LAST YEAR: 3-8 (2-6, SEC Eastern Division)
EXPERIENCE: The Wildcats return 15 starters and 50 lettermen.
TEAM STRENGTHS: Rafael Little (5-11, 198, junior) is the best player on this team and he's one of the best tailbacks in the Southeastern Conference. He ran for 1,045 yards and caught 46 passes last season on the worst team in the league. Put him with a good team and a decent surrounding cast and he would put up some serious numbers. He's that good. There are four returning starters on the offensive line and the experience factor alone should mean some improvement there. Guard Michael Aitcheson (6-3, 300, senior) is the best player on the offensive line.
Tight end Jacob Tamme (6-5, 240, junior) has the size and speed to be a real factor in the passing game. He had 29 catches for 251 yards last season but he was under-utilized. His role in the offense should expand this year.
The Wildcats return all three starters at linebacker including Wesley Woodyard (6-1, 212), undersized but very fast and very active. Woodyard totaled 100 tackles last season including seven for loss and he intercepted a couple of passes. Strong safety Roger Williams (6-0, 200, junior) is a bright spot in a secondary that ranked dead last in the SEC last year.
TEAM WEAKNESSES: The good news is there are seven starters returning on defense. That's also the bad news. The Wildcats finished dead last in every defensive statistical category in the SEC last year but the most telling stat is rushing defense where they gave up nearly 200 yards per game. The defensive line was both under-sized and very thin last year. There isn't much size returning and depth is once again a serious issue.
The secondary was prone to give up the big play in 2005 and it lost its best player in Muhammed Abdullah. The Wildcats have to find some corners that can cover and there is a severe need for speed. Somebody has to step up and make some plays.
Quarterback Andre Woodson (6-5, 240, junior) can't afford to have another season like 2005. His inability to make decisions and get the ball down the field is a chief reason why the Wildcats finished 101 among 117 Division I teams in passing. Overall, the offense finished number 107. Woodson has to have a better year this year or else Brooks will have to go with Curtis Pulley, a daring runner but an erratic passer, under center.
There is a tremendous lack of speed at the wide receiver positions. The Wildcats don't have a consistent threat to stretch the defense and that's another reason why teams play Kentucky eight in the box.
Punter Tim Masthay is another one that has to be better than he was last year when he averaged a woeful 36 yards a punt and had three of his kicks blocked.
THREE KEYS TO SUCCESS IN 2006: The number one key for Kentucky's success is for Woodson to throw the ball consistently more than five yards down the field. Kentucky has a marvelous tailback in Little but he rarely has any room to run because Woodson can't seem to loosen up defenses. Woodson has to get the ball down the field or else defenses will once again gang up on Little and stop Kentucky's best offensive threat.
The second key for the Wildcats is to find consistency on the offensive line. As bad as the defense was and will likely be this year, it's imperative for the offensive line to get enough push that Kentucky can control the football on the ground and keep the defense off the field. If the line hasn't significantly improved its ability to mash and grind, it's going to be a long season.
Finally, the Wildcats have to come up with some defensive playmakers. They couldn't get stops in critical situations last year and it cost them dearly. If that doesn't improve by quantum leaps, Brooks will become yet another headstone in the Kentucky graveyard of football coaches that couldn't produce winners.
THE SCHEDULE: The season starts with Louisville on the road, not exactly the kind of opponent you want to get a season off on the right foot. Texas State (Division 1-AA), Central Michigan and Louisiana-Monroe are all at home and those might be the only games all year that Kentucky is favored to win. The Wildcats have to play at Florida, LSU and Tennessee. Georgia and South Carolina will travel to Lexington.
OUTLOOK FOR 2006: Kentucky's optimists point to 50 lettermen and think that things can't get worse. Kentucky's realists point to 50 lettermen and say these are the same guys that were so bad last year, how can they be that much better in 2006? Some have gone so far as to label this the Dead Man Walking Tour for Brooks, who has never been embraced as a popular figure in Lexington. Kentucky has first rate facilities, a beautiful campus and some of the richest boosters in all of college football. It makes you wonder why they haven't ever found the formula to win consistently. Even though there are a few players talented enough to play for anyone in the SEC, there is a reason why 90 percent of the roster wasn't offered by any other SEC school coming out of high school. Lack of speed, lack of talent, lack of everything. That pretty much sums it up for Kentucky in 2006.
NEXT UP: Alabama, Florida's September 30 opponent at The Swamp.