Sometimes I think the best possible thing that can happen to a favored team susceptible to an upset is for people to play up the upset, or give life to the possibility of one. The element of surprise or idea of one team overlooking an opponent is often one of the key ingredients leading to an upset. Between Vegas lines, a confident Western Kentucky coach/team and a Kentucky team and coach still trying to prove themselves to people, the chatter of a possible upset brewing on Saturday has swirled around all week. In fact, just today, 3 out of 4 Athlon Sports writers picked Western Kentucky over Kentucky. Athlon writers may not always nail the upset bids, but that’s 3/4 of the writers polled who picked a Sun Belt team over an SEC team. The upset bid over Kentucky for WKU has almost become the trendy pick for the weekend. I say let the talk of a Western Kentucky upset continue. The more people talk about it, I think the less likely it is to become a reality.
Some people are quick to point to last year’s “too close for comfort” match-up with WKU as a launching pad for the upset talk this year. If they were within striking distance then, why not this year? The question marks surrounding Kentucky’s team this year might be greater, and the added pressure of Joker Phillips on the hot seat may seem to help Western’s cause. Last year’s fairly close result does more to ensure that there won’t be an upset for a number of reasons. First, Kentucky seemed genuinely surprised and ill-prepared for the fight WKU brought to the table last year. The element of surprise I spoke to earlier was in full effect. A number of players from last years team still remember the near disaster last season in Nashville. I just can’t see Kentucky having any notion of overlooking WKU this time around. Speaking of Nashville, the neutral-site game last year probably didn’t hurt WKU’s bid for an upset either. Although Kentucky fans still showed up and it was by no means a home game environment for WKU, this year’s game is a true home game for Kentucky. Say what you want about the size of the crowd, but it will be pro-Kentucky and familiar territory for the Wildcats.
Looking back at upsets that were not expected, Kentucky football has dealt out a number of high-profile upsets over the years, especially in the Rich Brooks era. When Kentucky stunned then #1-ranked LSU in 2007, not many people were picking the Cats to win. Kentucky was having a good season heading into the game, but it was still LSU and still the #1 team in the country. I realize comparing WKU and Kentucky to Kentucky and LSU is not entirely accurate, but the fact that people are talking about a WKU upset, and not just a few people– again takes away from the surprise WKU can pull.
Last year’s Kentucky victory over Tennessee is another prime example of how something unexpected can work against the favored team. Granted, Tennessee was by no means a powerhouse last season, but 20+ years of history were working against the odds of Kentucky winning that game. Plenty of seasons before had given more cause for Kentucky hope heading into that border battle. The “unexpected “wasn’t Kentucky having a chance in that game. Tennessee surely knew that Kentucky had a chance, just like every other attempt over the years. Matt Roark as the starting quarterback was the unexpected element that Tennessee was simply not prepared for in any way. The lack of preparation and ability to adjust to such a curveball on the fly helped give Kentucky the best chance to win, and subsequently ended the streak. Kentucky will have plenty of game film to watch on WKU following a tough match last weekend against Alabama for the Hilltoppers. WKU went into that game with big dreams of a major upset. I find it hard to believe they were holding back a wild card of equal significance to Roark in order to catch Kentucky off guard.
Taking a quick turn to another sport, yet focusing on the same concept, during last year’s NCAA tournament, the game that randomly caused me the most anxiety was the Iowa State game in the second round. I had no doubt that Kentucky could step up to the plate with the best in the country. For some reason though, the talk started to build about how good Royce White was on the inside and how he might be able to muscle through the leaner Anthony Davis. In addition, Iowa State was supposed to be deadly from 3-point range. The strengths of Iowa State and the chance of Kentucky looking past a lesser-named opponent seemed to create the perfect formula for a potential upset. I found myself somehow getting nervous, even though I knew Kentucky had the best talent on the floor (and it wasn’t even close). Kentucky’s players caught wind of the comments being made about Iowa State’s chances. Kentucky promptly came out and silenced any possibility of an upset, putting on a very convincing handling of Iowa State. Ever since then, I’ve firmly believed that the more hyped up an upset chance becomes, the more attention the “favorite” pays to the game. It becomes not only a matter of winning the game, but also proving anyone wrong who even questioned it in the slightest with a resounding victory.
Simply put, any Kentucky football player who didn’t enter the season with the WKU game circled in red on their calendar has been put on notice. Every time another media outlet or another chunk of the fan base (WKU or UK) breathes more life into the chances of an upset on Saturday, the more opportunity the upset talk has to get back to these players. You can believe all you want that they don’t hear the chatter, or ignore all of the banter leading up to games, but they have to know that the belief is out there and has gained some steam that they could fall to a non-BCS school from within their own state borders on Saturday. With so much on the line and so much doubt heading into the game, I have to believe that the players are more focused headed into this game than they were last year.
I repeat, let the talk of a Western Kentucky upset continue. I don’t seem to recall much talk of an upset surrounding the Lehighs and Louisiana-Monroe’s of the world. If no one was talking about this game as an upset bid, I would be far more worried. The fact that they are, gives me a strange comfort.