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THE STAKES WERE LOW WHEN KENTUCKY LAST TOOK THE FIELD for an SEC game, but in a potential nadir Joker Phillips found reason for hope. By the time the Wildcats met Tennessee in their season finale last November, Kentucky had already fallen short of qualifying for a sixth straight bowl berth. Yet despite using 10 freshman defenders, Phillips's team ground out a 10--7 win to stay out of the SEC East basement and snap a 26-year losing skid against the Vols. "They easily could have said their season was over," says Phillips, who says the "momentum" from that victory carried into the off-season. "It was really good to see how our players fought with not a lot on the line but pride."
The goal this fall is to build on that win's promise, a task that begins with revitalizing an offense that averaged 15.8 points per game, easily its lowest total since 2004. "We've always had a big-time playmaker or two or three," says Phillips, who was a Kentucky assistant for seven seasons before taking the head job in 2010. "Last year we struggled in finding out who that guy was." His options for 2012 are familiar: Returning to Lexington are three running backs who each started at least two games last season, as well as top receiver La'Rod King.
Quarterback promises a competition. Sophomore Maxwell Smith, a three-game starter in 2011, monopolized the first-team snaps this spring while senior Morgan Newton recuperated from shoulder surgery, but the two will battle for time—with a potential challenge coming from true freshman Patrick Towles. Phillips, who coached standout Kentucky passers Mike Hartline and André Woodson, calls the trio, "probably as strong a group at quarterback as we've had around here in a long time."
Aside from a rugged line, plenty on the defense is unsettled. Going into the second year of coordinator Rick Minter's 3--4 scheme, the team will field four new starters at linebacker, as well as two new cornerbacks.
Wildcats seasons are invariably accompanied by questions, including a familiar refrain. "People ask, What makes you think that you can win at Kentucky?" says Phillips, who has been on the staff for those five bowls since 2006, as well as an '07 win over eventual national champ LSU. Phillips's retort? " 'Cause we've done it." To do it again, they'll have to play with the pride that closed 2011, all season long.
COACH Joker Phillips (3rd year) 11--14 (4--12 in SEC)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR Randy Sanders
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR Rick Minter