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COLLEGE FOOTBALL OPINION: Bowl win caps Brooks' best year yet (1/4)

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By Greg Crews

 

By: GREG CREWS gcrews@thenewsenterprise.com MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A few years ago, while working for a different publication, I wrote a column saying that Kentucky should keep head coach Rich Brooks. At the time, it was not a popular opinion. Now, I would like to revise that opinion. Kentucky shouldn’t just keep Brooks, it should build him a statue. Say what you want about this Kentucky team, about the ease of its non-conference schedule or even its mediocre 6-6 record prior to Friday’s 25-19 win over East Carolina in the Liberty Bowl, but what Brooks and company pulled off this season was pure magic. It was possibly the Wildcats’ biggest rebuilding year ever after having four offensive players selected in the 2008 NFL Draft. They lost nearly every offensive star from a team coming off back-to-back bowl wins. Oh, and the few stars (if you can call them that) that Kentucky had on the offensive side of the football this season, got hurt. The Cats lost their top receiver in Dicky Lyons, top running back in Derrick Locke and top all-around athlete in wide receiver/quarterback/kick returner Randall Cobb to knee injuries this season. Yet somehow, Brooks found a way to win. He found a way to orchestrate comeback wins over Arkansas, Mississippi State and Middle Tennessee to make UK bowl eligible. Then, in the Liberty Bowl, Brooks and the Wildcats encapsulated their entire season in yet another comeback. The offense, as usual was conservative. They didn’t throw down field very much and managed only one touchdown and a pair of field goals. Most of the Wildcats’ success came from the same places they had been getting it all season: defense and special teams. Kentucky opened the second half with a 99-yard kick return for a touchdown before scoring the go-ahead TD on a 56-yard fumble recovery. Despite those highlights, it wasn’t very exciting football. At least not the kind that Kentucky fans had grown accustomed to while watching North Hardin High School product Andre Woodson air out passes and rack up points seemingly at will. No, this was much grittier football. This was a style of football that demanded more out of the coaching staff and Brooks responded with his best coaching job yet at Kentucky. Practically every Southeastern Conference team that Kentucky lined up against this season had superior athletes (at least superior upper-classmen), but it didn’t make any difference. The Wildcats went toe-to-toe with teams like Alabama and Georgia, not because they matched up well, but because they maximized their talent and took advantage of their strengths: defense and special teams. It was a complete shift in style of play and Brooks made it without missing a beat. Was it a perfect season? No, not even close. Was it everything the Wildcats could have realistically asked for? Absolutely. We’re talking about the Kentucky Wildcats. They may be able to reload every year in basketball, but they’re not supposed to do it in football. They are supposed to be the doormat of the SEC. Occasionally they are allowed a good season or two, but then they are supposed to crawl back into their cave and go into hibernation for about a decade. For Kentucky to finish 7-6 this year, make it to a bowl game and win it was simply huge. We may have just witnessed the turning point in Kentucky football. Any team can win in the good years, when they have talented veterans, depth and good health. It’s the teams that can still manage to win in down years, when they are full of youth and injuries that are truly good. Kentucky didn’t have a single NFL-caliber player on offense this season, and its defense had at most two or three. But with the number of talented underclassman the Wildcats have, and the possibly even more talented recruiting class on its way, those numbers will only go up. It looks like it’s only a matter of time before (dare I say it) the Wildcats are competing for a SEC title. Then, perhaps, Brooks will get that statue. Greg Crews is a sports writer for The News-Enterprise. He can be reached at 505-1754 or gcrews@thenewsenterprise.com