Greetings from the future. After drinking too much Zima (a 1998 single-barrel vintage) while watching a 72-hour "Buck Rogers" marathon, I received a vision that allowed me to harness the power of TIME TRAVEL! Using a Segway ("the transportation of the future") powered by 1.21 Dippin' Dots ("the ice cream of the future"), I ventured to the far-flung and strange age known as "November 2012" to uncover what mysteries await humanity. Did you know that a rich man will be elected President of the United States that very month? It sounds impossible, but it's true!
Rather than overly concerning myself with such trivial matters, though, I sought the answer to the greatest mystery of all: What will it take to save the job of University of Kentucky football coach Joker Phillips? Entering his third year as head coach, Phillips finds himself facing a skeptical, even disgruntled, fan base and serious doubts about whether he is the right man for the job. Fair or unfair, how this year unfolds will go a long way towards determining whether Phillips receives a contract extension or a boot out the door. After searching far and wide, I found the answer and wrote it down and everything, but I guess I dropped it on the way back or whatever. I can't remember. So, instead, here's some wild speculation!
(1) Are the Kids Alright?: Heading into what could be a do-or-die season, there's nothing like a roster chock full of established and experienced players who have a firm handle on what it takes to survive the rigors of the SEC. Hey, wouldn't it be great if UK's roster resembled that one in even the slightest way? Instead, 23 players on the two-deep depth chart are freshmen or sophomores, including starting QB Maxwell Smith, and many of the upperclassmen on the depth chart haven't exactly established themselves as consistent, reliable contributors.
Offensively, the Cats do return a number of veterans at the skill positions who are expected to play major roles, but many of those players have modest resumes, including senior wide receivers E.J. Fields, Gene McCaskill, and Aaron Boyd, who are trying to make the most of their last go-arounds. The Cats will also be about as green as you can be on the left side of the offensive line. While left tackle Darrian Miller showed promise last season after being thrown to the wolves as a true freshman, we simply don't know whether he and redshirt freshman guard Zach West - both Lexington products - can consistently protect Smith's blind side.
Defensively, the Cats are strongest and most experienced on the defensive line, but there are more question marks behind that unit than the Riddler has on his underwear. Coaches and fans have high hopes for the UK linebacking corps, but three of the starters (Alvin Dupree, Miles Simpson, and converted QB Tyler Brause) are sophomores with career totals of 21, 5, and 0 tackles respectively. The secondary suffered a potentially-crushing blow when Marcus Caffey - a converted running back immediately projected to be a starter at cornerback as a redshirt freshman - was declared academically ineligible. Senior safety Martavius Neloms was forced to move to corner alongside fellow senior Cartier Rice as a result, leaving former walk-on Mikie Benton (who had 28 tackles last season) and sophomore Ashely Lowery (who had 16) to man the safety positions. While these players have had their moments at UK, none of them has stood out as the type of difference-maker needed in the secondary. Plus, Neloms and Rice are each backed up by a true freshman (including one walk-on), so staying healthy is an imperative.
Simply put - in order for this season to be a success (i.e., good enough for Phillips to see a year four as head coach) - a number of young and/or unproven players are going to have to step up and immediately establish themselves as playmakers in the toughest conference in the land. So no biggie.
(2) Peer Pressure: Making matters worse, Phillips finds himself struggling for support in the midst of heightened enthusiasm at Louisville (ranked #25 in the AP preseason poll behind fellow third-year coach Charlie Strong) and Vanderbilt (coming off of a bowl campaign and with second-year coach James Franklin putting together a strong recruiting class currently ranked #16 by Scout.com). While Phillips was able to score wins against those programs in his first year, last season he suffered a tough upset loss to UL at home and saw his team get absolutely embarrassed by Vandy in a 38-8 rout that wasn't even that close. UK's relationship with those programs is seemingly perceived by its fans as a "zero sum" game - in order for one team to succeed, the other must fail. The fact that bowl qualification historically hinges on a win in at least one of these games only adds to this belief. Whether this perception is an accurate one or not, it is real and only adds to the pressure faced by Phillips. In any other season, breaking an absurd 26-game losing streak to Tennessee would have the fanbase doing the Safety Dance and calling for a contract extension. But after losing by 30 to the mighty Commodores? Have a golf clap, Coach.
So it's critical for UK to get off to a good start in the season opener against UL. A win obviously would do wonders for Phillips' standing, but don't underestimate how much good even a competitive loss would do if the Cats come out looking motivated and prepared to play. Anything short of that could prove disastrous for team and fan morale. And losing by 30 to Vanderbilt again? Yeah, that can't happen, either.
