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The Kentucky Kernel previews Ole Miss-Kentucky

The Daily Mississippian sports editor Austin Miller recently caught up via e-mail with the University of Kentucky student newspaper's sports editor Ethan Levine to talk Saturday's Ole Miss-Kentucky game.

Austin Miller: Talk about the Kentucky football season to this point. What are the Wildcats’ expectations going into this game and for the rest of the season?

Ethan Levine: The Cats’ 2011 campaign has been a disappointment of sorts. Having reached a bowl game in a school record of five straight years, the Cats lost an immense amount of talent from the offense after last season and have failed to replace it.

Junior quarterback Morgan Newton was given the keys to the car but hasn’t navigated it well to this point. With a slew of injuries at the running back and offensive line positions and an enormous lack of play-making ability at wide receiver, Newton has not had much help. But as the team’s quarterback, he has not managed the offense well himself, resulting in one of the poorest offenses statistically in the nation. Last week against Mississippi State, Newton injured his right ankle and has been limited in practice this week. He will likely be replaced again this weekend by freshman Maxwell Smith, a talented pocket passer with limited athleticism and very little live-game experience.

The defense is far improved from a year ago under new co-defensive coordinator Rick Minter. Senior linebackers Danny Trevathan and Winston Guy rank first and second in the SEC in tackles (Trevathan led the conference in tackles in 2010 as well), and Minter’s new 3-3-5 scheme has created turnovers and disrupted the rhythm of opposing offenses. Unfortunately, with virtually no offense all season in the SEC, the defense’s hard work has gone predominantly unrecognized.

In UK’s last four games, two goals remain: Reach six wins (the Cats enter this weekend at 3-5) to qualify for a bowl game and beat Tennessee (UK has lost to Tennessee 26 years in a row). However, if the Cats continue their limited offensive production, whether it’s Newton or Smith under center, UK’s chances at reaching either of these goals are slim.

AM: Talk about the importance of Saturday’s game for both teams and both coaches. How important is Saturday’s game after losing at home to Mississippi State last Saturday? And what’s the general feeling regarding Joker Phillips and his job security?

EL: To this point, UK Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart has not been shy in endorsing Phillips as his coach for the present and the future. Cats fans can expect Phillips to stick around Lexington for at least the rest of this season and maybe next season as well.

That being said, this game will be important for both sides in assessing their team’s abilities down the stretch. The loser of Saturday’s game will likely be regarded as the worst team in the SEC, and for either team the loss would end any chances either team had of making a bowl game. The winner avoids the potential of a winless season in conference and gains some confidence to finish the year strong.

AM: Talk about the ongoing quarterback battle between Morgan Newton and Maxwell Smith. Their strengths, their weakness, their performances this season and how they are different?

EL: Newton’s strengths are his experience and athleticism. As a junior, Newton has started 16 career games at UK and knows what to expect out of defenses. He also brings the ability to run with the football out of the backfield, and has found success running the ball in UK’s last two games. Newton’s strong arm has been regarded as his largest asset, but with no play-making receivers to throw to down the field, it has not been utilized.

Smith is a pocket passer that has shown the ability to sit in the pocket and make the basic reads to move the Cats’ offense down the field slowly, which is still further than it has been moving in 2011. He also brings a lot of confidence into this week after his 26-33 performance against Mississippi State, and is likely eager to take the field again in front of his home fans.

If Newton is not healthy enough to play, the competition is a moot point. But even if he is healthy, the consensus across Big Blue Nation is that fans want a change under center to Smith to hopefully jolt the offense for the season’s final four weeks. Phillips will likely make the announcement of his decision on Friday.

AM: With basketball season right around the corner, what have fans’ reactions been to the football team after the season so far and looking ahead to the rest of the season?

EL: There’s a popular saying in Kentucky: “Football season is just the foreplay to basketball season.” For the most part, interest in the football team has dwindled to next to nothing. The basketball team looks to be the best UK has had in a while, ironically, while the football team looks to be the worst UK has had in a while. Fans for the most part have lost all expectations, and the once-frustrated fans have since turned the other cheek. Fans don’t live and die with football here; they do with basketball. The fans will be back next fall when a new football season begins, but if the team next year resembles this year’s team, those fans will abandon the program again just as easily.

AM: What are the keys to the game? What will it take for Kentucky to beat Ole Miss? What will it take for Ole Miss to beat Kentucky?

EL: Both UK and Ole Miss have struggled offensively this season, currently sitting in the bottom two spots in total yardage in the conference. The key to the game will be if either offense can break the mold and take control of the game. The story of last year’s game was turnovers by the Cats’ offense, and turnovers could be a determining factor again this season. If either offense struggles to hold onto the football, it could be the edge the other team needs to earn its first SEC win of 2011.