While the above t-shirt (made after the game by a set of Louisville fans) may showcase that spelling is not a Card fan strength, the theme of the shirt still rings true. After Saturday night, the collective mood of the state of the Big Blue Nation is one of depression. With Charlie Strong’s supposed pre-game sentiment to his players (“Once we beat these guys tonight, they will never beat us again”) unfortunately shared by much of the UK football fan base at this point, the level of pessimism in UK land seems at an all-time high. Thus in lieu of the regular News and Views, an overview of why that depression exists and whether it is justified seems in order.
1. Performance So Far This Season: Depending on who you ask, the performance thus far this season has either been the worst since the first year of the Brooks era or a flashback to the darkest days of Bill Curry. There is no getting around the obvious. The Kentucky offense has been downright embarrassing for most of the first three games. Yes, there have been errors on defense and in the special teams, but in general, those performances have been fairly strong. But the defense has been so bad that it has become painful to even get through a game. Atrocious offensive line play, unfathomable drops from receivers, mediocre quarterbacking and miserable play-calling has led to an offense that has combined the dreaded twosome of “below-average” and “boring” in ways virtually never before seen. Kentucky has played three games against opponents it should have handled with ease, and has struggled against each, dropping the game to the Cards. And when not playing Kentucky, those opponents have been awful, Central Michigan getting destroyed by Western Michigan, the Cards losing to Florida International and Western Kentucky losing 44-16 to I-AA Indiana State. No Kentucky team has played lower competition and few have looked worse. To watch a team lose is one thing, but to watch it play below par for 11 out of 12 quarters can almost be too much to take.
2. The Rest of the Season: It only gets worse. There is virtually no chance Kentucky wins any of its next three games, meaning it will go into a bye week 2-4. What follows will be a lowly-attended home game versus Jacksonville State and then a five game stretch in which Kentucky must pull off three upsets to make a Bowl Game. Coming into the season, we thought Kentucky would beat Vanderbilt and Ole Miss, could beat Mississippi State and Tennessee and had a puncher’s chance against Georgia. Now none seem safe and only Ole Miss seems potentially likely. The Cats seem destined for 4-8, a record that prevents what this team needs most (the practice that comes with bowl preparation) and an off season of malaise when the the program needs fresh excitement. The rest of the year looks bleak, a feeling that seemed to weigh heavy on Kentucky fans as they exited Commonwealth Stadium last night.
3. The Future Against Louisville: While some Kentucky fans were upset about Charlie Strong’s comments, upon reflection it does not bother me. Strong was just motivating his team and he was saying publicly what most of us think. Louisville looks to have the upper hand going forward. This Cardinal team still isn’t very good, but they are young and have many Freshmen playing important roles. Whether Clint Hurtt stays or goes, the Card recruiting has improved and is likely to continue to do so. Kentucky recruiting has been very good under Joker, but one of the strongholds has been the city of Louisville. Controlling the city has been crucial to UK success and with this loss, and the rise of Strong, it will clearly be a competition once again. Most importantly however, this game feels like two programs passing each other headed in opposite directions. Even if Louisville is not likely to be great any time soon, they have a potential star Freshman QB and positive momentum. We have an experienced defense and offensive line and lots of questions about the future.
4. The Future in the SEC: It ain’t getting any easier folks. Texas A&M is the 13th team in the league and we will likely see 14 very soon. The conference expansion makes a potential 9th conference game likely, and suddenly the path to 6 wins becomes much more difficult to find on a yearly basis. I won’t go into detail again on the structural impediments to SEC success for Kentucky, but needless to say it is an uphill climb. Recruiting has improved SIGNIFICANTLY, but it will still remain 10-12 in the SEC. That is not a recipe for a rise in conference fortune. If the state of Kentucky becomes more difficult to control in recruiting (and it will), the process only becomes harder. Maybe getting a Missouri or West Va on the schedule every year is a positive…but the rest of the schedule will never be any easier and the fan base certainly realizes it.
5. The Future of Joker: Joker Phillips will be the coach of Kentucky next year. And absent a complete disaster, he should be. Most of the fan base (non-message board screamer edition) knows and accepts that. But it doesn’t mean that it inspires confidence. The fan base wants to see a coach with a plan and see positive upward momentum. It is hard right now to find any signs of either. After the game, Joker Phillips talked about “committing to the run” and “simplifying the playbook”, both of which strike the average fan as being exactly the OPPOSITE of what is needed. A team that runs up the middle every first down and runs a QB keeper 7 times during a game does not seem to have a playbook straight out of Boise, Idaho. But for Joker, going back to the Tecmo Bowl basics and trying to beat the SEC at its own game is the plan. Everyone wants to see positivity and those around the program insist that next year’s group of newcomers is special. But one has to wonder their future, after the biggest night of recruiting saw one of the biggest duds of a performance. An offseason of griping after the first non-bowl game in six years doesn’t seem pleasant, and a fan base that has come to accept more will not grow happier. It simply isn’t a bright prospect and everyone knows it.
I root for Joker because I like him a great deal. The program he has created in the last two years is better structurally than prior to his ascension to the helm. There are very good assistants and the facilities around the program are greatly improved. As a matter of fact, everything except the performance on the field would seem to be on the upswing. But the reality is that the performance on the field is only going down. We want it to change and we hope it will change. But the path to a turnaround, especially in the short term, is hard to construct. Commonwealth Stadium was as depressed as I have ever seen it on Saturday night after the loss. I just worry that it is only the beginning.
More on this topic and much more in the morning at 10 am on radio….