HOOVER, Ala. — It’s not hard for Chris Dortch, editor of Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook, to identify what he sees as the biggest problem for Kentucky going into this football season.
“Defense against the run has been a problem and will have to be shored up. There is experience returning, but the veteran players will have to prove they can do better than 87th in the nation in rushing defense (183.2 yards per game in 2011),” said Dortch.
SEC Eastern Division. This league just keeps getting tougher and tougher. When you consider that Missouri is one of just six programs from BCS automatic qualifying conferences to have won at least eight games the last six seasons, what does that mean for the teams that were already traditionally finishing fifth or sixth in the East?”
Missouri and Texas A&M are Southeastern Conference newcomers and Kentucky will play at Missouri in October. That adds another difficult game for Kentucky.
Dortch was at the SEC Football Media Days listening to coaches and players talk this week.
What did he come away with as perhaps the strength of Kentucky’s team as coach Joker Phillips tries to have his first winning season in three years as UK’s head coach?
“There's good depth at quarterback. I don't think we'll see a converted wide receiver taking snaps this year,” Dortch said.
True. Kentucky has senior Morgan Newton, sophomore Maxwell Smith and freshmen Patrick Towles and Jalen Whitlow at quarterback. But don’t forget that a converted receiver, Matt Roark, did lead UK¿to a win over Tennessee, one of only five wins the Cats got last year.
Dortch calls this a “pivotal year” for Phillips, who is 11-14 in two seasons at UK but does have wins over South Carolina (Steve Spurrier) and Tennessee — something other UK coaches had failed to do.
“Winning at Louisville in the season opener would be huge and give the Cats a chance to get out to a 3-0 record before SEC play kicks in at Florida. If Kentucky can beat the Tennessee schools and Samford in its last three games of the season, there's bowl eligibility if it doesn't win another game,” Dortch said.
Optimistic? Probably because the Cats are going to be a decided underdog at Louisville and Vanderbilt spanked UK¿last year.
“There was a resurgence under (former UK¿coach) Rich Brooks and I think people around the league began realizing what people in Kentucky already know, that UK isn't just a basketball school,” Dortch said. “Coach Phillips has to get a bowl streak going again to regain that momentum. It's just such a tough league to compete year in, year out, and clearly the schools in states that produce large quantities of FBS-level high school players are the ones that are the most consistent.”
Dortch is also editor of Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook and will be starting on that publication soon and talking to coaching like Kentucky’s John Calipari about the upcoming season.
Any chance Calipari’s success is bad for UK¿football?
“I think success breeds success. Winning a national title isn't going to overshadow football any more than it might have been already. And as I said, people in Kentucky support the football program more than people outside the state may realize,” Dortch said.
Dortch was one of the first to predict that Calipari would be a “perfect fit” at Kentucky and has not been surprised by the coach’s success at UK, including last year’s national title. The Cats lost their top six players off that team, but Dortch said it would not be wise to “discount” this year’s Kentucky team.
“Calipari is become adept at getting young teams to play hard and play together. I expect he'll do the same thing again this year. I find it hard to believe this team could be as good as last year's, but it's certainly one of the top five teams in the country, talent wise,” Dortch said.
“I think Nerlens Noel will be as impactful as Anthony Davis on the defense end, or close to it. I think Alex Poythress will be the Michael Kidd-Gilchrist of 2012-13. UK will be more experienced at guard than it's been because of Ryan Harrow having played for a year and then practicing for a year in the system, and (transfer) Julius Mays has played three seasons already. Kyle Wiltjer will no doubt assume a larger role, too. They’ll be very good again.”
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Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook can be ordered online at www.blueribbonyearbookonline.com or by calling 877-807-4857 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. There is also an iPad version this year.