The SEC is known for its overall speed. And in order to compete at a high level in the conference, the Wildcats needed a lot of improvement in that aspect. Overall, the Wildcats' talent level needed an upgrade as well, but Brooks has Kentucky well on its way. "We have players that are capable of playing at Florida, Georgia and Tennessee. I think that we have closed the gap on the talent level, which is the biggest significant difference in Kentucky football now versus four or five years ago."
The difference is obvious. Kentucky is competing and beating some of the conference's most storied programs. During the last two campaigns, Kentucky defeated Georgia (2006) and LSU (2007) who won the National Championship last season. "When you beat LSU like we did last year, it gives you confidence that you can go anywhere and take on anyone and compete and win," Jeremy Jarmon said.
But defeating Georgia and LSU in consecutive years isn't enough. The Wildcats don't plan to rest on their laurels. "What we've accomplished the last two years is significant. This year is more important because it establishes a pattern. Two years is not a pattern. Four or five years is a pattern," said Brooks.
Kentucky has won 16 games the last two seasons, including two bowl victories. That is a big deal for Kentucky, but not overall in the conference. "Two eight win seasons is not the top in the SEC," said Dicky Lyons Jr. The players know they still have a long way to go to get to the top. "Going into this year, our goals are the same. We're going in feeling we can compete in the SEC and that's what we'll work towards," said Jarmon.
While the Wildcats have faith that they have improved their roster, they were still voted near the bottom of the SEC East by both the coaches and the media. "It's easy for people to doubt us. People read the magazines and tell us we're always picked fifth or sixth in the SEC East. I tell people it's eay to put on the University of Kentucky uniform week in and week out because you know that there are people that doubt you," said Jarmon.
"You're always going to have naysayers, people trying to put you down. For me, being a 5-foot-11, white guy as a wide receiver, you're never expected to play in the SEC in the first place so it's all bulletin board material for inspiration to prove people wrong," said Lyons.
Still, even if people doubt the Wildcats, they can't deny the improvement in the program. "We were one of the teams that everybody used to think they could put an automatic W up next to us as they went through the season. It's not that way anymore," said Brooks.
Through all struggles and the losses, Rich Brooks has stood strong. The improvement is visible and Brooks' patience and hard work is paying off. "He's doing a great job doing what he's done," said Lyons. "He stuck to his plan when others would have changed."
"I'm just glad to be in the conversation now. We've closed the gap on the other more etablished programs," said Brooks.