Saturday's UK game was a frustrating exercise. Despite winning the turnover battle 3-0 the Cats were unable to capitalize. Offensively, we were forced to settle for field goals on three separate red zone drives and always seemed one step away from making it a game. On defense, Kentucky got no pressure on the quarterback whatsoever and was torched in the passing game by a team that, for all intents and purposes, has no passing game.
As everyone who cares about such things knows by now, one major bright spot for UK was the play of freshman QB Maxwell Smith, who entered the game for good when Morgan Newton suffered a high ankle sprain. Smith completed 26 of 33 passes for a whopping 78.8% completion rate. He wasn't intercepted. Smith didn't win the game, or really come close, nor did he throw for a ton of yards, but there was a lot to like about the performance.
Now its Monday and the Cats have a full blown controversy on their hands. Except I don't find it much of a controversy at all. For myriad reasons, Joker needs to start Smith against the Mississippi Rebels this weekend, and stick with him this season unless and until he proves totally ineffective.
We'll start this discussion with a couple of basic assumptions. One, UK has virtually no chance of going to a bowl this year, a feat that would require winning 3 out of the 4 final games. As it stands, we are 2.5 point home underdogs to Ole Miss, a team that has lost 11 straight SEC games and is by far the weakest team left on the schedule. The second assumption is that Joker is going to keep his job after 2011 no matter what happens. Mitch Barnhart has already made that clear and there is no reason not to take him at his word. The point of this paragraph is that Joker has little to lose at this point.
So, the decision about whether to start Smith or Newton becomes twofold. One, who gives us a better chance to win right now and two, which QB will benefit the program more in the long run by getting the snaps now. Under either measure, I think Smith is the best call.
Morgan Newton's tenure at UK has been rocky at best. Before he took the field, Newton was a god. A lot of BBN thought he should start over Hartline right away and some were relieved when Hartline was injured and Newton took over. Despite throwing for over 100 yards in only 3 of his 8 starts, and completing 60% of his passes only twice, the Cats won 5 games with the true freshman at the helm. Unfortunately, not much has gone right for Newton since.
With Morgan under center, UK sleepwalked through its bowl game in 2010 and had a comically inefficient offense through the first half of this season. Smith has now had one game of significant experience, and it was something less than an unqualified success. But what is clear to me is that the offense has a chance to be successful under Smith in a way that it simply cannot with Newton. Smith throws a catchable ball. On Saturday, he hit receivers in stride and allowed them to run for yardage. Smith also has more confidence and consequently a much faster trigger than Newton. The best way I can describe it though is this: Kentucky looked like it had a semblance of a normal offense on Saturday. Before that, it looked like something designed not to work, sort of like a Billy Gillispie's tenure at UK.
I also think Smith's presence will give the team a lift. There is no question Newton is struggling, and though I have absolutely no way of knowing, it would surprise me if guys aren't pressing behind him or else have simply lost confidence.
As for the future, that's a less controversial question. With this season likely a total bust, the Cats will increasingly find themselves playing for next year. That is particularly true if they lose this Saturday. There is a chance that Newton will lose the chains that appear to bind him in the off season and emerge as a new QB in 2012. Mike Hartline did it. But I'd say that chance at improvement pales in comparison to the chance that Smith makes bigger strides between his freshman and sophomore years. It could go either way, of course, but if you are gambling at who is further from his ceiling and who can benefit more from the reps, the smart money has to be on the true freshman, not the guy who has started 15 games.
Finally, there is this. If UK felt it had a capable backup at any point before the Mississippi State game, that person probably would have already taken Newton's spot. Smith looked more than capable Saturday. It's time to give him a shot.