Debriefing: Kentucky clings to that slightly respectable feeling

The least you should know about the 2011 Wildcats. Part of SEC Week.

There goes the neighborhood. Between them, utility men Randall Cobb and Derrick Locke combined for over 4,000 all-purpose yards last year as rushers, receivers and returners, more than any other pair of teammates in the country. Along with wide receiver Chris Matthews, they accounted for just shy of 70 percent of Kentucky's total yards and 32 of 53 touchdowns, not including three TD passes by Cobb. All three are gone, as is quarterback Mike Hartline, who started every game in the regular season and finished second in the SEC in passing yards with a 23-to-9 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

So … good luck with that.

At least they can be reasonably certain the new quarterback isn't going to crawl up into a ball opposite a live SEC defense: Junior Morgan Newton started eight games as a true freshman in 2009, including fairly stunning road wins at Auburn and Georgia, and was widely expected to hold onto the job before last season. As it turned out, he only started the bowl game, delivering an uninspiring effort in a 27-10 loss to Pittsburgh. Given the dire situation at running back and the general tendency to lean toward the pass, though, for better or worse, it looks like Newton's offense from the word "go."

Frontin'. The "better" part of that equation should be the veteran offensive line, manned by five returning starters and a pair of All-SEC types in massive guard Larry Warford and center Matt Smith. For the year, Hartline was one of the best protected quarterbacks in the SEC, good news for Newton's chances of surviving any lingering deer-in-the-headlights moments as he adjusts to his new role as the full-time starter.

Oh Danny boy, the quarterback is audibling. The good news: Ten starters are back on defense, including each of the top eleven tacklers, seven of whom will be seniors on the most grizzled defense in the SEC. The bad news: The same guys yielded well over 30 points per game last year in conference games, and at least 24 points in all seven losses.{YSP:MORE}

If there's a name to know in that group (or on the entire Wildcat roster) it's Danny Trevathan, a former two-star recruit who added a little weight between his sophomore and junior seasons and proceeded to easily lead the SEC in solo and total tackles, eventually showing up as a first-team all-conference pick by league coaches — ahead of more familiar names like Alabama's Dont'a Hightower and Georgia's Akeem Dent. Even with his safety size, Trevathan has a better-than-even shot of going at some point in next year's draft, which would make him the first Wildcat linebacker taken since 1994. But he still couldn't lift the perpetually awful run defense out of the conference basement.

Playing the percentages. The current five-year bowl streak is the longest in school history — only Bear Bryant's Wildcats have even come close, punching their ticket to four bowl games in five years in the late forties and early fifties — and it's no secret why: Kentucky has won 19 straight regular season non-conference games, only three of them against teams that finished the year with a winning record. Those three: Central Michigan in 2006, Florida Atlantic in 2007 and Louisville in 2010. The 'Cats haven't managed a winning record in SEC play since 1977.

As usual, the schedule is tailor-made to push the streak to six: With non-conference dates against patsies Western Kentucky, Central Michigan and Jacksonville State and a depleted edition of Louisville coming to Lexington, the Wildcats only need two conference wins to get to bowl eligibility at 6-6 — exactly the blueprint they followed to the postseason with a dismal 2-6 conference mark in 2008 and 2010.

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Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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