Kentucky coach Brooks says Wildcats need to beat South Carolina to justify No. 8 ranking
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) -With his team ranked No. 8 - Kentucky's highest position in three decades - coach Rich Brooks needs more proof that the Wildcats belong there.
``It might be high,'' Brooks said Monday of the ranking. ``If we win this week, I would say it might've been right. Early in the season, rankings are very suspect in all categories.''
Kentucky checked into the top-10 in a week that saw plenty of carnage among teams above them in the poll. In fact, the Wildcats are the only Southeastern Conference East team without a defeat so far, and only top-ranked Louisiana State is ranked higher among conference foes.
That's fine, the players say, but this week a tall challenge awaits: a road game against No. 11 South Carolina and coach Steve Spurrier, who has never lost to Kentucky.
``You don't stay in the top 10 if you get beat,'' tight end Jacob Tamme said. ``If you're jumping for joy about No. 8, then come next week, you won't be No. 8 anymore.''
Defensive lineman Dominic Lewis says the stakes are clearly higher than they've been for a long time in Lexington.
``We're playing for a lot more now,'' Lewis said. ``Guys are wanting to do a little extra in practice.''
In the past, Spurrier has feasted on Kentucky teams with some of his signature trick plays. This time, the veterans are determined not to let that happen.
``I think we're more mature, more experienced,'' safety Marcus McClinton said. ``We're not as amped up as we used to be. We know the dangers of the cutback.''
Brooks says part of Spurrier's success comes with sniffing out blitzes and deciphering defensive formations before the ball is snapped.
``Most defensive players when you tell them they're going to blitz, they start drooling and slobbering,'' Brooks said.
Brooks, who has never coached a team ranked this high, has been friends with Spurrier for years and says he hasn't changed.
``Confident, cocky, brash and a winner,'' Brooks said.
Re: Thursday Football
Not the usual Kentucky-South Carolina game this year
October 1, 2007
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Kentucky vs. South Carolina? Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier knows too well where this game used to rank in the Southeastern Conference.
``You guys have seen this game for how many years? What'd it mean? Somebody won, somebody lost and somebody's still in position to win six'' games to qualify for a bowl game, Spurrier said Monday. ``Now, it's more meaningful.''
Florida, Georgia and Tennessee have nothing on the No. 8 Wildcats (5-0, 1-0 SEC) and No. 11 Gamecocks (4-1, 2-1), who meet at Williams-Brice Stadium in a surprising early power struggle in the SEC Eastern Division.
``It could be one of the best games we've had around here in a long time,'' Spurrier said.
A big reason is Kentucky's stunning start.
The Wildcats already own a pair of impressive victories over Louisville (40-34) and Arkansas (42-29). Another against South Carolina would make them 6-0 for first time since Bear Bryant's SEC champions in 1950 opened 10-0.
They're led by quarterback Andre Woodson, who Spurrier compared to former Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer, currently starring for the Cincinnati Bengals.
``He's a beautiful passer,'' Spurrier said of Woodson. ``He stands good and tall, knees just slightly flexed. He throws a nice, overhand ball.''
He's accurate, too.
Woodson had his NCAA record streak of 325 attempts without an interception stopped against Florida Atlantic last week. Still, he threw a career-best five TD passes in Kentucky's 45-17 victory.
Woodson figures to get his strongest test so far against the Gamecock secondary, which is ranked No. 1 in the country in pass defense.
That's a far cry from a year ago when Spurrier brought out defensive backs coach Ron Cooper during his postgame press conference to explain how the Gamecocks' comfortable 14-point, fourth-quarter lead nearly slipped away in the final minutes of their 24-17 win.
``We heard about that a lot,'' South Carolina safety Chris Hampton said, smiling. ``After we had those mental lapses last year, it was constantly brought up about what we have to do.''
Hampton and the rest of the defensive backs have already heard an earful this week about Woodson's talent and poise. The Wildcats success so far is apparent, they lead the SEC in scoring at more than 46 points a game.
``Kentucky, without a doubt, is the best pass team, maybe the best offense, we've played thus far,'' Spurrier said.
The Wildcats have won 10 of their past 11 games. The nationally televised game Thursday could bring that success to a wider audience. Kentucky coach Rich Brooks is only focused on a victory, no matter how it's achieved.
