Go here for Glenn's outstanding Compass Bowl preview.
It there ever was a team in need of a face-saving victory, it is this 6-6 Kentucky football team. After ending the pigskin season with yet another disappointing loss to Tennessee, UK needs a win over head coach-less Pitt to propel the string of four consecutive winning seasons to five straight. And although a 7-6 season is not what coach Joker Phillips envisioned in the dog days of August, it is what he is left with. Phillips is left with mediocrity after a series of turnover induced losses, along with a sampling of porous defensive outings by his youth-oriented defensive line and secondary, snatched from his grasp the possibility of a groundbreaking inaugural season.
For a program grappling for respect, both in the minds of potential four and five-star recruits, and with a fan base starving for a product to get excited about, winning one more game is of vital importance as far as perception is concerned. And it is really unfortunate it has come to this, especially in a year when the normally beastly SEC East was a mere shadow of its former self -- SEC powers Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee all struggled through less-than-stellar seasons, opening the door for the 'Cats to post four, five, possibly six SEC wins ... but football is never easy at UK. About that, there is no need for debate.
But, it must become "easier," if Phillips is to build on that which he inherited.
Rich Brooks, in his seven seasons at UK, took a floundering, probation-ridden program, and recruited the type of players one must have in order to compete at the elite, SEC-level. Brooks, upon his departure last year, left Phillips with star offensive players, and enough young defensive talent to tread water (yet still win) while they gained the all-important experience a player needs to excel at the major college level. But, instead of the defense treading water, they took a step back, and kept a potent Kentucky offense from fulfilling its potential in the form of victories ... or so it would seem.
For, it's not as if the offensive side of the ball is without fault. For fumbled opportunities, and victories intercepted by opponents is how UK arrived at this year's 6-6 record. Even with a defense ranked in the bottom half of the SEC, the offense had enough play-makers, especially with the emergence of Mike Hartline at quarterback, to post UK's best SEC record (4-4) since the magical season of 2006. But the play-makers made too many mistakes with the ball, proving once again that at Kentucky, football is never easy.
A win today against Pitt, though, will relegate the struggles of the season to the dark recesses of UK football fans' minds. Likewise, the minds (and memories) of recruits Phillips and company will be chasing to the ends of the earth in an effort to persuade the talent to wear the blue and white, will only remember the record. With a win, all that will matter is that the 'Cats won seven games. And a winning record is always better than a losing record, regardless of how it was achieved.
With a win over Pitt, forgotten will be the 'Cats giving up 21 points off turnovers to the Ole Miss Rebels (as well as 21 first half points on 63 yards gained!), opening the door for the Rebels' 42-35 win -- Forgotten will be losing 37-34 to the best team in the country (Auburn), when, if a first down had been gained on the Tiger 15 yard line late in the game, Gus Malzahn's offense would have needed a TD to win, instead of only a field goal -- Forgotten will be the 'Cats 'giving' Georgia seven first quarter points via a fumble on the UK 23 yard line, and soon after a UK field goal pulled the 'Cats within 7-3, allowing a 100-yard kickoff return to put the Dogs up 14-3 in route to a 44-31 win.
And next year, year six of the great UK football reclamation project, the 'Cats have to make up for the ground lost this season to youthful defensive play and offensive miscues. Although this team did beat Steve Spurrier and South Carolina this season, taking down two long-time losing streaks -- 17 years to The Visor, and 10 to Carolina -- in one delightful swoop, in the end, 6-6 is not what the 'Cats' record should have been. They were better than that, especially this year.
And at UK, the team's record had better match the talent-level, because there is very little wiggle room ... very little room for error.
But, I do have confidence in the direction the program is going. Any time an athletic program is fighting a battle lost by so many, for so long, immediate, steady results are most times things of fiction. In the SEC, the up-and-down syndrome has taken a pound of flesh from every team in the league at some point, so it's certainly reasonable to expect UK's climb up the ladder to have its share of missteps. But, falling off the ladder is another matter all-together, and something Phillips is not eager to have attached to his name. So rest assured, he and his staff will do whatever it takes to improve this football team.
And in an effort to improve, Phillips is demonstrably unafraid of making changes, this we know. Changes made with recruiting in mind (aah, there's the key), and because of that, one has to believe that Phillips gets "it." He knows the thoroughbreds have to be in place, in order for the race to be won.
And the best way to fill the barn with the right stuff, is to win the bowl game ... win that seventh game. It's just a start, but it's a good start. So, bow your backs big blue football nation, the future begins today at noon.
Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats!