Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson
Saturday’s upset win over Georgia was Kentucky football’s most significant since the 1997 victory over Alabama. Yes, Kentucky beat better teams than this year’s Georgia squad during both the Hal Mumme and Guy Morris eras. However, unlike the relatively stable program (in terms of the fan base) under the previous two regimes, Rich Brooks has faced, to borrow a phrase from John Feinstein, a “season on the brink” in 2006. Lagging fan support, unprecedented success for arch-rival Louisville, and ever-loudening whispers of names like Cutcliffe, Davis and Leach seemed to be slowly but steadily leading Brooks toward the coaching gallows. And then, just when it seemed the noose was tightening, something peculiar happened. The old man fought back. The first punches were relatively inconsequential jabs. Kentucky beat the teams they were supposed to beat, and the Kentucky fan base yawned in unison. (Although the road win at Starkville looks a little sweeter today, eh Bama fan?) Brooks then connected on a haymaker. The Cats held on for the first time in recent memory in a game against one of the proud old guard of the SEC. A game which was not lost by Georgia by a fluke bounce of the ball or by a 7 to 0 turnover margin, but won by a gutty Kentucky team which proved that they could pass, run and get crucial stops against a team loaded with five star talent. Never has the program needed a shot in the arm, and gotten it, like Saturday. It was a surreal experience to witness Kentucky fans, as if finally awake after a long and restless sleep, come to joyous life following the final horn. The fan base can now put a respite on analyzing coaching resumes to discover the next dead man walking to take on the Kentucky job, and start coming up with work excuses that will permit them to follow the Cats to their bowl game. First, however, Kentucky has a tall order this Saturday with the ‘Dores, who may be a better team than Georgia.
Defensively, Vanderbilt gives up 9 fewer points and nearly 130 fewer yards per game than the Cats. Offensively, Vandy averages 60 more rushing yards and 3 more total yards per game than Kentucky. Vanderbilt quarterback Chris Nickson has thrown for 1542 yards and run for an additional 579. Earl Bennett, who torched Kentucky Tecmo Bowl style in 2005, is on pace to hold every receiving record in the Conference by the end of his senior year. This season, Bennett leads the SEC with 67 catches, and most recently lit up Florida with 13 catches for 157 yards and a touchdown. (We all know how well Kentucky traditionally defends elite wide receivers and mobile quarterbacks.) Vanderbilt is every bit as talented as Kentucky. They are coached by Steve Martin look-a-like Bobby Johnson, who may be the best x and o coach in the conference. The trouble is, despite all of their improvement, that most of the time, Vanderbilt remembers that they are Vanderbilt just in time to take the final death blow. Much like what has happened at Kentucky for years, it is as if, at that crucial moment in the game, the weight of year after year of failure becomes too great for the team on the field to overcome. Aside from their victory in Athens, Vandy has been in every conference game this season only to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Last week’s game against Florida is the perfect microcosm of their season, if not their entire history. Vanderbilt outgained Florida by 60 yards and became the only team this season to score three offensive touchdowns against the mighty Gators. They also picked off Chris Leak three times. However, with the assistance of some botched plays in the kicking game, Florida managed to win the game 25 to 19. Despite this, Kentucky can’t count on Vandy being Vandy, the only team in the Conference more snake bitten than Kentucky, this week. Instead, the Cats will need every bit the effort that was shown against Georgia, if not a little more, to get that magical sixth victory. If it is not there, Kentucky will be looking for that sixth win again at this time next week.