``I'm not as interested in showing the people across the country what we're doing or what we're about,'' Brooks said Monday. ``Even if it's ugly, I'd like to get to 2-0'' in the SEC.
South Carolina's offense may be improving, too.
Freshman Chris Smelley started at quarterback in place of fifth-year senior Blake Mitchell when Spurrier wanted more zip out of his ``Cock-n-Fire'' attack.
Smelley answered with 279 yards and two TD passes to receiver Kenny McKinley in the Gamecocks' 38-21 win over Mississippi State last Saturday.
``We hit some balls downfield a little bit more than in the past,'' Smelley said. ``So that looked pretty good.''
The Gamecocks also have a couple of sizable streaks on their side. They haven't lost to Kentucky since 1999, winning the past seven games. Spurrier hasn't lost to the Wildcats period, a perfect 14-0 in his career at Florida and South Carolina.
Gone are the days, Spurrier says, when his players would roll up the score on Kentucky: Remember Florida's 73-7 win in 1994?
``Yeah, we used to have a lot better teams than Kentucky. Now we're very close,'' he said. ``It's two evenly matched teams.''
They're also two teams who hope to upset what's been the Eastern Division's longtime power structure. No team other than Florida, Georgia or Tennessee has represented the division in the SEC title game.
``Kentucky, shoot, they're a lot like us,'' Spurrier says. ``They're used to being in the bottom half of the SEC East. Now all of a sudden, we've got one of the big games in the conference.''
Re: Thursday Football
What bettors need to know: Kentucky at South Carolina
Gamecocks’ offense gets Smelley
Gamecocks head coach Steve Spurrier made a drastic change to his offense in last Saturday’s game against the Mississippi State Bulldogs, starting freshmen quarterback Chris Smelley in place of fifth-year senior Blake Mitchell.
Spurrier wanted to ignite the Gamecocks’ “Cock-n-Fire” aerial attack. Smelley responded with 279 yards and two touchdown passes against the Bulldogs’ 48th-ranked pass defense en route to a 38-21 victory.
"We hit some balls downfield a little bit more than in the past," Smelley told reporters. "So that looked pretty good."
The Gamecocks’ offense ranks 80th in passing yards (224), 65th in points scored (27.2) and 90th in total yards (363.6) this season. This season, Smelley is 44-72 with four touchdowns and three interceptions in four games as a backup and one as a starter.
Something’s got to give
The Kentucky Wildcats lead the SEC in scoring this season and are second in passing yards. Meanwhile the South Carolina Gamecocks lead the nation in pass defense and are second in the conference in yards allowed. So which team has the advantage?
The Wildcats’ impressive offensive numbers (268.6 passing yards per game) could be a result of mediocre competition rather than their firepower. Kentucky’s only had to face teams like Eastern Kentucky, Kent State and Florida Atlantic this season.
South Carolina safety Chris Hampton still thinks the Gamecocks have to respect Kentucky’s high-octane offense.
"Really, this is a game that the secondary will have to step up," Hampton told reporters. "This will be a game probably on our shoulders. They have a great quarterback, up for the Heisman. Some good receivers. We'll have to play our best."
The Gamecocks’ defense falls into the same category as the Wildcats’ offense. Spurrier said that the only quality passing attack the Gamecocks’ have faced this season was the number-one ranked Louisiana State Tigers.
Conversely, Gamecocks’ receiver Kenny McKinley believes South Carolina’s defensive numbers are accurate.
"Aren't they ranked No. 1 right now? Yeah, they deserve to be," McKinley added. "I go against them. I'm like, 'Man, no other team can be this strong.' "
Wildcats need to push forward
The Kentucky Wildcats will need a better performance defending on third down than they had in their last game.
The Wildcats allowed the Florida Atlantic Owls to go 5-for-11 on third-down conversions in Saturday’s 45-17 drubbing of the Owls. Kentucky is ranked 95th in the nation on opponent's third-down conversions, allowing 43.8 percent.
"We've got to get off the field and get our offense the ball," Wildcats defensive coordinator Steve Brown told the Lexington Herald-Leader.
The Wildcats allow over 380 offensive yards per game with over 200 yards coming via the run. Surprisingly, the Cats are allowing just 22 points per game in 2007.
