by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

A few years ago, it would have been considered almost blasphemous to refer to the East as the weaker of the two halves of the powerhouse Southeastern Conference. With Urban Meyer’s Florida winning a pair of national titles (2006 & 2008) and having Heisman-winning QB Tim Tebow in the fold, Georgia a national contender with Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno (both to be NFL first-round draft picks, and Stafford the number one pick overall by the Lions in 2009) as featured performers, and Tennessee a regular in the rankings, the East was often being regarded in almost NFL-like terms. Consensus opinion in the region and elsewhere in the college football universe definitely regarded it as stronger than the SEC West. Indeed, there was not much room on the rail for another entry to make a breakthrough in what was regarded as the tougher half of the conference.

Times, however, have changed, and quickly. Urban Meyer is no longer coaching at Florida, and Tebow now plays for the Denver Broncos. Tennessee has gone through three different coaches (Phil Fulmer, Lane Kiffin, and Derek Dooley) over the past three seasons. Mark Richt is on the hot seat at Georgia after recording the first losing record of his 10-season tenure a year ago. And Vanderbilt is, well, still Vanderbilt. Along the way, the power base in the SEC has undoubtedly shifted to the West, which has produced the last two BCS national champions (Alabama in 2009, and Auburn in 2010).

Which brings us to 2011, and the opportunity for a squad such as Kentucky to emerge as a serious player in the Eastern half of the loop. With the “big three” of Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee all in various stages of re-tooling, Steve Spurrier’s South Carolina seems to have emerged, almost by default, as the team to beat in the East. And challenging the Gamecocks is hardly beyond Joker Phillips’ Wildcats, who beat Spurrier’s 2010 SEC East champs by a 31-28 score in Lexington last October.

Thus, there’s never been a better chance for UK to make its move in the SEC East. But the question is if the Wildcats are really up to the challenge. And while the support base still regards basketball as king in bluegrass country, Kentucky fans are to the point where they are expecting more than a string of minor bowl invitations from their gridiron heroes. Heck, if South Carolina can win the SEC East, why can’t the Cats?

Nonetheless, expectations are still somewhat guarded in Lexington for the fall after graduation left some gaping holes on the offensive side. And evidence is at best mixed entering the second year of the Phillips era, which effectively picked up where predecessor Rich Brooks left off when retiring after the 2009 campaign. Joker, Brooks’ longtime offensive coordinator, had been dubbed the coach-in-waiting prior to Brooks’ departure, and the transition between the Brooks and Phillips regimes was about as seamless as possible a year ago. Indeed, 2010 proceeded very similarly to the preceding four campaigns when UK won either 6 or 7 regular-season games each season. Last year, the Cats won six regular-season games, but for the first time since 2005 ended a campaign with a sub-.500 mark after losing to Pitt in the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham.

Upon further inspection, however, six wins was about the minimum that could have been expected a year ago, considering a victim list that included Charleston Southern, Western Kentucky, Akron, and Vanderbilt. Only in the aforementioned win over Spurrier’s South Carolina, when UK made a dramatic second-half rally, did last year’s team suggest anything special. And the Cats also lost to Tennessee for the 26th straight time. Though highly-regarded within the coaching ranks, and considered one of the up-and-comers of the profession, the jury remains out on Joker, and now the pressure is on Phillips to help UK make the next step.

The task might be daunting, especially this fall, with Joker having to replace most of the offensive strike force from 2010. Included are almost all of the featured contributors from last year’s attack, including QB Mike Hartline, RB Derrick Locke (887 YR LY), WR Chris “Hardball” Matthews (61 catches and 9 TDs in 2010), and do-everything WR/QB/RB Randall Cobb, a 2nd-round draft choice of the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers who caught 84 passes last fall and scored 12 TDs (five of those on direct-snap runs), and whose big-play element will be extremely hard to replace.

