State of the Hogs: Key '07 Game

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It isn't often that I write about Kentucky football. To do it in April would be a first. But I want to be the first to point to the key game of the 2007 football season.

This thought process was sparked by a question dropped on our message board at HawgsIllustrated.com by one of our most avid football fans. And, it's a good question: What is the most important game of the coming season? And, I probably surprised plenty with my answer.

At first glance, you wouldn't stop at the Kentucky game on the UA schedule as a make-or-break game. Shouldn't you beat Kentucky if you are the returning SEC West outright champ and get the Wildcats in Reynolds Razorback Stadium in the conference opener?

Of course, the answer is yes. With Darren McFadden, Felix Jones, Peyton Hillis, Michael Smith and Marcus Monk setting up shop as the playmakers in what should be a powerful Arkansas offense, that is the only way you can answer that question.

However, this one shapes up a dogfight. Only those who have seen Kentucky football up close and personal over the last 12 months can appreciate what Rich Brooks has done at Lexington.

Most around here if asked as to who Houston Nutt beat out to win SEC coach of the year honors would answer in quick fashion that it was Florida's Urban Meyer. And, you can make a good case with that. The Gators won the national title. It's hard to argue with a national championship.

However, in my mind, Nutt's top challenger for the honor should have been UK's Brooks. I've long been a fan of his. He's a solid coach and he's done a great job at Kentucky.

The Wildcats were 8-5 last year after beating Clemson in the Music City Bowl. That was the best season and first bowl win at Kentucky in 22 years. Kentucky is going to be solid this season. The Wildcats will be loaded with experience and talent, especially at quarterback. Andre' Woodson is as good as anyone in the SEC at quarterback. Jacob Tamme, his tight end, is the SEC's best.

I talked with an SEC official who worked several UK games last season. He's as impressed with Woodson as he was with Arkansas' Matt Jones. They are similar in athletic ability and poise in the fourth quarter. Woodson engineered three come-from-behind victories in the final period last season.

"That quarterback is as good as anyone I saw last year," my source said. "He is a playmaker, flat out. He can do things in the clutch like Matt could. You think you have him and you don't. He's dangerous and Kentucky is dangerous in that spot early in the year playing at Arkansas.

"I think this Kentucky team will be really good. I wouldn't be surprised if they beat Louisville this year. That's probably going to surprise some people, but I really like the way that team played last year."

I know few are going to get excited about playing Kentucky in football in late April. I'm not going to write anything here to change that. Heck, there are probably those around here that give more respect to Kentucky baseball these days around these parts than to Kentucky football. I'm just saying they will see a fine SEC team when the Wildcats roll into Fayetteville next September.

Kentucky will be more talented than the Vanderbilt team the Hogs struggled to beat last year in Nashville and lost two years ago in the Ozarks. In fact, these Wildcats will be much more talented than that bunch of Commodores we all learned to respect the last two seasons.

I think Arkansas will beat Kentucky, but it won't be an easy game. It will take a big day from all of those weapons on the Arkansas offense and a solid day from quarterback Casey Dick.

The Hogs are going to have to score some points to win the game. I'm not sure the UA defense will be better late in the season than it is early.

I know that most aren't going to take the Wildcats serious. They probably would settle on Alabama as the key matchup for 2007 since that's been a pivotal matchup almost every year since the Hogs came into the SEC in 1992.

I'll agree that Alabama is always big. But I think Kentucky is the key early-season matchup. I think the Crimson Tide will be going through a rebuilding time of sort with all of the new coaches in Tuscaloosa.

You might argue that the Nick Saban's arrival should improve the Tide, but sometimes it takes a year for even a solid staff to take command of the situation. I'm not promising that the Tide takes a dip this year, but I don't see it making a big leap up in Saban's first year. Perhaps we'll see that in year two, but probably not in year one.

No, to me the Kentucky game is the pivotal game. It may come down to turnovers and whether or not Casey Dick can execute the short passing game implemented by offensive coordinator David Lee against a UK defense that was very opportunistic last year.

Yes, it's early to be pointing to key games for the fall. I just wanted to be the first to tell you that UK football is better than what you remember. I hope I'm wrong and this is a walk-over game for the Hogs next fall. I bet it's not. I bet I get to trot out an I-told-you-so sentence next September after a tight Arkansas victory.




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