Head to head
South Carolina has not lost in its last seven meetings with Kentucky, dating back to 1999. Gamecocks coach Spurrier has never lost to the Wildcats.
"Yeah, we used to have a lot better teams than Kentucky. Now we're very close," Spurrier told reporters. "It's two evenly matched teams."
The Gamecocks are 4-1 straight up this season and 3-1 against the spread. On the other side, the Wildcats are 5-0 straight up and 4-0 against the spread.
Re: Thursday Football
(8) Kentucky (5-0) at (11) South Carolina (4-1)
The Sports Network
GAME NOTES: The eighth-ranked Kentucky Wildcats are one of the nation's most surprising teams, and they will battle the 11th-ranked South Carolina Gamecocks, another overachieving SEC club. At 5-0, Kentucky is off to its best start since 1984, and the club has won 10 of its last 11 outings dating back to last season. Last Saturday, the Wildcats cruised to a 45-17 decision over Florida Atlantic. The competition level will be elevated tremendously in the coming weeks, however, as Kentucky will face top-ranked LSU and ninth-ranked Florida after this weekend's game against the Gamecocks. Speaking of South Carolina, it currently owns a 4-1 record, as the only loss thus far came against now top-ranked LSU on the road. Last weekend, the Gamecocks moved to 2-1 in SEC play with a 38-21 decision over Mississippi State. South Carolina holds an 11-6-1 series lead over Kentucky, including a 24-17 victory over the Wildcats last season.
No player deserves more credit for the resurgence of the Kentucky football program than quarterback Andre Woodson. The standout signal caller completed 26-of-33 passes for 301 yards and five touchdowns in the victory over Florida Atlantic last weekend. He had thrown an NCAA-record 325 consecutive passes without an interception before having that streak ended by the Owls. Still, it was yet another stellar performance by the Heisman hopeful. Through five games, Woodson has completed 67.1 percent of his passes for 1,309 yards and 16 touchdowns with one interception. Keenan Burton has made 30 catches for 422 yards and five touchdowns, while Rafael Little has rushed for 547 yards and three scores. Kentucky is averaging 46.6 ppg and 492.2 total ypg, outstanding numbers by any standards. The 'Cats are averaging well over 200 yards per game both rushing and receiving, proof of their strong offensive balance.
Opponents are scoring 22.0 ppg while gaining 384.8 total ypg against Kentucky. While those numbers could certainly stand some improvement, the defense does not have to be great with Woodson and company piling up points. The biggest area of weakness for the Wildcats has been run defense, as they are allowing 203.2 rushing ypg on 5.0 ypc. The pass defense has been much better, as foes are only averaging 5.7 yards per attempt with five passing touchdowns and nine interceptions. Kentucky has recorded 14 takeaways this season, much more impressive than the club's total of eight sacks. Wesley Woodyard's importance to the defense is obvious, as he has made more than twice as many tackles as any other player on the roster. The Wildcats recorded a pair of interceptions and a fumble recovery in the win over South Carolina.
After the loss to LSU, South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier announced that redshirt freshman quarterback Chris Smelley would get the start over veteran Blake Mitchell against Mississippi State. Smelley took full advantage of his opportunity, throwing for 279 yards and two touchdowns against the Bulldogs. It came as no surprise that Kenny McKinley was the top target on the outside. The standout receiver finished with four catches for 107 yards and was on the receiving end of both Smelley touchdown passes. As for the ground attack, Cory Boyd and Mike Davis were effective as a tandem as usual. South Carolina is averaging 27.2 ppg and 363.6 total ypg this season. McKinley has scored five touchdowns and will certainly get plenty of attention from Kentucky defenders this weekend. As for the quarterback situation, Smelley proved capable of leading the offense, but he could fall out of favor with head coach Steve Spurrier in a hurry if he doesn't play well again.
