Tuesday, July 25, 2006

2006 Kentucky Preview

The Good

Their colors are cool? They used to score a lot? Forgive me, but it's a little difficult to find many things in Kentucky's program to really get pumped up about. They were pummeled by every good SEC team they played, and got lit up on defense by Idaho State. Then again, this is 2006, a season of hope for all men, women, and Kentucky football fans (can they be classified as anything other than an endangered species?).

The Wildcats have this one guy, you probably haven't heard too much about him, but he's very good. If he played at Florida, Notre Dame, or even Michigan State, he'd be a national talent with future Heisman potential. He's Kentucky's "Little Man," but nothing about him involves Shawn or Marlon Wayans. In 2005, Rafael Little set Kentucky's single season all-purpose yards record, breaking the old mark set by Derek Abney. Little rushed for 1,045 yards (5.3 ypc), caught 46 passes for 449 yards, scored 9 touchdowns, and had 355 yards in punt returns (16.9 average!). Go ahead, get out the calculator. Wait, I'll tell you: 1,982. 1,982 all purpose yards. Surely, with those numbers, he'd merit 1st Team All SEC, right? Bzzt, wrong! He was named 2nd Team All SEC, behind Arkansas's Darren McFadden and Auburn's Kenny Irons. Injustice? Maybe, but why do Irons, McFadden, Darby, et al., get more publicity than Little? He's at Kentucky! Oh, and he was only a sophomore. His junior year will probably lead to more carries and yards on the ground, but his receptions might drop, especially if the wideouts can stay healthy. Even when Little take a breather, the Wildcats just plug in SO Tony Dixon, who runs 4.41 40 yard dash. The Wildcats will depend heavily on the ground attack this season, which could open up the field for Andre Woodson at quarterback.

But wait, there's more! Along with Little in the backfield, Kentucky's offensive line should improve greatly in 2006. They have six returning "big uglies" with major starting experience. They have four seniors penciled in to start, with a 5th coming off the bench. Senior C Matt McCuthchan could very well end up in the NFL after his graduation, and Sophomore LT Aaron Miller has had great success in his single year in Lexington. The leadership on the line should control this offense, and don't expect them to have too many dumb penalties. With this very experienced line and Rafael Little continuing to do his thing, Kentucky, all of a sudden, has a potent attack.

Surprisingly, Kentucky actually has THREE areas of promise for 2006. Their putrid, rancid defense gave up 34 points a game last season, including 39 against an even more awful Indiana team. The lone twinkle of hope is the linebacking crew, which returns their main 3 starters. Top tackler Wesley Woodyard had a great campaign, and could put up even bigger numbers (100 tkl, 2 sacks, 5 tfl, 5 pbu, 1 int). MLB Braxton Kelley is coming off an injury in his freshman year and was limited to 44 tackles last season. JR OLB Joe Schuler could very well start the season backing up FR Micah Johnson, but both of these players will make impacts on the defensive side of the ball. This unit will need to set the tempo early in the season to bring confidence to a terrible defense.

The Bad

Everything else! Well, almost everything, because the defensive backfield was pitiful last year. Kentucky has some major question marks at offensive skill positions. JR QB Andre Woodson played so inconsistent, even the Tennessee offense was overheard laughing. He had solid completion numbers, but he struggled throwing touchdown passes. Getting into the endzone is obviously the most important thing in college football, so he needs to improve there. If he can consistently keep the possessions going for Kentucky, the offense will greatly improve on their 21.7 ppg. Backup Curtis Pulley was also diagnosed with "performus inconsistus," which I think is some fancy doctor mumbo jumbo for being unpredictable.

Kentucky's wideouts should improve this season, but they still are a liability until they can prove otherwise. Little led the Cats in receptions and yards last season, which should never be the case. JR WR Keenan Burton was chronically injured last season and caught 24 balls. If he can stay healthy, he could be a very solid threat at one slot. The Cats typically run a 3 wide receiver set, and the other two slots will be filled by inexperienced juniors. Steve Johnson is a JUCO transfer and needs to learn the playbook, while John Logan is coming off an injury. They both have the potential to be solid and put up some nice numbers. Woodson and the rest of the O will need them to step up.