At least jumbo-sized (6'4, 235 lbs.) junior QB Morgan Newton has hinted at being up to the task in the past. Indeed, there were many SEC observers (us included) who believed Joker should have given Newton a much-longer look last fall, especially since Hartline’s limitations were exposed against the better defenses on the Kentucky schedule. Newton finally got a chance in the bowl game due to Hartline’s suspension, and his performance matched an overall dispirited Wildcat performance in that 27-10 defeat vs. Pitt, but Newton already suggested at bigger and better things in the previous season when leading the Cats to rare road wins at Georgia and Auburn, and a 4-3 overall mark as a starter. With Hartline gone and another backup, Ryan Mossakowski, transferring, the job now belongs to Newton, who received some extra tutelage in spring from former UK QB Andre Woodson, who was added to Phillips’ staff as a graduate assistant. SEC sources report Newton’s comfort level seemed improved and his progress measurable in spring, a belief echoed by Joker himself. “He knows where the ball is supposed to go,” says Phiilips of his junior QB, who seemed to better grasp the nuances of the progressive Phillips/o.c. Randy Sanders passing attack as spring work concluded.

Still, replacing catalysts such as Locke and Cobb figure to be ongoing challenges in the fall. Spring work indicated that soph RB Raymond Saunders, who gained 254 YR as Locke’s caddy in 2010, could have feature-back potential; comparisons to recent Oregon State RB Jacquizz Rodgers, a similarly-sized mini-back with the durability to run between the tackles, were not lost upon observers. A couple of Plaxico Burress-sized WRs, 6'4 jr. La’Rod King (36 catches and 5 TDs in 2010) and long-striding 6'4 soph Brian Adams (the rage of the spring game with 7 catches for 121 yards), figure to provide hard-to-miss targets for Newton. Numerous injuries depleted the offensive line in spring, but those maladies gave Phillips a chance to take a look at some newcomers and hopefully develop added depth for an experienced forward wall that returns four starters (all juniors and seniors), who are all expected to be healthy and ready for the opener vs. Western Kentucky at Nashville’s LP Field on September 1.

The change theme continues on the defensive side, where Joker enlisted veteran Rick Minter, a onetime Cincinnati head coach and respected defensive schemer, as the co-defensive coordinator alongside Steve Brown. Minter has been entrusted with remolding a stop unit that too often disappeared against more-potent opposition last fall and had ongoing problems stopping the run, gouged for over 200 YR by Vandy, Mississippi State, Auburn, Ole Miss, and Pitt in the bowl game. Thus, Phillips has authorized Minter to implement sweeping changes for a platoon that returns nine starters and its top eleven tacklers from a year ago. To that end, Minter has introduced 3-4 looks into a multi-schemed defense that will also employ last year’s 4-3 and some 4-2-5 alignments, but Minter could really use a run stuffer to emerge on the defensive line. It is hoped that 338-lb. soph DT bruiser Mister Cobble can emerge in the fall as that component, although his work was limited in spring after offseason shoulder surgery. Getting more production from the defensive front can take some of the pressure off of the LB corps and secondary from making so many tackles, although sr. OLB Danny Trevathan (who led the SEC with 144 tackles in 2010, including 16 for losses) is willing and able to run down enemy runners and receivers if needed. Along with tackle-machine LB Trevathan, an experienced 2ndary highlights the stop unit after ranking 14th nationally vs. the pass a year ago. Three seniors are among the four starters in the defensive backfield, led by honors candidate SS Winston Guy, who at times seemed everywhere on the field a year ago when making 106 tackles.

Summary...UK might never have a better chance to make a move in the SEC East with so many of the perennial powerhouses in various stages of transition, but the consensus among regional observers is that this year’s Wildcats look less likely to forge a breakthrough than in recent seasons when they often teased but eventually faltered. We agree with many SEC sources that big Morgan Newton has more upside at QB than predecessor Mike Hartline, but replacing the dynamic components such as Derrick Locke and especially Randall Cobb could impede the attack. Minter’s new-look defense should at least be representative, and there appear to be enough winnable dates on the schedule to at least get the Cats bowl eligible again, but we doubt this is the year UK emerges as a viable contender in the East. Note several curious UK pointspread trends that have surfaced in recent years; included is a 6-2 mark vs. the number the last eight against visiting non-conference foes, 0-4 vs. the line on the SEC road in 2010 after covering all four conference road games in 2009, and a 4-11 record vs. the points as an SEC host since mid 2007 (although the Cats did cover 3 of 4 in that role a year ago).

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