The temperature was noticeably different and six months have passed, but the reminders of disappointment surrounded them. Returning to the same hotel (the Wynfrey Hotel) and same city (Birmingham, Ala.) in which UK lost its last bowl game, the 2011 BBVA Compass Bowl, Thursday's SEC Media Days appearance was a brutal reminder of how frustrating it can be to come so close to breaking through for head coach Joker Phillips, seniors Danny Trevathan and Stuart Hines, and junior Morgan Newton.
The Kentucky football program has endured a valiant march from the depths of the league to conference and national relevance over the last five years, but the team struggled to climb the wall last year and hit a plateau with its second straight bowl loss.
In his second year as head coach, and as a longtime player and assistant, Phillips is tired of just being close. He wants to stay in the title race a lot longer than his team has been.
"I think we've very, very close," Phillips told hundreds of reporters at SEC Media Days. "We've been competing in this league for the last six, seven years where we have been in a lot of games (and) lost a lot of close games. The thing that's going to get us over the hump is being the most disciplined team, being the most physical team, and also having mental toughness."
Phillips said when they left Birmingham last time, he asked his players if they were ready to do the right things with the right attitude and with the right maturity because "that's what it's going to take for (UK) to continue to rise in this league."
The players answered the challenged in spring practice and offseason workouts, Phillips said.
"We've beaten some of the traditional powers in this league," Phillips said. "The thing we have to do is beat them consistently. There were three teams out there (South Carolina, Florida and Tennessee) that had a long winning streak against us. We were able to knock one of those (South Carolina) off this past year. Our goal is to knock those teams off."
Lacking the familiar faces of star power from a year ago, including NFL Draft pick Randall Cobb, starting quarterback Mike Hartline and leading rusher Derrick Locke, one might wonder how the Kentucky program plans to rise up the ranks of the SEC, as Phillips tried to beat home Thursday.
Phillips reminded reporters that Kentucky has been in this position before when it experienced a mass exodus of veterans following the 2007 season. UK followed that class up with a 7-6 season, including a victory in the Liberty Bowl.
Senior offensive lineman Stuart Hines believes this team is similar.
"People really want to make a name for themselves," Hines said. "Nobody knew who Derrick Locke was or Randall Cobb was coming in. We've got guys that feel that way. Nobody knows who I am. I want to make a name for myself. I want to step up and be that guy that we can depend on."
Maybe the biggest question mark this season is at wide receiver. In addition to Mr. Do Everything, Cobb, UK loses Chris Matthews (61 catches for 925 yards and nine touchdowns) to graduation.
An inexperienced receiving corps that features just three wide outs - juniors La'Rod King and Gene McCaskill and senior Matt Roark - who have at least one double-digit reception season will be counted on to fill a huge void. If they can't get the job done, Phillips has brought in a signing class that is heavy on natural wide outs, a recruiting first, Phillips says.
"Randall was a great player and there were a lot of great players on our side last year, but you try to learn from those guys and try to teach some of these young guys to step up," Newton said. "It might take a couple of players to step in and do some of the things Randall did, but that's why we've got 85."
Newton, in his own right, doesn't possess a ton of experience, as he threw more passes his freshman season (75) than his sophomore year (25). But Newton has carried himself differently since winning the starting job and said he learned how to be a successful quarterback in the SEC after studying Hartline.
"When you know you're going to be out there in the fire, it makes it easier to work and prepare," Newton said. "I just think that's human nature. Preparing for the season as a starter, sometimes it takes some of the pressure off knowing that you're going to have to compete in practice with different things, but it also gives you the opportunity to really focus on your skills and really focus on becoming a better player every day."
Early on, at least, Kentucky may have to lean on a defense that features a new scheme from co-defensive coordinator Rick Minter and returns its top 11 tacklers, including the SEC's top tackler from a year ago, Trevathan.
"I don't feel pressure," Trevathan said. "I feel like it's an opportunity. I feel like it's an opportunity to bring a lot of guys with me and try to improve in areas I lacked, like being a leader. (I need to) motivate guys, do extra stuff and just come in and take care of business. That's what a leader does. He knows what he needs to do and he does it."
Trevathan to return kickoffs?
Of all the players to want the job, who would have guessed it'd be Trevathan, a 6-foot-1, 232 pound linebacker?
According to Brett Dawson of Cats Illustrated, Trevathan has volunteered for the job.
"I'm going to try it," Trevathan told Dawson.
Trevathan actually experimented with kick returns a couple of years ago under former coach Rich Brooks until a hand injury forced him from duty. Now that both of his mitts are back at 100 percent, Trevathan said he's been practicing at it again.
"I had a real good opportunity until I broke my hand," Trevathan said. "I couldn't run with the ball. But I'm going to try to take (the job)."
Phillips open to commissioner's call for change
In response to SEC Commissioner Mike Slive's nation-wide call for intercollegiate reform, Phillips was asked Thursday how he felt about the idea of compensating players. Phillips certainly didn't seem opposed to it.
"I'm glad that we're having dialogue," Phillips said. "In the end, the biggest thing is making sure that the persons that are getting taken care of that need to be taken care of, which are the players. That's what matters."
However, Phillips isn't quite ready yet to endorse the deal until he hears more facts.
"There's a lot of factors involved," Phillips said. "I understand that. Right now, having this dialogue has now gotten us to the fact-finding phase of this thing. I think as we continue to find out the facts, (we might) come up with some answers that might fit.
"Those factors, you have to understand, are not just about football and basketball, but it's about all the sports involved. It's not just about football. We've got to come up with answers to those solutions also to be able to take care of everybody."
'Dear general manager'
Phillips can't quite get down the name of the social media phenomenon that is Twitter - Phillips called "tweeting" "twitting," and admitted his ignorance of the subject - but he fully understands the consequences of the national craze.
Asked Thursday about his team's social media policies, Phillips said he's told his players to post only what they would say in front of a camera. Phillips wants them to view Twitter like a job interview.
"That interview never goes away," Phillips said. "We've had a couple guys that said some things on Twitter or tweet and we tell them to say 'Dear general manager,' (because that's basically) who you're sending it to. You're not just sending it to a friend or a fan; you're sending it to everybody across the country. Some general manager is going to get what you said."
UK has a compliance official in place that monitors the social media activity of Kentucky's student-athletes and coaches.
McIntosh on scholarship
Craig McIntosh's journey from UK's ROTC program, to trying out for the football team as a walk-on, to earning part-time duty and then winning the starting job last year is already a pretty remarkable one.
But after making 11-of-15 field goals last year, including two 50-yard bombs, McIntosh has earned a scholarship from the football team. The junior from Lexington Christian Academy will enter the season as the starting placekicker.