He's b-a-a-a-a-ck!

Most of the reporters attending SEC Media Days in 2006 figured it was the first stop on the Rich Brooks farewell tour. We assumed he'd go 5-7 or 4-8 and be fired as Kentucky's head football coach at season's end.

It was nothing personal. It was just that, after records of 4-8, 2-9 and 3-8 in his first three years at the Big Blue helm, Rich Brooks appeared to be on borrowed time in Lexington.

Well ... he has borrowed some more time. Brooks shocked the college football world last fall by going 8-5. He upset Georgia and nearly upset Tennessee. He posted a 4-4 SEC mark, matching the program's best league record in 29 years. Then he capped his bounce-back season by dumping Clemson in the Music City Bowl.

Thus, it was with pardonable pride that Brooks stepped to the podium this week at 2007 SEC Media Days, grinned at his audience and smugly announced, "I'm b-a-a-a-a-a-ck!"

Coming off a Cinderella season, Brooks and his program are understandably upbeat about this fall.

"We've finally got it on a little bit more solid footing," he said. "Hopefully, I won't have to answer too many questions about job security this year."

After two years on the hottest of hot seats, Brooks enters the 2007 season with people talking about his team rather than his job security. Seventeen starters return from last year's roster. Six of them made the media's first- or second-team preseason All-SEC squad. Only LSU (eight) had more honorees.

"I think, without a doubt, this is the best football team I've had going into a season at Kentucky," Brooks said. "Ninety-seven percent of our weapons return – offensive production, defensive tackling, interceptions, fumble recoveries.... Also the return game, the kicking and punting, all of that."

Still, a consensus of the preseason football publications has Kentucky projected fifth in the six-team Eastern Division. Despite the snub, Brooks has no problem with the prophets.

"They think we'll have a hard time repeating what we did last year," he said. "I can understand the arguments against us doing that, but we're going to make it an interesting year for Kentucky football."

The biggest argument against another big year for the Big Blue is a stop unit that ranked dead last among the 12 SEC teams in virtually every defensive category one year ago. The 2006 Wildcats allowed 453.4 yards per game, nearly 100 yards more than 11th-place Ole Miss (353.9). They allowed 268.9 passing yards per game, 63 more than 11th-place Mississippi State (205.9). And they allowed an SEC-worst 28.4 points per game.

"If we want to be a factor in the race ... if we want to beat teams we haven't beaten in a long time, our defense has to improve as much (this year) as our offense did last year," Brooks said. "I expect it to. So, whether we do or not, we have to go on the field and prove it."

Brooks proved a lot last fall, including that he was a Wildcat and not a lame duck. Still, he couldn't resist one last dig at his detractors as he left the podium.

"Thanks, guys," he said with a grin and a wave. "I hope to see you next year."

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