SEC schedule maker another potential obstacle between football Cats and success
It had all the classic markings of a potential UK upset, even though Kentucky was favored. And when does THAT ever happen?
When is Kentucky the team to beat in a football game featuring an opponent that has dominated the Wildcats? It happened one day in October, 2007. The eighth-ranked Kentucky Wildcats hosted not only number 14 Florida, but ESPN’s College Game Day. It could have been the afternoon Kentucky football broke through and took a seat at the Big Boys Table.
Not so fast, my friend.
The Cats fell short, and a big reason they couldn’t close out the Gators could be a factor this season if Kentucky can’t pull off victories in any “swing” games.
The ’07 team was the best of the Rich Brooks era, opening the season with a come-from-behind, last-second victory over Louisville that brought down the goal posts at Commonwealth Stadium. And on Oct. 13, the Wildcats made play after play, including Braxton Kelley’s fourth-down tackle in the game’s third overtime, as they upset top-ranked and eventual national champion LSU.
The victory vaulted UK into the AP Top 10, sending the ESPN trucks rolling toward Lexington and sparking whispers of a possible victory the following week over Florida. Tim Tebow and the defending national champions were only 4-2, which is why they were rated six spots below the Wildcats, even though Kentucky hadn’t tasted victory over UF since 1986.
And under normal circumstances, the Wildcats might have been able to snap that losing string. But Urban Meyer’s Gators had a big advantage – an open date on the preceding Saturday. Part of the national TV audience looking in as the Cats shocked the Bayou Bengals were Meyer, his staff and his players. They had an extra week to prepare for Kentucky’s multiple attack.
Even still, UK quarterback Andre’ Woodson had one of his best passing days as a Wildcat, throwing for 415 yards and five touchdowns, including three to wideout Dicky Lyons, Jr. But the Kentucky offensive front, which the week prior had allowed no sacks to LSU and monstrous defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey, gave up six against the Gators.
Meanwhile, Tebow, who would rush for only 78 yards, lit up the UK secondary, throwing for 256 yards and a career-high four touchdowns. Ten times, the Gators had possession of the football, and seven times they scored – including six touchdowns. The Wildcats had few answers for a supremely talented, well-coached team that had made excellent use of the additional prep time.
Joker Phillips has a similar problem.
If his team is to win enough games to quiet the howling wolves at the door, the Cats will have to knock off some teams that aren’t considered “automatics” on the L side of the worksheet, such as Florida (in Gainesville). Those “winnable” conference games include, of course, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, Georgia and possibly Missouri.
Problem: Three of those four, before they take on Kentucky, face “Open Date.”
The only exception is Vandy, which hosts Massachusetts before coming to Lexington, and then heads for Ole Miss.
Georgia battles arch-rival South Carolina in Columbia on Oct. 6, and then gets a week to heal up and ready itself for the Cats, who proved surprisingly tough in 19-10 loss at Athens last year. One saving grace for Kentucky is the fact that a week later, the Bulldogs get Florida in Jacksonville – so the Wildcats might catch them peeking ahead.
Mississippi State plays non-conference opponents Troy and South Alabama before taking an extra week to ready itself for the trip to Lexington. Meanwhile, the Cats the week before host South Carolina, and the week after head for Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Kentucky visits Columbia on the last Saturday in October, the first trip to Mizzou for the Wildcats since 1965. Some members of the Big Blue Nation see this one as “winnable,” and who’s to argue – right now. We’re all still collecting intelligence on one of the two new members of the Southeastern Conference.
The Tigers limped out of the gate last year, losing three of four games at one point, falling to 4-5. But they closed with a rush, winning their last four, including a homefield upset of Texas and an Independence Bowl victory over North Carolina, to finish 8-5.
We do know this: Missouri runs a spread offense, behind quarterback James Franklin, and the Wildcats struggle against that kind of attack (sneak a peek at the Vandy video from last year). Rick Minter’s 3-4 last season performed capably against pro-style offenses, but the spread was a challenge. And the Tigers’ roster includes quote machine T.J. Moe, who should make the buildup for the game incredibly entertaining.
Add the fact that the Tigers get an extra week to study Joker and the Wildcats, and it could make for a difficult return trip to the Show Me State.
In case you’re wondering about Kentucky’s open week, it couldn’t come at a worse time – Saturday, Nov. 10. It follows seven consecutive SEC games, and falls just before UK’s get-well game with Samford, which Kentucky figured to win without the additional prep time.
Most coaches will tell you they don’t like open dates if their team is playing well; they welcome them if injuries or losses are taking their toll. Joker Phillips likely would say it doesn’t matter how the schedule shakes out, that he can’t control it, and there’s nothing they can do but go play.
But with so much on the line this season, you couldn’t blame him for thinking, A guy can’t catch a break sometimes…
Dick Gabriel is in his 24th season with the UK TV and radio networks, and can be heard each Monday-Friday at 6 p.m. on The Big Blue Insider, on 630 WLAP-AM.