Sports fandom in the modern age is very interesting. On the one hand, fans have more ability to interact with each other and express their opinions about their favorite teams that at any time in the history of sports. Thanks to social media, message boards, comment sections, etc, fans who have virtually any opinion about their team cannot only give it out to the masses, they are likely to find others who share it and can legitimize its support. Thus there can be a fan chorus of thought that begins in the internet world and slowly becomes the talking point of discussion, regardless of whether or not it is acknowledged by the mainstream media. To put it another way, in today’s fan environment one doesn’t need a newspaper, tv station or radio show to tell them what the major story is after a game, the fans themselves can decide it.
Since Saturday night’s disappointing loss to Florida, this fan/media dichotomy has clearly existed in the UK world. While the media focuses on missed opportunities, poor line play, Wide receiver drops and play calling, in some of the minds of fans only one topic matters: the conversation begins and ends with the situation at Quarterback. Walking (or in my case running to beat the traffic) out of Commonwealth Stadium, I heard multiple people complaining about UK’s Quarterback play and discussing (or in one case arguing) about whether a change should be made. The Twitterverse after the game erupted with calls for Drew Barker to get snaps and my post game show had a number of opinions that essentially asked, “how much longer of a lease should Patrick Towles get?” Whether it is discussion #1 in media write-ups of the game or in the preparation for Missouri, amongst the fans, Towles vs Barker is the only issue.
I find this relatively disheartening. First and foremost, the Quarterback always gets too much blame whenever a team loses. Because fans naturally follow the ball, their eyes stay on the Quarterback through virtually the entire offensive half of the game and his mistakes are always magnified in a way those of others never will be. If an Offensive Lineman is beaten off the line of scrimmage, a Wide Receiver misses his block or a Running Back doesn’t hit the right hole, hardcore Football fans may easily notice (standing next to Jared Lorenzen on the sideline has been a lesson in how natural that becomes to a former high level player), but the average fan is likely to miss it on first glance. But even the most casual fan knows when a Quarterback makes a bad decision and thus for Armchair experts, his play will always be the most critiqued. There is no doubt on Saturday that Patrick Towles did not have his best game. He missed open receivers, held onto the ball too long and made a couple of bad decisions that were crippling. But it can’t be overlooked that he also dealt with an offensive line that was beaten (often badly) off the line of scrimmage, had key throws dropped in crucial moments and too often was left on an island by other teammates who were struggling. Had Patrick played better, Kentucky would have won…but there are others on the team who could have had the same statement said about them as well.
Mark Stoops reaction to this on Monday was understandable and reassuring. He said that after losing one game by one possession, now was not the time to make a change at Quarterback. He noted that Patrick made mistakes, but he also made some good plays and remains the leader of the team. This is a rational viewpoint and one that I expected him to have. However there is a strong percentage of the fan base that holds the opposite view. For them, the Florida game represents the final proof that backup Drew Barker should be given a chance. It is an oft-quoted expression that the most popular player on the team is the backup quarterback. This is especially true when that backup is like Barker, a highly touted recruit with an exemplary high school career who has never showcased any of his weaknesses to the fan base on the college level. Whereas Kentucky fans are familiar with Patrick Towles, warts and all, Drew Barker is a clean slate, ready to come in and make no mistakes while leading the Cats to victory. Just as in 2013 when Jalen Whitlow struggled to lead a 2 win team and fans called my post game show every week to ask “Where is Towles?!?”, now the shoe is on the other foot and Towles is receiving the same questioning for a younger version of himself.
Fortunately for them, the “PLAY BARKER!” chorus doesn’t have to accept facts and reality yet. Theirs is a view clouded in the mystery of what Barker might be, rather than what he (or Patrick Towles) is. Unlike the coaches, staff, administration and players (all of whom see the Quarterbacks compete everyday), they are free to have their opinion stripped of that nuisance that can make arguments so much more difficult to maintain…facts. I am constantly amazed that fans don’t trust the judgment of the individuals who have the most incentive to play the best players, the coaches. Think about Mark Stoops for a second. His contract is set up where each victory pays him a substantial sum of money and each SEC victory over 2 is worth A LOT of money. So if he honestly believed that Drew Barker were the better option, don’t you think he would play him? A source close to the program told me yesterday, “look Patrick has to play better, but if Mark (Stoops) thought that Drew was the better option, he would be playing yesterday, regardless of his age or anything else.” This group WANTS TO WIN. It is their primary goal and when I have been around them, I am constantly amazed at how obsessed they are at making it happen. Their football judgment collectively is much better than mine and if they believe Towles is the best option (or if one day they believe Barker makes the most sense), I will trust their opinion over my own.
At this point, here is where I think the situation stands. Patrick will be the starter against Missouri but he needs to play well. The two-time defending SEC East Champion is vulnerable and the Cats are a favorite against a Top 25 team for the first time since 2007. For Kentucky to win however, Towles has to play well and if he does and UK gets the victory, the overall start puts Kentucky in a very good position. However if he plays poorly and the game goes South, causing two straight disappointing home losses, I think there is a good chance we might see a different situation for the EKU game. At that point, the coaches may believe that it is worth giving Barker some run, so as to see if they hope amongst many around the program (that he can be a “gamer” like Johnny Manziel, better under the bright lights than in practice) could be true. A bad Towles performance might lead to a situation where both play against Eastern and then the situation is reevaluated after. If the coaches go in this direction (and I think it is possible they could), that would make perfect sense to me.
But for now, Towles is the guy. No amount of fan grumbling or frustration will change that. He has talent and has the ability to play on a high enough level for UK to succeed. The UK coaches believe he puts the Cats in the best position to win Saturday and going forward…my hope is that the fans will give the coaches and Patrick the benefit of the doubt, and get behind that decision for the huge game Saturday against Missouri.