Taking a look at the stats from South Carolina's win over Mississippi State, there are both positives and negatives to report concerning the defense. The unit can certainly be proud of the fact that the Bulldogs finished with only 258 total yards, including 118 passing yards on 12-of-27 completions. On a down note, Mississippi State did score three offensive touchdowns in the tilt. Clearly, there is room for improvement for the Gamecocks, but they have been solid for the most part this season. Opponents are scoring 15.6 ppg against South Carolina, which is yielding 307.6 total ypg. Foes have had no luck throwing the ball against the Gamecocks, who are permitting only 106.4 ypg through the air. Opposing quarterbacks are completing less than 50 percent of their passes and have thrown three times as many interceptions as touchdown passes.
Obviously, Kentucky faces a stiff challenge this weekend, and it wouldn't be surprising at all to see South Carolina win the game. Still, expect the experienced Woodson to outplay the inexperienced Smelley, leading the 'Cats to victory.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Kentucky 21, South Carolina 17
Re: Thursday Football
Wildcats try to finally topple Spurrier
October 3, 2007
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) -Kentucky quarterback Andre Woodson remembers chuckling at the comments opposing coaches like Steve Spurrier made putting down the Wildcats' finish a year ago.
At the Southeastern Conference preseason football gathering in July, the sharp-tongued Spurrier got in backhanded slap - probably more at rival Clemson than the Wildcats - when he said, ``We thought we did something big beating Clemson, then Kentucky beat them also.''
The Tigers lost to the Wildcats 28-20 in the Music City Bowl last December.
It was the Wildcats' fifth win in their last six games and got them to 8-5, their best mark in 22 years.
Woodson knows it'll take a few more victories for the eighth-ranked Wildcats (5-0, 1-0 SEC) to convince the college football world that they can compete with the game's best. They'll get a chance Thursday night at No. 11 South Carolina (4-1, 2-1) in a nationally televised contest.
Woodson understands where Spurrier's coming from - South Carolina's ball coach is 14-0 all-time against Kentucky. But he says a win at Williams-Brice Stadium would go a long way toward changing the perception that Kentucky is the SEC's ``doormat.''
``We just have to continue to earn respect,'' Woodson said. ``We have to really do a great job of coming away with a lot more wins. That way teams take you a lot more seriously and they accept you as one of the better teams in the conference.''
Woodson and the Wildcats have done a good job already.
They're off to their best start since 1984. Beating the Gamecocks would mean Kentucky's first 6-0 mark since Bear Bryant's SEC champions did it in 1950.
``With a couple of wins against some great teams, the sky's the limit for us,'' receiver Keenan Burton said. ``It shows we're not the same Kentucky team.''
Despite what he said in the summer, Spurrier has noticed the Wildcats' improvement and feels a kinship with Kentucky coach Rich Brooks.
``He and I really have a lot of in common,'' Spurrier said earlier this week.
Brooks and Spurrier both left terrific college programs - Brooks at Oregon, Spurrier at Florida - to flop in the NFL, then got the chance to rebuild an SEC team that consistently finished behind Florida, Georgia and Tennessee in the league's Eastern Division.
Plus, Brooks ``likes to play golf in the offseason just like I do,'' Spurrier said. ``He's a good guy. I'm glad to see they're up there challenging.''
Spurrier and the Gamecocks hope to dent that challenge this week.
The game features Kentucky's standout quarterback going up against the nation's top passing defense.
Woodson, whose play has spurred Heisman Trophy talk, had his NCAA best mark of 325 pass attempts without an interception end last week against Florida Atlantic. But he still had a career-best five TD passes in Kentucky's 45-17 win.
He is second in the conference in passing yards (261.8 a game) and leads with 16 touchdown throws and just the one interception.
``For me, honestly, I really don't care about winning the Heisman at all,'' Woodson said. ``I'm just very concerned about us trying to win games. That means so much more to me.''
The senior passer remembers the sorry seasons he went through (Kentucky was 9-25 between 2003-05) before last year's success. To continue that this year, ``that means the world to all of us,'' Woodson said.
Said Burton: ``We can get our chance to say Spurrier 14, Kentucky one.''
Burton, Woodson and the rest of the Wildcats' offense will get a test against a Gamecock defense that is yielding just over 106 yards passing a game.
Spurrier knows, though, it'll be difficult to keep Kentucky out of the end zone. The Wildcats lead the conference in scoring at more than 46 points a game.
So Spurrier figures he'll need his offense to show a spark similar to last week, when freshman Chris Smelley threw for 279 yards and two touchdowns in a 38-21 win over Mississippi State.
