regress), but never dismiss it. Improbably-named offensive coordinator Joker Smith was a holdover, but Randy Sanders jogged up last year from Tennessee and performed the same sort of stellar quarterback rehab his old boss did with Erik Ainge back in Knoxville (no wonder Peyton Manning was so good!) The issue now is with retaining the specific skill set on display the second half of `06 without getting Woodson mangled too badly - UK brought back all five starters from 2005 and still gave up three sacks a game last year, 106th in the nation, and only the right tackle is coming back (though it should not be overlooked that two potential new starters, Fatu Turituri and Sefo Mailau Blaylock, have unpronounceable Polynesian names, a universally promising sign, even in Kentucky).

Improper Benefits: Phil Steele makes a prolific note about this, and Brian has, too, but one statistic that can portend an iminent downturn in fortune is an unusually high turnover margin. Kentucky finished a whopping +15 last year, based mainly on the defense's recovery of 18 fumbles. Ole Miss fumbled six times against Kentucky, Central Michigan eight, and Vanderbilt, Tennessee, Florida and Clemson all coughed it up three times. Only Texas got more than that, and though neither is likely to reproduce that number, the difference is less likely to cost the Longhorns two to three wins.

Overly Optimistic Appropriately Sobering/Heartwarming Offseason Chatter: The Wildcats' best recruit in a couple seasons was Micah Johnson, Mr. Football in Kentucky one of the top five freshman linebackers in the country going into last season, but it's sketchy whether he or his brother, guard Christian, will inherit starting roles after each was suspended earlier this month for screwin' around in the classroom. Maybe they're back by the start of Spring practice in a couple weeks, maybe they're back by the start of practice this summer, maybe they're not back at all, which would deprive the `Cats of their only significant defensive playmaker outside of Wesley Woodyard, the leading tackler the last two years. Passing Kentucky message boarders surely have the inside track here, so fulfill message board obligation by calling SMQ a know-nothing, anti-Wildcat idiot for not having the scoop on the Johnsons' latest chemistry test, and then maybe fill in the gaps.

On the other hand, check out that same link for Rich Brooks, good guy: junior offensive lineman Micah Jones, forced to give up football because of a back injury, will retain his valuable scholarship in order to finish his degree.

Kentucky on YouTube: Relaying the sentiments of the enitre Commonwealth, Marcus McClinton makes clear in this video that he is tired of losing, tired of being close, tired of being bruised. The free safety and his teammates, like UK fans, are prepared to forget the naysayers and all the haters, forget the reporters and the newspapers, to jump around, get crunk and knock some heads off :

SMQ actually really loves these lyrics and their "can do" spirit, which is so often missing in young people these days. Mssr. McClinton is a multi-talented individual. Listen again for "Wintertime workouts, we paid the costs. See, Coach already told us what we had to do, so there's no more excuses...Is y'all ready to go to war with dem boys?" Do you believe?

See also: McClinton's skillz dwarf the tedious math lesson of UK's string-based stadium intro, the repetitive spelling lesson  before the Georgia game and the on-field cinematography after the Georgia game. Plus, Dickie Lyons Jr. brings down an amazing catch as Woodson is clipped in the knees and SMQ can't talk Kentucky football without at least one gratuitous link to the Bluegrass Miracle.

Best-Case: All four non-conference games are at home, meaning the `Cats get eight freakin' games in Lexington, including Louisville, LSU, Florida and Tennessee. Let's say UK wins the same games it won last year - yes, including Georgia, on the road this time, as long as we're talking the moon here - and upsets just one of the aforementioned heavies coming into town. That's a solid seven-win regular season, which has not happened back-to-back since the final days of Tim Couch, 1997-98.

Worst-Case: Half the schedule looks like certain defeat already, but the difference between three wins and six will be what happens against Mississippi State and Vanderbilt. The Woodson-led offense seems explosive enough that UK won't lose both of those games, but it's certainly conceivable with the coninuation of the defensive screwiness of the past few seasons to sink back into 1-7, 4-8 territory. The presence of Eastern Kentucky, Kent State and Florida Atlantic ensures three wins.

Non-Binding Forecast: Louisville, the top three in the East and LSU and Arkansas have to be stricken as losses at this point; the average margin of defeat to Georgia and non-Zook Florida has actually been pretty huge this decade, regardless what happened with the former last year. SMQ hasn't looked yet at Vanderbilt or Mississippi State, but he's willing to call those games for the Wildcats and South Carolina - which finished a game back of UK in the East standings last year - a toss-up for lame bowl eligibility. Six and six, maybe, if Kentucky can win in Columbia, but eight wins will not happen again.

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SMQ thinks it's self-evident, but if you need any more proof Rich Brooks is a dyed-in-the-wool Republican, just check this haricut.