Kentucky ready to compete under Joker

Whether it was because of his overall losing record at Oregon, his disappointing two-season tenure as head coach of the rebuilding St. Louis Rams or the fact that he couldn’t beat Tennessee, Florida or South Carolina, Rich Brooks may go done as one of the most underappreciated head coaches in SEC history.

In charge at Kentucky from 2003-09, Brooks brought the Wildcats up from the bowels of the league to sustained respectability, going 30-22 overall since 2006 and climbing closer to the conference’s middle tier the last four seasons of his tenure.

One of five SEC teams to have played in four straight bowl games and one of four SEC teams to have had four straight winning seasons, the Wildcats gave their fans a football team worthy of attention before turning to Tubby Smith, John Calipari, Ashley Judd and UK hoops.

But Brooks departed Lexington, leaving the team in the hands of new head coach Joker Phillips.

Can Phillips keep the football program stabilized and build off the recent success enjoyed by the ‘Cats?

While it’s true that Kentucky is just 12-20 since ‘06 in league play, the Wildcats played an exciting and competitive brand of football under Brooks. Just think back to the 2007 season with quarterback Andre’ Woodson. In many ways it was a magical season for the ‘Cats — despite finishing at 8-5. With wins over top-ranked LSU and eighth-ranked and in-state rival Louisville, Kentucky soared to as high as No. 8 in the AP poll. Despite Florida State experiencing growing pains, beating the Seminoles in a bowl game was still a great accomplishment for UK.

In January 2008, UK announced that Phillips — a former Wildcat player and the offensive coordinator at the time — would be the next head coach when Brooks retired, much like what FSU did with Jimbo Fisher.

So where does Phillips and Kentucky go from here?

Well, the ‘Cats can start by continuing to beat up on soft nonconference competition. Since ‘06, Kentucky is 18-2 against nonconference foes, which has helped get the team off to fast starts. SEC West opponents? No problem, as UK has had a winning record against West division teams three times in the last four years — beating every team except Alabama.

The real problem? Their own division. And that’s a serious issue.

Brooks never beat South Carolina, Florida or Tennessee, losing six straight to each. In the last four seasons, the ‘Cats have gone 5-15 against the SEC East, with three wins over Vanderbilt and two over Georgia.

As Mark Story of The Lexington Herald-Leader writes, Kentucky is closer to moving into the middle tier of the SEC than at any time in recent memory. And keeping the program progressing is Phillips’ top priority.

While a soft nonconference schedule and the added 12th game have helped Kentucky’s win-loss record, the ‘Cats have played a better brand of football overall in the SEC in recent seasons.

Their winning percentage (37.5 percent) in league games over the last four campaigns is higher than in Hal Mumme’s best days and higher than in Jerry Claiborne’s best four seasons.

While beating South Carolina and Tennessee at least once needs to happen, three straight wins over rival Louisville have given fans three years of ultimate bliss. That task will get considerably more difficult now, however, with Charlie Strong at the helm. And beating Mississippi State at home is necessary, as the Bulldogs have taken the last two games played at Commonwealth Stadium.

Phillips’ strength is in his recruiting, so he understands that getting the best talent available — especially the locals — will help keep the program stable. His sharp eye for solid players is evident in the fact that the ‘Cats are on their current four-year run of bowl appearances.

Perhaps he felt he even needed to further establish himself recruiting in Cardinals country, as he dismissed tight ends/special teams coach Steve Ortmayer this week and brought in longtime Louisville assistant and UK alum Greg Nord. Nord was most recently the tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator at Illinois, and he will help bring in quality talent to Lexington.

With senior quarterback Mike Hartline primed to quiet his naysayers after a solid spring practice, a defense that is always consistently steady, deep and underrated, and playmakers Randall Cobb and Chris Matthews giving Hartline some weapons to work with, perhaps this is the season UK takes a step up against SEC East competition.

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