LEXINGTON - UK football coach Rich Brooks doesn’t understand where this perception comes from, at least on the Kentucky side, that the Wildcats should mark Vanderbilt as an automatic win year in and year out.
We’ve all heard it ... you’ll see people looking down the Kentucky schedule each preseason, saying, we’ll lose to Florida, we’ll lose to Tennessee, Georgia probably, can’t seem to beat South Carolina. But Vandy? Now THAT’S a team we should beat.
What puzzles Brooks in that perception is that Kentucky-Vanderbilt games are nearly always down-to-the-wire contests. At his weekly in-season press conference Monday, Brooks noted several times that Kentucky leads the all-time series with the Commodores just 39-38-4.
The Wildcats are 4-2 against Vandy in Brooks’ six seasons at UK, but all of those games have been tight. Only one of the four wins for UK in the Brooks era has been by more than a touchdown, and that particular game, a 38-26 UK win in 2006, was closer than that score indicates.
Vanderbilt beat Kentucky 31-24 last season in Lexington.
Brooks hopes his team can make it 5-2 against Vanderbilt when the Wildcats and Commodores hook up in Nashville Saturday at 12:21 Eastern time (WKYT-27, FPB Channel 6). UK comes in at 5-4 overall and 1-4 in the Southeastern Conference, while Vandy is 2-8 and 0-6.
“Sometimes perception and reality are two different things when it comes to this series,” Brooks said. “I don’t know when it was an automatic win for Kentucky. That’s my point. It never has been. A play here, a play there, a penalty sometimes, a turnover, a false start, a missed tackle ... you can go through any point in any one of those games we have played against them and take one play, and it’s the difference between winning and losing.
“So it’s one of those games you better bring your ‘A’ game and be on, because if you’re not ... you know it’s going to be a close game ing in. When you don’t play 60 minutes and do the things you’re supposed to do, you’re going to get beat.”
I understand Brooks’ confusion on the false perception, but he’s missing the point in order, perhaps, not to give the Commodores any bulletin board material for Saturday’s matchup.
Sure win or must win?
It isn’t that UK fans see Vanderbilt as a sure win, it’s that UK fans realize that if the Wildcats are going to get to six wins and have a shot at a bowl game, the Cats had BETTER beat Vanderilt. Since UK can’t seem to beat Florida, Tennessee or South Carolina and rarely beat Georgia.
Give Brooks credit for an 18-game win streak over non-conference foes. But even when Kentucky sweeps its four non-conference opponents, that leaves the Wildcats needing to win two SEC games to go bowling. Hence, Vanderbilt is usually a must win. And this Saturday is no exception.
If Vanderbilt posts a second consecutive win over the Wildcats, you can kiss UK’s hopes for a fourth-straight bowl game goodbye. A loss in Nashville would damage UK’s already shaky confidence enough to where I couldn’t see the Wildcats winning at Georgia on Nov. 21 (a 7:45 p.m. kickoff by the way), and you can mark the Tennessee game on Nov. 28 as a loss for Kentucky, speaking of automatic.
When asked Monday, by the way, if he believes Vanderbilt fans look as Kentucky as an automatic win for their Commodores, Brooks quipped: “Probably, yes, doesn’t everybody in our league?”
Even if UK beats Vanderbilt, that won’t guarantee the Wildcats a bowl bid, though I’d be surprised if some bowl didn’t find a way to pick up the Wildcats with six wins.
“I expect the focus to be much better for Vanderbilt,” UK senior defensive tackle Corey Peters said Monday, referring indirectly to an occasional lack of focus the past two weeks – a crushing 31-24 loss to Mississippi State on Oct. 31 and last Saturday’s ho-hum 36-12 win over Eastern Kentucky. “I expect everybody’s mindset to be where it needs to be, especially since it could be our sixth win and make us bowl eligible.
“Though I really don’t think six wins will be good enough to get us to a bowl game,” Peters added. “I think we need to get seven or eight. So we definitely need to have this one this week.”
Benefits of bowling
The loss to Mississippi State probably means Kentucky has very little chance of getting to a bowl other than the Music City or Liberty again, but don’t minimize the value of ANY bowl when you’re UK. It helps the Wildcats recruiting on a national scale to get to bowls year after year, and it is a golden chance for many of UK’s very talented younger players to get a few extra weeks of practice.
Brooks touched on that and more when asked Monday about the impact of winning a school record 18 straight non-conference games.
“For Kentucky to do what it wants to do, part of that process is the base camp halfway up the mountain, and halfway up the mountain is to win every non-conference game and attack the SEC games and win more of them,” Brooks said. “We haven’t reached that (SEC) camp yet. That’s the next step on the ladder.
“But we still have three conference games left where we can make a move up that this year. The thing that is critically important is that extra month of practice (that comes with a bowl game) is critical in the development of young players, particularly when they aren’t, quote, the ‘five star’ players. You need that extra fundamental work and coaching of those players so they can reach their potential.”