``We've got to stay on the field, make some first downs and make some third downs like we've been doing to give ourselves a chance,'' Spurrier said.
Re: Thursday Football
Kentucky at South Carolina
By Christian Alexander
#8 Kentucky (5-0, 1-0 SEC) at #11 South Carolina (4-1, 2-1 SEC)
Thursday, October 4
7:30 PM ET on ESPN
Williams-Brice Stadium (Natural Grass)
VegasInsider.com handicapper Brian Edwards had tried to teach me the lesson about always backing Boise State on a Thursday night on its home turf a couple times over the years, but I just wasn’t listening. Well, you can bet I was listening this year and so I wasn’t about to go against the Broncos last Thursday, when they were 10.5 point favorites against Southern Mississippi.
And in typical Boise fashion, the Broncos jumped all over the Golden Eagles early in the game and ended up coasting to an easy cover, winning 38-16.
So next time I’m in Atlanta, I’ll have to treat Brian to a couple of cold Budweiser’s for that little bit of education.
Speaking of education, Brian is the resident SEC expert at VegasInsider.com, and has been closely following the career of Steve Spurrier for years. So it certainly got my attention this week when “Fast Eddie”, as he is known at VegasInsider, sent me a note saying that Steve Spurrier is 14-0 all-time against Kentucky.
That brings us to this Thursday night when the 8th ranked Kentucky Wildcats – yes, that’s right, 8th ranked – visit the ole ball coach and the 11th ranked South Carolina Gamecocks. I’m sure the executives at ESPN could have never imagined when they scheduled this game that they were basically looking at a pair of top ten teams.
So far this season Kentucky has been one of the best stories in college football.
The Wildcats wrapped up 2006 by winning five of their last six games, including a 28-20 victory over Clemson in the Music City Bowl last December. That left Coach Rich Brooks and Kentucky with an 8-5 record, their best mark in 22 years.
Now having bolted from the gates a perfect 5-0 this season, the Wildcats have won 10 of their last 11 games, marking the school’s best 11-game stretch since the 1977 season.
If there was a secret to Kentucky’s success, it’s not a secret anymore – or should I say, “he” isn’t a secret anymore.
That he is Wildcats quarterback Andre Woodson, a player who is quickly shooting up the favorites list for the Heisman Trophy.
With the senior QB under center, Kentucky is putting up some pretty impressive offensive numbers this year. The Wildcats have now scored 40 or more points in five consecutive games for the first time in school history and is the first SEC school to accomplish that feat since Florida did it in 2001. Woodson is second in the conference in passing yards (261.8 a game) and leads with 16 touchdown throws and just one interception.
And the scary part is it’s not just about the passing game with Kentucky’s offense. The Wildcats rushing attack currently has 14 TDs which is pretty impressive when you consider that same unit accounted for just 12 rushing TDs in all of the 2006 season. Kentucky currently ranks second in the SEC and 15th nationally in rushing offense, averaging 223.6 yards per game.
In total, Kentucky’s offense ranks fifth in the nation and leads the SEC in scoring offense, averaging 46.6 points per game.
It all adds up to quite a challenge for South Carolina and their defense. Of course, when you think about Steve Spurrier and his teams the first thing you think of is offense, not defense.
However, the offense so far this season for Spurrier and crew hasn’t held up their end of the bargain. The lack of production – South Carolina ranks 77th in total offense - has caused Spurrier to switch quarterbacks, sending Blake Mitchell to the bench and inserting Chris Smelley. The freshman QB certainly looked up for the challenge last weekend as he threw for 279 yards and two touchdowns in a 38-21 win over Mississippi State.
The Gamecocks will need plenty more of that – not to mention some solid work on the ground from RB Cory Boyd - this Thursday night if they are to keep up with Woodson and Kentucky.
Thursday Night Factoids:
--South Carolina is 3-1 against the spread this season while the Wildcats are a perfect 4-0.
--Kentucky is 23-for-24 in the red zone this season including 20 TDs and three FGs.
--This is the 19th meeting between South Carolina and Kentucky. The Gamecocks hold an 11-6-1 lead in the series and have won seven straight.
--Steve Spurrier is 14-0 against Kentucky and Vanderbilt.
