Kentucky's football season has now reached its midway point with a merciful bye week coming after an abysmal 54-3 all systems failure against the South Carolina Gamecocks. The natives are restless. Morale among the fan base is certainly at its lowest point since 2006 and arguably as low as any time since the Bill Curry era. A year and a half into his tenure as UK coach, many are already calling for coach Joker Phillips' head.
People are upset, and they have every right to be. Ticket prices are escalating while a program that appeared to be on solid footing a couple of years ago is disintegrating. But looking back on it, all the signs were there, and whether through blind optimism, short memories or buying into a bunch of coach-speak, we, the fans of Kentucky football, chose to ignore them.
The first clue should have been our play at BBVA Compass Bowl last year. Playing against a mediocre Big East team without a head coach, the Cats turned in a lifeless performance that started me on a line of thinking I had left behind by the time this season rolled around. As I wrote on my old web site a couple of days after the game:
Next year will have to be written off as a disaster. Without Matthews, Locke and presumably Cobb, the Cats will have fewer offensive weapons than in 2008, generally considered the low water mark on offense in the "New Kentucky" era. As for the triggerman, things look even bleaker. For all of Morgan Newton's merits, he is nothing like what was advertised coming in from high school.
Disaster seems like a fairly apt description so far, does it not?
Several other red flags flew in the interim, and many chose to ignore them. First, national signing day didn't go very well. Yes, Kentucky signed a good class. That's what we were told and the time and that was true. But that was only half the story. Louisville TE Jon Davis decommitted, reopened his recruiting, then chose Illinois (of all places). Then news came that Kentucky would not land Top 50 recruit , Danville LB Lamar Dawson, something that seemed pretty likely only a few weeks before.
Then serviceable backup players started leaving the program. Not one or two, a bunch. Ryan Mossakowski, Qua Huzzie, Donald Russell, Jerrell Priester, Josh Gibbs, Dakotah Tyler, Nermin Delic (who is now back in the program but nonetheless out for the year). None of these guys were stars, but I can make a case that every single one of them would have seen extensive playing time so far this year. With our defense out on the field 80% of the time, there are a lot of untested freshmen playing where some of these guys would have played. As for Mozz, I'm not saying the staff should have picked him over Newton, but certainly by now he would have at least gotten a chance.
Losing 9 players who haven't exhausted their eligibility is almost a mass exodus. Because no one loss was that substantial, this went unnoticed.
Newton did not look sharp in the spring game or in the fall open scrimmage. We shrugged. A lot of true and redshirt freshmen started showing up on the two deep roster. Instead of cringing, we said, "yeah, how talented they must be. See, we are getting better athletes now".
So, we now sit at 2-4. Our offense has no playmakers and a statistically dreadful starting QB. Our defense has some holes and lacks any experienced depth. We are upset, puzzled and flabbergasted by all this. But, I think the above lays out a pretty compelling case that we should have seen this coming and all the warning signs for a bad season were in front of us.
Why didn't we see it? For one, Joker and his staff blew an awful lot of smoke during fall practice. We heard how great our offensive line was, how much Newton had improved, and how we had a good football team. None of that turned out to be true. Phillips once coached under Lou Holtz, one of the great poor mouthers in the history of coaching. Why would he ever deliberately pump up expectations?
My guess is Joker realized early on that his team, in particular Newton, lacked confidence. He felt a "man, we are going to suck this year" vibe creeping in. After the debacle in Birmingham, he realized he couldn't have them sleepwalk through a lost year. So he took to the media in an effort to convince Newton and the rest of the team that it was better than it was. This fits a pattern I'd never noticed. Before Mike Hartline's junior year, the staff all sang his praises, letting us know how much he'd improved. He hadn't really. The following year, it was crickets. So I was surprised to learn when the 2010 season began that, lo and behold, he had gotten a lot better.
Secondly, being a Kentucky football fan requires at least some suspension of disbelief. How much fun would it be otherwise? When you line up against LSU, Florida, Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee year after year, sometimes you have to Believe.
So we were either fooled or fooled ourselves. However it shakes out, there is little to do but hang on and hope that this team can start stringing together first downs and defensive stops. No superstar is going to emerge from the shadows, we won't start running a successful wishbone offense out of the blue and, well, a lack of talent is going to dog our offense throughout the year. I'll watch and cheer, hope for the best but expect the worst.
After all, that is probably what we should have done all along.
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