Expectations of fans, players reach new level as Kentucky football continues to progress

By Brian Rickerd Published:

LEXINGTON – I understand that the UK football team has not made a significant impact in the Southeastern Conference under Coach Rich Brooks, and I understand that the Wildcats’ rise to a fourth year of bowl eligibility has been significantly aided by a soft non-conference schedule. I get all of that.

But I get this, too: Reaching bowl eligibility with the 24-13 win last Saturday at Vanderbilt is a massive boost for Kentucky football for so many reasons. Most of them are obvious and have been stated before.

It gets the players almost a full extra month of practice. It gets the players and the UK program much needed national television exposure at the post-season level.

On a national level, I don’t believe football fans see Kentucky in a bowl game and think, ‘well, they had a losing record in the SEC so they don’t deserve to be in a bowl.’ I think those fans recognize that the SEC is one of the two best conferences in the nation year in and year out, and Kentucky is a team from that league in a bowl game.

And for all the nit-picking about some of the coaching decisions by Brooks and his staff (by the way, has any coach anywhere coached a perfect game?) – some deserved and some not – what Brooks and staff are in the process of doing is getting to a fourth straight bowl while rebuilding the team from the Andre Woodson-Wesley Woodyard bunch that played in bowls in 2006 and 2007.

This year’s Kentucky team is not as good as the Woodson-Woodyard teams, but the growth of the young players this season leads me to believe they are no more than one year, two at the most, from at least being back to that level.

A team on the rise
And they could do better than that. UK may not go bowling in Florida this season (though the Wildcats WILL go bowling, don’t worry about that), but such a goal will be quite realistic as early as next season.

Kentucky’s talent is laden with budding stars, and it’s clear from the recruiting the last four years – aided greatly by the bowl games  – that the Wildcats are building depth not seen around here since the Bear Bryant days.

This year’s Wildcats are 6-4 overall and 2-4 in the SEC heading into a 7:45 p.m. game at Georgia (6-4, 4-3) on Saturday (ESPN2).

“This will be our fourth non-losing (regular) season in a row, and that hasn’t happened here in 53 years,” Brooks said on Monday when asked about the impact of reaching bowl eligibility. “So that’s a pretty significant thing and is a tribute to the senior class that we have. There weren’t as many bowls back then, but there also weren’t as many Division I teams back when that streak was set. But the bottom line is, whatever the circumstances, this senior class has achieved something that no other senior class in school history has.”

“This is one of the reasons I came to Kentucky,” says Kentucky senior offensive guard Christian Johnson, referring to bowl eligibility. “This is one reason all of my teammates came to Kentucky. We’re still a program on the rise. We’re not where we need to be. But just the fact that we’ve done something that Kentucky hasn’t done, with the possibility of four straight bowls, is huge. We’re leaving a certain legacy here, you know?”
Not celebrating yet
Brooks was asked Monday about the difference in the mood of this year’s team in reaching bowl eligibility versus the 2006 team that became the first Kentucky team to reach that level in six years.

“I think it is a lot different now,” Brooks admitted.“It was unbelievable elation back then amongst our team and in the fan base when we got to bowl eligible. I think that team celebrated so long that we almost lost to Louisiana-Monroe (a 42-40 UK win on Nov. 18, 2006), as Alabama did a year later.

“So it’s significant, but this time there was no major celebration. But what it did was put us in position to continue to do what we all want to do, and that’s climb the SEC ladder while knowing that we have a chance to be somewhere in the post season.”

Technically speaking, the Wildcats are not guaranteed to go bowling with six wins. But with both Florida and Alabama all but locks to get BCS bowl bids, it would be stunning if Kentucky did not get a bid to a bowl.

If the Wildcats lose at Georgia and at home Nov. 28 (7 p.m. kickoff) to Tennessee, they will probably go to Shreveport for the Independence Bowl against a Big 12 opponent, to Nashville for the Music City Bowl against an ACC team, or to Memphis for the Liberty Bowl against a Conference USA team.

“We’ll probably have two SEC teams in the BCS, so I think we’re OK,” Brooks said. “Though I’d rather not take that chance.”

Peach Bowl a possibility
With a win in one of their last two games, Kentucky may inch up to the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl in Atlanta. With two wins the Peach would be a cinch and the Outback Bowl in Tampa would be possible.

“We talk about it in the locker room all the time,” UK junior offensive lineman Brad Durham said of bowl talk. “We’d be happy with any bowl because any bowl is better than none, but we want to take care of the game this week and have a chance to win next week, and possibly be farther south than Tennessee for a bowl game.”

That kind of talk raises the obvious concern: Will the Wildcats be focused and grounded enough to give their best effort these next two weeks against Georgia and Tennessee?

“We can’t get complacent,” Johnson said. “Because if you look at the SEC, there may be a few six win teams, so if we don’t win another game, six wins may not get us to a bowl (again, yes it will), so we really need to win another one. And not just for the bowl game. A seven or eight win season would be huge for Kentucky.”

“You go into the season just wanting to get six wins as quickly as possible, and after that you want to keep climbing the ladder into better bowls,” Durham added.
Such talk is music to Brooks’ ears. He does not expect his players to have the big heads coming off the Vanderbilt win that they clearly had after the big 21-14 win at Auburn on Oct. 17. That win created a lack of focus that led to the damaging 31-24 home loss to Mississippi State two weeks later.

Focus will be on Georgia
“I think the problem the week of the Mississippi State game was they figured since we beat Auburn, we’d be rocking and rolling and we’d be on our way, and the focus and attention to detail was not there that week,” Brooks said. “I told them Sunday, all of those guys who were talking about wanting to climb the food chain and get to a better bowl, it’s in their lap. They can do it if they choose to do it.

“I believe we’ll be ready to play this week,” Brooks added. “I believe they understand the importance of the game. I believe they understand the magnitude of what they can accomplish. But, you never know. It’s my job to get them to do it, and obviously I haven’t done it correctly each and every week. Some weeks are a bigger challenge. I would think that this week should not be a big (motivational) challenge.”

And, last, Brooks is well aware the Kentucky fans expect better than 6-6 as well. That expectation is another major difference from four years ago.

“I think there is a major difference now in the expectation level of our team, and we all know that our fans have a different expectation level now,” Brooks said. “And that’s a good thing. Sometimes they express it in very negative ways, but, by and large, I think the expectation level of this football program has changed dramatically.”
Brooks then paused and added softly, “I’d like to think that’s a really good thing.”

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