The Wildcats entered the final two games of the season having won only one game and ranked last in the nation in scoring and total offense, but came back from a 13-0 deficit to beat Vanderbilt 14-13 on two fourth-quarter touchdown passes from embattled quarterback Shane Boyd.
Then the Wildcats gave 15th-ranked Tennessee all it could handle before losing 37-31 in the final minute.
"Our guys played a hell of a game, and the wrong team won," Kentucky coach Rich Brooks said. "A loss is a loss is a loss; some are better than others. This is a game that could have been huge to win, but it ends up being another in the tough-games-that-got-away category."
Unfortunately for Brooks and the Wildcats, the past two years have been filled with far too many of those kinds of losses, as well as the one-sided kind.
That makes a challenging job even more difficult for Brooks, who inherited NCAA probation and scholarship sanctions from rules violations committed under former coach Hal Mumme.
With a 6-17 record in his two seasons at Kentucky, Brooks faces pressure to make tangible improvement in 2005. In addition, he must find a new offensive coordinator after Ron Hudson was forced to resign in the final week of the season, and must replace key seniors such as Boyd, defensive end Vincent "Sweet Pea" Burns, safety Mike Williams and guard Jason Rollins.
The good news is that most of the team's best players return in 2005, including quarterback Andre Woodson, who saw significant playing time as a redshirt freshman in 2004. Nine true freshmen also saw considerable playing time during the season, including seven who started at least one game.
By beating Vanderbilt and almost beating Tennessee, Brooks is convinced those young players learned some valuable lessons that should carry over to the 2005 season.
"I think adversity builds character," Brooks said. "It builds resolve. Sometimes when things come easy, maybe they don't appreciate it as much sometimes. This has not been an easy season in any way, shape or form. But, the resilience the players have shown is outstanding."
GAME OF THE YEAR: Kentucky 14, Vanderbilt 13 -- A 51-32 victory over Indiana on Sept. 18 might seem like a more exciting choice, but it turned out to be more of a tease than a trend. The Wildcats went on to lose their next seven games and suffering a multitude of injuries before falling behind 13-0 in the third quarter against Vanderbilt. At a point when it would have been easy to fold, the Wildcats came back in the fourth quarter and won 14-13.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR: DB Muhammad Abdullah -- On a defense with so many holes and uncertainties Abdullah played solid football, leading the team with three interceptions and finishing second with 53 tackles, including 40 solos.
RAPID REVIEW: The Wildcats opened with an ugly 28-0 loss to in-state rival Louisville but quickly turned around and made things better with a 51-32 victory over Indiana. Instead of moving on to bigger, better things, the Wildcats then slipped into a seven-game funk, losing every game and slipping to last in the nation in scoring and total offense. A win over Vanderbilt and a close loss to Tennessee in the two final games helped take some of the sting off the season ... but 2-9 is still 2-9.
FAST FORWARD: While the Wildcats do lose some key seniors, such as QB Shane Boyd, DE Vincent "Sweet Pea" Burns, SS Mike Williams and OG Jason Rollins, they also return the core of a young team, including nine true freshmen who saw significant playing time including seven who started at least one game each. However, between all that youth and a roster hit hard by scholarship reductions and probation, it's hard to imagine the Wildcats making substantial improvement in 2005.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "There's more of an intense interest and passion. There is more negativity than I would have expected, but the conference is a great conference and Kentucky's history in the conference hasn't been what any Kentucky fan would like it to be. I'm just hopeful we'll go forward and start changing that history." -- Coach Rich Brooks.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
PLAYERS TO WATCH IN 2005: QB Andre Woodson -- He played in seven games and started one as a redshirt freshman, offering enough hints to suggest he could become an effective run-pass quarterback in the future.
WRs Lonnell Dewalt Scott Mitchell and TE Jacob Tamme -- Dewalt caught only 11 passes as a true freshman, but he made his biggest impact by blocking six field goals and one PAT. Mitchell, a juco transfer in his first season at Kentucky, finishing strong by catching nine of his overall 21 receptions in the Tennessee game. Tamme had 12 catches for 106 yards through 10 games as a true freshman receiver, but moved to tight end for the Tennessee game and caught four passes for 55 yards and two touchdowns. "The guy could be a force at tight end," receivers coach Joker Phillips said. "We started out this week with just two or three plays with him at tight end, and the more we saw him the more we added to the package. He should have caught 40 to 50 balls this season at tight end."
INJURY IMPACT: Injuries definitely took their toll on the Wildcats this season, starting when starting WR Tommy Cook suffered a season-ending knee injury in the spring game. Two games into the season starting WR Keenan Burton suffered a season-ending broken wrist. Before it was over, 17 starters and key reserves missed more than 70 games this season because of injury. At least seven starters or key reserves missed the final regular season game against Tennessee. The biggest concern heading into the spring is the health of starting linebacker Wesley Woodyard, a true freshman who has played in every game this season and made an impressive transition from safety to linebacker. He had ankle surgery on Nov. 18 and could miss the spring.