--Kentucky has racked up over 400 yards of offense in nine consecutive games, dating back to last season.
--In 14 wins against Kentucky, Steve Spurrier teams have scored 636 points (45.4 ppg) while only allowing 241 points (17.2 ppg).
Re: Thursday Football
Kentucky's patchwork offensive line protecting Heisman contending QB Woodson
October 3, 2007
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) -Andre Woodson's improbable ascent to become one of the top quarterbacks in the nation has been made possible by an even more improbable group of linemen surrounding him.
Protecting Kentucky's star from the defensive linemen of the SEC is a patchwork unit that includes four former defensive players and two former tight ends.
Still, tackles Garry Williams and Justin Jeffries, guards Zipp Duncan and Jason Leger and center Eric Scott have started all five games and allowed just nine sacks for the No. 8 Wildcats (5-0), who face No. 11 South Carolina Thursday night.
Woodson says they have earned his trust.
``We try to keep him as clean as possible every game,'' Jeffries said. ``We don't like to see a lot of green, a lot of dirt on him.''
Williams, the only member of the line who has pretty much stayed put at his left tackle position throughout his three-year Kentucky career, was named the Southeastern Conference's offensive lineman of the week for his performance against Florida Atlantic. It was the third time in four weeks a Kentucky player won the honor, after Leger won twice.
``It shows we're coming together,'' Williams said. ``We're finally clicking.''
When Brooks inherited this team, the scholarship count was low as a result of probation. He went after the playmakers and the defensive stars, but for the offensive line, he simply sought good athletes.
Injuries last year forced him to move Leger, one of the team's most explosive defensive players, to offense and play Jeffries rather than redshirt him. It worked, particularly in the passing game, as Woodson had a breakout season. But at times, the running game that powered Kentucky's 2005 squad seemed to lose a step.
Now, both phases of the offense are working, and it all starts up front.
``The less scholarships you have, probably the less big guys you're going to get,'' Leger said. ``Offensive linemen - good ones - are hard to find, but you can usually get a decent one.''
Perhaps no Kentucky lineman has tried as many positions as Duncan in his brief career. As a freshman, he redshirted as a defensive end, then served as a backup tight end last year. Now, he's the starting left guard.
``I've been around the block,'' Duncan said.
Even center Scott, the unit's lone senior, was a tight end the first two years of his career, and was a guard much of last year. Now, he has arguably the most critical job on the line, protecting Woodson from the bruising defensive tackles of the SEC.
``I take pride every time Andre gets under me that it's my job to protect him,'' Scott said. ``For us to be successful, we're going to have to keep the defenders away from him.''
Duncan calls Woodson the ``cream of the crop,'' but the quarterback insists the unheralded linemen are the ones that make the offense tick.
``If we get time, if we get holes, it's got to come from then,'' Woodson said. ``The special players make plays, but unless you have an offensive line that really gives you the opportunity to make those plays, nothing happens.''
Re: Thursday Football
Upstart Kentucky to test 5-0 mettle against SEC's best
Steve Spurrier isn't a Kentucky nemesis.
He's a scourge.
Fourteen times — first with Florida, then after settling back into the college game at South Carolina — the Ball Coach has drawn up a game plan, pulled on a headset and gone against the Wildcats. In 1994, he beat them 73-7. In 1996, it was 65-0. Only twice have his teams walked off the field with fewer than five touchdowns.
Never have they walked away winless. Bottom line, going into their 15th meeting, tonight in Columbia, S.C.: Spurrier 14, the overmatched 'Cats 0.
It's the kind of baggage that accumulates in nearly a half-century of football mediocrity. The last time Kentucky put winning seasons back to back, a Bush hadn't been elected president (in 1983-84). The Wildcats have claimed a single conference championship since Bear Bryant left their sideline. That title came 31 years ago, when it was shared with Georgia.
Spurrier or no Spurrier, the Wildcats haven't defeated Florida in 20 games dating to 1987.
But these are days of blessed relief in the Commonwealth. "This team," coach Rich Brooks says, "has taken some pride in trying to knock down some of those streaks and create a new image for Kentucky football."