(3) Are You Not Entertained?: The 2011 UK football campaign will likely be remembered for two things: (1) contributing "THEY S'POSED TO BE SEC" to the world of college football memes; and (2) the team managing to break a 26-game losing streak to Tennessee by not playing a quarterback, perhaps the second-most "Yeah, that sounds about right" moment in the history of Kentucky football (your crown is safe until the End of Days, "Bluegrass Miracle"). What it won't be remembered for is scintillating offensive football. UK ranked a vomit-inducing 118th (out of 120 FBS teams) in total offense after putting up only 259.8 yards and 15.8 points per game. If Joker Phillips wants to be UK's head coach in 2013, this absolutely must change.
UK football fans, for the most part, like offense-oriented football. Period. Blame it on a lifetime watching Kentucky basketball teams thrive running up and down the court and putting points on the board, but it's not an accident that Commonwealth Stadium expanded during the "Air Raid" peak of the Hal Mumme years or that "THOW IT DEEP JURD" is the most popular play in UK history. So, if a coach wants to rile up Wildcat fans, there's no better way to do it than to lose in as offensively boring and unwatchable a fashion as possible.
Phillips no doubt understands this better than most, and he has indicated that the Cats will be attempting to rev up the offense by putting the ball in the air more frequently via a quick-strike short passing game that sounds a whole lot like a West Coast-type offense. Such offenses hinge on accurate throwing, good route-running, and timing, so it will be critical for Maxwell Smith to get on the same page with his receivers in a hurry. UK also has some depth at running back with senior Coshik Williams, junior Raymond Sanders, and promising sophomore Josh Clemons (assuming that his health is not a concern), but any success in the running game will hinge on opponents not being able to crowd the line of scrimmage.
In the offseason, Phillips made some news by playing bass guitar in a friend's country music video. But if the Cats put up 15 points per game again this season, his head coaching career at UK will end up more like a Spinal Tap drummer.
(4) Butts in Seats: Full disclosure - I am one of the dastardly "27%" who declined to renew their football season tickets. Unhappiness with the direction of the program was part of the reason, but it was largely because I spent most of my Saturdays last fall having to watch games on my DVR after trying to keep 4-year-old soccer "players" from wandering into traffic and tying their shoelaces 47 times per game. One of the things I took away from the experience is that I was more concerned about how the kids played than they were. Honestly, most of them were there for the snacks and were fine with just running around for a bit. It was a nightmarish hellscape of proper perspective.
The point of this tangent is that more often than not last season, it seemed like the Cats were also just there for the snacks and a little exercise. They frequently looked undisciplined, unmotivated, and - well - "uncoached." Losing 137-20 in consecutive weeks to Florida, LSU, and South Carolina was possibly the worst stretch of football I've ever witnessed as a UK fan. And that's saying something. Making it worse was that the team (and the coaching staff) seemed to be going through the motions in all of those games. Because of this, I really didn't miss going to watch them play and was perfectly fine doing something else and spending my money elsewhere. I suspect I'm not alone in this feeling. This has to change.
History shows that there's no better way to lose your job as a head coach than to have fans stay at home. Kentucky fans have been as loyal as they come through years of crappy football and can put up with a lot. But a team that looks lifeless within minutes of running out of the tunnel? Well, that's simply unforgivable. The Wildcats showed signs of life at the end of last season by hanging tough with eventual SEC East champ Georgia and beating UT at home. The momentum from those performances has to continue - fans have to be given a reason to believe that their team won't stop fighting and will come out swinging from the start in every single game. Perhaps more importantly, the coaching staff has to approach games with this same mentality. Phillips has acquired a reputation as a conservative "play not to lose" coach - look no further than the infamous "4th-and-2" punt call against UT two years ago for the reason why. Showing the fanbase that he's willing to aggressively throw everything but the kitchen sink at an opponent would go a long way towards bringing fans like me back into the fold - and into Commonwealth Stadium.
What I'm getting at here is that I once again want to experience the joy that comes with abandoning your family for a few hours and watching football in some damn peace and quiet. Give me a reason to be a terrible father, Joker - I'm begging you.
So there it is. If all of these things happen, I think Joker Phillips will return as head coach in 2013, and I think I'd be fine with it. Oh, and two other things I learned about the distant future of "November 2012": (1) the hoverboards from "Back to the Future II" are real, but they're being held back from production by Tom Jurich. So feel free to bring that to his attention; (2) "Zima II" will be introduced to the world and comes bottled with the Jolly Ranchers already in there! The future is so convenient!
Time Traveling with Joker Phillips
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