After sleeping on the Kentucky Wildcats' 32-31loss to the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, one conclusion I keep coming back to is this: For a team like Kentucky, overcoming bad losses is nearly impossible.
It's frustrating to think that after only 3 games, the entire season is most likely completely lost, but that is the reality of football in the Southeastern Conference, and the reality of a lower-tier SEC school. Kentucky now has only one obviously winnable game remaining on the schedule, with the rest of them being against clearly superior opposition.
We started this year with some hope -- the offense was producing, Kentucky was moving the ball, and even though the 'Cats were thoroughly beaten by Louisville, there were some signs that perhaps the team wouldn't be as unfortunate as many feared. The game against Kent St. seemed to cement that belief.
And then WKU comes to town and completely dominates the line of scrimmage, running the football at will on the Wildcats defense. Even if Kentucky had managed to thwart the trick play that won the game, and eke out an overtime win, this conversation would be substantially the same. Yes, it's embarrassing for UK fans to lose to Western, but even a victory in this one would have only marginally changed the math.
Kentucky simply has no defense to speak of. A good high-school team could run the football against these mildcats, and as Kyle King of Dawg Sports pointed out the other day, Kentucky is the Wil_cats -- no "d." The problem is, every football team in the SEC is better than Western on the offensive line, and what that means is that every team in the SEC is likely to:
a) dominate the time of possession;
b) Pile up 200+ yards on the ground;
c) Win the football game against the Wildcats
If it seems like I've given up hope, I genuinely have -- last night's game destroyed any optimism for the season I was able to muster, and UK proved against Western that the Wildcats' offense is not potent enough to outscore a quality opponent. Unfortunately, from now on, that's all Kentucky will be facing. How is one supposed to remain optimistic in the face of overwhelming evidence that the team is simply not up to the task at hand? In three games against two arguably inferior opponents and one superior opponent, Kentucky has yielded 93, 180. and 165 yards on the ground, and that's supposed to be the strength of Kentucky's defense -- you sure can't consider the painfully young secondary a strength of any kind.
Math is a very unforgiving thing, and the math is overwhelmingly against the Wildcats. Every team they face save FCS Samford is significantly superior on paper, and even though you can't rule out an upset or two, imagining Kentucky winning 3 or 4 SEC games is, to say the least, very hard.
What this means is that there is now a very high probability of a 4 win season or less plus a bad loss we paid $500,000 for, and at that level, I expect support for Joker Phillips and his coaching staff will collapse. It is not impossible that Mitch Barnhart will retain him anyway, particularly if the team is showing improvement toward the end of the year. Despite what many fans think, Barnhart has considerable political capital, and he can easily withstand the heat for one more season for Phillips. Barnhart, however, is a demonstrated pragmatist, and unless he believes Phillips can deliver him from the jaws of the lion, he isn't going to stick his head in. Given what we've seen so far, only a fool would try that lion trick, and Barnhart is not going to throw his political capital away for nothing.
The point to the coaching talk is that this loss throws Phillips' career into chaos. He has entered "the place where the eye does not see," a darkness from which he will not likely emerge as head coach of Kentucky. Many will say it's premature to announce a coaching change, and nobody is more of a supporter of Phillips than I. However, through either incompetence, inability, sheer bad luck or a combination of all of the above, his position right now is untenable -- yes, he can win his way out, and he doesn't even have to get to .500 to do it, but I think most fans would agree with me that it simply looks impossible.
I will say this: If Kentucky gets 3 wins in the SEC, it would be almost as shocking and unlikely as anything I can recently remember in sports, and certainly 3 wins plus a victory over Samford would be enough for Phillips to get another year, even in the face of the loss to WKU. Of course it is possible -- UK could win the SEC East, theoretically. But what we have seen leads the logical mind to conclude that the possibility of more than one or two wins is too small to engender even hope. Hence, my position as of today.
This does not mean I will not support this team -- I will, and I hope you will also. Abandoning these young men to a season of unappreciated drudgery is unfair, and it's unfair to the man leading the program. Phillips has been around Kentucky football most of his life, and he has nothing but the best interests of the team at heart, and he is an estimable individual with nothing but class in everything he does. Unfortunately, bad things happen to good people, and what is happening to this team right now is definitely a Bad Thing. Bad for Wildcats football, and bad for Phillips' career.
With that said, the time to boycott the team to "send a message" has come and gone. For whatever reason, the team has now reached the point where fan support, or lack thereof, is probably irrelevant. There will be some hard decisions to be made at the end of the season, and the high probability today is that it will include replacing the coaching staff.
For those reactionaries mindlessly (and trust me, it is mindless if you are doing it) calling for Phillips' immediate firing, do me a favor and don't comment here. I don't suffer fools gladly, and I refuse to allow you to inflict yourselves on our thoughtful community. Nobody does that to a quality person like Joker Phillips, and even Billy Gillispie got to end his season despite all kinds of justification for mid-season dismissal. I don't think anyone would argue the two situations have anything meaningful in common, so just stow that talk, or take it elsewhere.
Vince Lombardi famously said, "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." That's less true in college than in the pros, but it is true nonetheless. Kentucky is not going to be able to continue like this. Whether is is with Phillips or without him, Kentucky must get the football program moving in the right direction. As of right now, it is not. No matter how classy, how community-minded, or how personally laudable a coach may be, he is only as good as his last season when it comes down to it. Coaches are paid to win more than they lose, and while grace and class are important, even invaluable, they will never supplant winning. That's the nature of sport.