The defensive line played like a group of middle school boys getting into a fight. They pushed and shoved, but nothing ever came of it. They lose their two best DL who produced an eye-popping 4 sacks combined last season. The line can only improve, right? They better hope so. The Cats' D produced only 16 sacks, which is less than Baylor, Duke, Stanford, Washington, and probably other bad teams. They desperately need to improve the pressure on opposing passers to have any chance of staying close against the top tier SEC teams. Opponents rushing for a whopping 4.9 yards per carry against the 2005 defensive line, and their lack of pressure contributed to the 243 passing ypg they gave up (including 291 to IDAHO STATE). This unit has some talent, but needs to play to the top of their game to help this team.

The Ugly

How would you feel about a defensive backfield that gave up 243 passing yards per game, intercepted only 4 passes, and lost their two best players? I feel pretty sorry for them, and I hope they have some miracle water in Lexington to help these gentlemen. SR CB Bo Smith returns, and he looks like the leader of the unit. He had 63 tackles, which seems like a ton for a corner. JR FS Roger Williams had a solid 2005 in terms of tackles, but nobody on the roster seems like a lockdown kind of player. They will sorely miss Muhammad Abdullah and Antoine Huffman, so much so that they may allow 260+ yards per game. If this unit doesn't drastically improve, 2006 could be very very daunting for Rich Brooks.

The Schedule

Sep. 2 - @ Louisville (L)
Sep. 9 - Texas State (W)
Sep. 16 - Mississippi (L)
Sep. 23 - @ Florida (L)
Sep. 30 - Central Michigan (W)
Oct. 7 - South Carolina (L)
Oct. 14 - @ LSU (L)
Oct. 28 - @ Mississippi State (L)
Nov. 4 - Georgia (L)
Nov. 11 - Vanderbilt (W)
Nov. 18 - Louisiana-Monroe (W)
Nov. 25 - @ Tennessee (L)

The Best Case Scenario

Kentucky has a slew of toss-up games that will decide their fate this season. Mississippi, Central Michigan, Mississippi State, and South Carolina are all games that should be pretty close and could go either way. "Central Michigan," you ask? Yes, Kentucky is 4-0 all time against the Chippewas, but they haven't played in years (the average margin of victory was only 9.5 ppg). Plus, Ohio beat the Cats in Lexington in 2004. I think Kentucky can beat the two Mississippi schools (who knows if they will?) and CMU. I have a hard hard time finding a victory against Spurrier and the Gamecocks, but the talent gap between the two teams isn't that huge. If Kentucky goes 3-1 in these 4 key games, they should end up 6-6 and bowl eligible. Don't expect them to beat Louisville, Florida, LSU, Georgia, or Tennessee. They have cakewalks against Texas State and ULM.

The Worst Case Scenario

All four of the toss-up games could slip away from them, and even Vandy could, in many imaginations, could pick them off. A 2-9 season would be terribly disappointing, and would end the Rich Brooks tenure in Lexington. The Cats have a ton of questions on the squad, and Brooks has yet to prove himself in the SEC. They haven't gone winless in SEC play this century, but there is a small, tiny chance it happens now.

The Wrap-Up

Kentucky should be greatly improved on the field and in the win column this season. They have experience (16 starters returning) and a more favorable schedule than 2005. Can they scare some teams? Sure! They've covered against Florida the last 4 seasons, but against huge spreads. Before their bye week (8-3 against the spread on these weeks), they get LSU, so watch for a close one here. Besides those 2 sneak attacks, the Cats probably won't come close to any huge upsets. I actually predict Kentucky to underperform this season and finish 4-8 (1-7), and we'll see the end of Rich Brooks on a SEC sideline.

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