UK Players Plan To Exceed Expectations

By: Associated Press
By: Associated Press

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) - Kentucky and Duke often find themselves side-by-side in basketball accolades, but when the nation's football coaches gave their pigskin programs the same number of votes in a preseason poll, Rafael Little took offense.

"That's pretty horrible," said the Wildcats' running back after learning Kentucky got just one vote in the top 25 balloting - the same number as the notoriously awful football Blue Devils, who were 0-12 last season.

It's a reality setting in as sure as sweat during summer two-a-days. Little and his teammates are finding it will take a lot more than one season of exceeded expectations to erase the perception that lasting athletic success in the Bluegrass exists on the hardwood but not the football field.

While the national pundits question how Kentucky will ever be able to match last season, which culminated in its first bowl victory in 22 years, the players insist they don't plan to match it. They plan to surpass it.

By how much? That's a point of debate.

"We want to be undefeated," said receiver Keenan Burton, who put off NFL prospects for one year to return for his senior season. "When you're not undefeated, you can't be happy."

While the prospect of these Wildcats running the table in the Southeastern Conference, probably the nation's toughest, may seem far-fetched, Burton's enthusiasm isn't considered bizarre in Kentucky camp.

During preseason media day, quarterback Andre Woodson - whose 31-touchdown effort last year put him alongside Tim Couch in the school's record books - talked about leading the Wildcats to their first-ever Bowl Championship Series game.

Even head coach Rich Brooks has lofty goals.

"I would be extremely disappointed if we don't make some noise in this league and have a chance to compete in the (SEC) race," Brooks said.

So there you have it. High internal expectations, tempered external ones. That, Little says, could be a recipe for a letdown if the team isn't careful.

"I think it's overconfidence," he said. "People are still thinking about what happened last year, but it's in the past. We've got to move on, get that out of our head. We're kind of the underdog every year."

And how does a perennial underdog become a multiyear favorite?

"We've just got to beat the hard team," Little responds.

Therein lies the obstacle.

Kentucky got to eight wins last year with only one conference surprise - a home victory over a struggling Georgia team. It lost nail-biters to Tennessee and South Carolina and was blown out by three teams that eventually won BCS games - Louisville, Louisiana State and national champion Florida.

All those teams are back on the schedule this year, but this time Georgia is expected to be stronger and that game is on the road, not in Lexington. Beating a "hard team" this time around could require rewriting the history books.

The Wildcats have lost 22 straight to Tennessee, 20 straight to Florida and four in a row against Louisville and LSU. Those four teams highlight a home schedule that is arguably the nation's toughest.

But Woodson is keeping things in perspective.

"We played the exact same (SEC) schedule we're going to play this season except for one game," he said. "Not much has changed. We feel we have the tools and the players to make it this season."

This Kentucky squad is probably better than the one that went 8-5 and beat Clemson in the Music City Bowl. It returns nearly all of its offensive playmakers, including Woodson, Burton, Little, receiver Dicky Lyons Jr. and Jacob Tamme, one of the nation's top tight ends.

In fact, with so many weapons, it might seem the biggest problem for Woodson would be rationing the touches. Tamme insists that isn't the case.

"Everybody stays happy because we don't have a bunch of guys who care about how many balls they get," Tamme said. "Nobody really cares if they have a 100-yard rushing game or seven catches. I had my best numbers game at Tennessee, and I promise I wouldn't have known that if I didn't read it."

Even if the offense remains steady, vast improvement is expected from a defense that last year ranked 118th out of 119 Division I-A programs. Under new coordinator Steve Brown, the unit appears to have gotten faster and more experienced.

Playmaker Wesley Woodyard leads the linebackers, with Marcus McClinton the veteran of the secondary. But it's the line that could be the strength of the defense after breakout seasons from Myron Pryor and Jeremy Jarmon last year and the activation of Ricky Lumpkin, a redshirt freshman who figures to start and make an impact.

Brooks constantly tells his players that, as far as personnel goes, this team is as ready to compete with anybody in the conference. How many wins that will generate remains to be seen.

"That's the beauty of playing in the SEC," Lyons said. "That's why we came here, to play against the Floridas and the LSUs and the Arkansas' that have great talent. You want to show you're capable of beating teams at that level, but we're not going to be able to sneak up on anybody."

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