LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Only five teams in the rugged SEC have been to bowl games each of the past five years.
Four of those teams are staples in this league -- Alabama, Florida, Georgia and LSU.
Kentucky is the little-known fifth member of that group, and the guy entering his second season as the coach of the Wildcats is growing weary of hearing about it.
Joker Phillips, who returned to his alma mater in 2003 when Rich Brooks was hired, said it’s time the Wildcats move past the whole idea of merely getting to bowl games.
He’s confident, and so are his players, that there’s a lot more out there for a program that has made huge strides since Brooks took over the probation-ridden wreck eight years ago.
“We expect to compete for titles here,” Phillip said. “There’s been a lot of talk here about us having a chance to play in our sixth straight bowl game. That’s something we want to be in the past, strings of bowl games. We want to be talking about how long we can be in the title race.
“You look at last year, and we beat the team that won the East [South Carolina] and played the team that won the West [Auburn] toe-to-toe. The thing we have to do is be consistent in our play and be consistent in everything that we do here.”
The bewitching word there is “consistent.”
After rallying from an 18-point halftime deficit and upsetting South Carolina last season, Kentucky wound up losing four of its last six games and finishing 6-7, its first losing season since 2005.
For perspective, the Wildcats have suffered through 13 losing seasons since 1990.
But from 2006 through 2009, they won seven or more games every season, including three straight bowl games.
“The one thing we haven’t been able to do is get enough talent on both sides of the ball,” Phillips said. “When our offense has been up, our defense has been down. When our defense has been up, we were down offensively for a couple of years.
“We feel now that our defense has a chance to play at a championship level. The thing we have to do is make sure our offense is ready to compete at a championship level with all the production that we lost last year.”
Phillips has made a number of changes to his staff after taking the reins from Brooks following the 2009 season, and one of the most significant moves he made was bringing in Rick Minter to run the Wildcats’ defense.
Minter put in a whole new scheme this spring, one that will use several variations of hybrid players and will be predicated upon getting Kentucky’s best athletes closer to the line of scrimmage.
“We want to create more turnovers and create more negative plays, and this is going to give us a chance to use our talent on defense,” Phillips said.
Speaking of talent, the Wildcats lost a ton of it on offense, starting with Randall Cobb, who scored touchdowns four different ways last season and broke Darren McFadden’s SEC single-season record for all-purpose yardage.
Combined, Cobb, Hartline, Locke and Matthews pretty much were Kentucky’s offense last season.
“Not having those guys is going to be different, no question,” said junior quarterback Morgan Newton, who will take over for Hartline. “But there’s a lot of young talent in this program and more coming. We have guys who can make plays. They just haven’t had a lot of chances in games.”
And as Phillips correctly points out, it wasn’t like Cobb, Locke and Matthews were household names when they came to Kentucky. Cobb wasn’t heavily recruited. Locke was a track athlete and Matthews was a junior college signee.
One of the best things the Wildcats have done in the Brooks/Phillips era is develop players.
“We just have to continue to develop, and that’s what we’ve been good at, developing players, and then utilizing those players’ talents,” said Phillips, who was Kentucky’s offensive coordinator before taking over the head-coaching duties. “We’ve been good at getting players in position to make plays.”
Phillips spent a large part of his first season as head coach at Kentucky selling his vision for the program … to fans and to his players.
He doesn’t feel as much pressure to do that as he’s entering his second season. Plus, he’s confident his players got the message a while back.
“I think I’ll be a better coach because I’m not out there as much trying to sell the program,” Phillips said. “I’ve been able to concentrate more on football this year, especially having a staff in place now that can also sell the plan.”
Any questions about whether or not Phillips had what it took to rule with an iron fist went out the window last season, when he suspended Hartline for the bowl game.
Hartline, who had never previously been in trouble, was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct and alcohol intoxication in December following a disturbance in a residential neighborhood.
He was coming off his best season after throwing for 3,178 yards and 23 touchdowns, but Phillips didn’t blink. He suspended his senior quarterback, saying that there was a standard all players would be held to when they embarrassed the program.
It’s the kind of move very few coaches would have the guts to make right before a bowl game, especially with the charges being what they were.
But then, Phillips also suspended starters Danny Trevathan, DeQuin Evans, Winston Guy, Ronnie Sneed and Matthews for portions of games earlier in the season. Phillips also suspended his starting defensive tackle, Mark Crawford, for the remainder of the season just prior to the Tennessee game.
Trevathan, the SEC’s leading tackler a year ago and the Wildcats’ top returning defensive player, said last season was eye-opening for everybody.
“I missed a meeting by accident, and he sat me down [for the first quarter] against Florida,” Trevathan said. “He might be named Joker, but he ain’t no joke.”
And neither is Phillips’ stated challenge of getting the Wildcats past what has seemed to be a ceiling of seven- and eight-win seasons.
Doing that will entail breaking through in the SEC, which is an ominous task in itself considering the Wildcats haven’t finished with a winning league record since 1977.
What’s more, Trevathan figures people will dismiss Kentucky more than ever now that Hartline, Cobb and Locke are gone.
“We like when people think like that,” he said. “That’s just going to make us hungrier.
“It’s time for us to make that right turn in the right direction and go ahead and be one of the top teams in the SEC … instead of just being mediocre.”