Ask coaches why playing in a bowl game matters, and you will almost certainly get to the point that the team gets an extra month of practice at the end of the season. For programs who are not your traditional powers, that extra month can be HUGE for a program. Even though fans are not super excited about this bowl, this opponent, or how this season has finished, I am sure the coaches are sure excited to get another month with this group.
But it isn’t just about trying to get one more win. Look back at most of the bowl games that Kentucky has played in the last 20 years and you will often find an unsung hero in the game. Somebody that nobody expected to play a key part in the game that turns out to be a deciding factor. And it is usually in the extra month of practice where that person can emerge from the pack and make a name for themselves. Because, believe it or not, in many ways this bowl game is actually the first game of the 2018 season. This game will set the tone for what kind of momentum this program will have going into next year.
Which brings us to an, admittedly, uncomfortable question: Drew Barker or Gunner Hoak should play some in the bowl, right?
During his press conference yesterday, Stoops said it is important to get Barker or Hoak more reps in practice leading up to the bowl. That’s all fine and good but bowl game practice reps and game reps are very different things. And next year, barring something unforeseen, one of those two guys is probably going to be taking opening game snaps. Hoak has taken all of zero snaps at Kentucky while Barker started a total of 3 games, losing all 3 before losing the job to Stephen Johnson.
Now, I don’t think anybody would say we have a better chance of beating Northwestern with Hoak or Barker under center than Johnson. And I am certainly not saying that Johnson shouldn’t play the large majority of the game, especially if the game is close. But it would be my preference to have Hoak and Barker duke it out during these practice reps and whatever guy goes into the game as 2nd string get 2-3 series to show his stuff. Maybe give each guy 1-2 series. But either way, I’d like to see the future of the UK quarterback position to see some action in the “first game of 2018”.
Let’s throw in another rarely discussed factor in this discussion: Stephen Johnson isn’t exactly knocking it out of the park. In his last 6 games, Johnson threw 1 touchdown pass total. He didn’t throw for more than 204 yards in any game and threw for under 150 yards in 4 of the 6 games. So it isn’t as if without Johnson the Cats will completely fall apart.
Barring an injury or complete meltdown, I doubt we’ll see either guy in the bowl game. But I find that unfortunate. Because what do we really gain from winning the bowl game? I think if we see some positive things out of Hoak or Barker, even in limited playing time, that would give the fanbase and program more confidence going into 2018 than Stephen Johnson winning or losing the game on his own. This is a team that will be returning a lot of players next year. The one glaring exception is at quarterback. My call is to start prepping for 2018 on December 29th against Northwestern.