LEXINGTON, KY - OCTOBER 22: Joker Phillips the head coach of the Kentucky Wildcats watches the action during the game against the Jacksonville State Gamecocks at Commonwealth Stadium on October 22, 2011 in Lexington, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
This post continues our series previewing 2012's opponents. This week, we're moving to Week Five to discuss the Kentucky Wildcats. After last year's 54-3 beatdown of UK, it's hard to believe that only two years ago, Kentucky delivered the most significant blemish to what was otherwise a sterling year for Carolina. This year, we return to Commonwealth Stadium, the site of that loss in a comeback upset. Don't expect the same thing to happen this time around.
The 'Cats, of course, were among the BCS conferences' worst teams last year. They were particularly bad on offense, ranking 118th in the nation in total yardage and 117th in points scored. They did end the season on a high note by giving SEC East champion Georgia all it could handle in Athens and then ending a long losing streak against rival Tennessee, but when your season highlights are a win over a 5-7 rival and almost winning against a good team, you don't have much to be happy about, particularly considering that UK isn't all that far removed from being a consistent bowl contender under Rich Brooks. Brooks's successor Joker Phillips earned a bit of good will with the win over the Vols, but make no mistake: He's on the hot seat this year. The 'Cats may care infinitely more about basketball than football, but they saw their team win under Brooks. They won't tolerate being a doormat for long.
Can Phillips take them out of the cellar this year? There are some bright spots to build around. The team has a fairly solid offensive line, led by NFL prospect OG Larry Warford. There's a solid group of running backs who should be able to take advantage of the work Warford and his crew do. The defense, which was actually decent last year, loses a couple of stars in Danny Trevathan and Winston Guy, but it should have a fairly solid front seven and could be pretty good if the secondary pans out.
The biggest question on this team is QB play. UK shuffled things up quite a bit at QB last year, starting the season with Morgan Newton, moving to freshman Maxwell Smith late, and even going stone age on offense with receiver Matt Roark under center in the win against the Vols. They're hoping that Smith, who showed a few signs of being decent, can help them elevate their passing game this year. If he can't, it may be up to Newton, who has been a pretty big dud so far.
Even if Kentucky finds its QB, though, it just doesn't seem quite talented enough to challenge Carolina this year. I know, I know, you could have said that in 2010. In 2010, though, Kentucky was loaded on offense with Mike Hartline, Derrick Locke, Randall Cobb, and an effective line. Good offenses were a hallmark of the Brooks years, but these days, it seems that UK is having trouble reloading. Even with those great players, it took a deadly combination of poor play from Stephen Garcia and poor offensive strategy in the second half for Carolina to figure out how to lose to these guys. Kentucky is almost universally being tabbed as the worst team in the Eastern Division, and perhaps the conference as a whole. Carolina should be able to handle such a team without too much drama.