Unbeaten in five games, the awakened Wildcats take into Thursday night's game their highest ranking since 1977 — No. 8 in the USA TODAY coaches' and Associated Press media polls. (They were No. 6 in the final AP poll of 1977, but were on probation and ineligible for the coaches' poll.) They're unlike any Kentucky team Spurrier or anybody in the modern Southeastern Conference has seen: fast, physical and deep, playing with a swagger born of fourth-quarter-comeback victories against Arkansas and then-No. 9-ranked Louisville.
Senior receiver Keenan Burton was in his car when his father, Ed, phoned with news of the 'Cats' new top-10 ranking. He barely blinked. "That's a good thing … but to us it's not really a surprise. We believed in ourselves all along," Burton says. "Why get excited about something that you knew you could do from the beginning?"
Tough trio to beat
Tonight begins a 17-day, three-game stretch that will test that cool as well as Kentucky's prospects as a serious player in one of college football's toughest conferences. South Carolina, 4-1 and ranked 18th, will throw the nation's second-rated pass defense at the Wildcats and Heisman Trophy-contending quarterback Andre' Woodson. The next two weeks bring No. 2 LSU and No. 7 Florida, the defending national champion, both in Lexington.
More baggage: The Wildcats haven't beaten any of the three since the calendar turned to 2000. In seven games against the Gamecocks, four against the Tigers and seven against the Gators, Kentucky is 0-18.
"We've beat some of the teams we were supposed to beat, but it's important that we compete with some of the teams we're not supposed to beat," says Burton, Woodson's favorite receiver with 30 catches and five touchdowns.
"If we do that, it shows we're not the same Kentucky."
This isn't a program without pedigree. George Blanda and Babe Parilli quarterbacked the 'Cats. Bryant and Blanton Collier coached them, the latter's 1959 staff also featuring Don Shula, Bill Arnsparger and a former Kentucky All-American, Howard Schnellenberger.
But Collier's was the last winning tenure. Eight coaches since 1961 have lost more than they won, some by a lot. In 54 years, Kentucky had as many years of NCAA probation (six) as bowl bids.
Brooks inherited stiff scholarship sanctions — the Wildcats were docked 19 over three years — from the latest infractions case when he arrived in December 2002. That bought him little grace in the frustrated state. When he managed just four, two and three victories in his first three seasons, many in the Commonwealth dismissed him as yet another failure and screamed for a replacement.
In an increasingly quick-trigger era, Kentucky athletics director Mitch Barnhart stayed patient.
He pointed to Oregon's renaissance under Brooks in the 1980s and '90s. "I knew if he had the support system around him, he was a very good football coach and that he would assemble the right people and do it the right way," Barnhart says. "He'd be methodical. It wouldn't be done with the style points some would like, but it would be done with great substance.
As the criticism mounted, Barnhart says, "I had several players come to me and say, 'Please give us a chance. We think we can get it turned around, and we believe in this staff.' That meant a lot. So many times in today's world, the players are coming in and say, 'We don't like what we see. Please change it.' These guys were doing the exact opposite: 'Hang in there. We're getting closer.' "
Wildcats averaging 46.6 points a game
Last season bore them out. Kentucky finished 8-5 with a win against Clemson in the Music City Bowl, its first postseason victory in 22 years.
With this season's 5-0 start, the Wildcats — starting nine seniors and six juniors — have won 10 of their last 11 regular-season games. Woodson, likened by Spurrier to former Heisman winner and Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer, is running the nation's fifth-highest scoring offense. The defense has been suspect against the run but allowed just a 53% pass-completion rate and five TD passes. Nine players have come up with interceptions.
Schnellenberger, for one, has always seen the possibilities. A star offensive and defensive end, he played for teams that went 25-12-4 under Bryant and Collier. He returned to the state in the '80s, breathing life into Louisville's program as head coach.
Now at Florida Atlantic, he got a first-hand look at the surging Wildcats in their 45-17 rout of FAU on Saturday.
"I've always said that Kentucky is sitting in the best place in the world, same as Louisville is," he says. "You're a day's drive from half the population in the United States. … Kids in the north think they're going south to Kentucky, and kids in the south think they're going north to Kentucky. It's a beautiful campus, great school, wonderful people. So why not?
"People make the difference. If they keep the right people there and support those people, there's no reason why they can't start a winning tradition."