How big is Ole Miss game?

Brian Rickerd/State Journal Sports Writer Published:

LEXINGTON – It’s oh-so-common in what I call our “microwave” society to overreact to every game your favorite sports team plays – good or bad.

I try very hard to resist that, but I’m afraid I’m failing when it comes to University of Kentucky football and the importance of this Saturday’s game at Mississippi (12:21 p.m. on the SEC Network).

I believe when the season is over and we look back, this game against the Rebels in Oxford, Miss., will speak volumes about UK football, 2010.

I’m worried, and that concern comes on two fronts. It was bad enough how poorly the UK defense played at Florida (even worse than expected) in a 48-14 loss (going into the game, I predicted 42-20, Florida), but the fact that Mississippi came to life the same day under quarterback Jeremiah Masoli and trounced a good Fresno State team, 55-38, well, that doubles the concern.

In other words, in some six hours this past weekend, this game at Ole Miss went from UK as a solid favorite in my mind, to UK as an underdog.

The Wildcats come in 3-1 and 0-1 in the SEC, while Ole Miss is 2-2 and also 0-1 in the league.

I knew going to Florida that the UK defense was not an SEC ready defense, but I didn’t expect the Wildcats to be quite so helpless on that side of the ball.

And while Mississippi may not have a Florida offense, there’s nothing to make me believe Kentucky can slow down the elusive Masoli at QB or running back Brandon Bolden. Bolden averages an astonishing 7.7 yards per carry.

The only bright spot here is that the Rebels also have played poorly defensively. Kentucky is seventh in the SEC in total defense and Mississippi is eighth.

So my advice to Kentucky coach Joker Phillips would be this: If you win the coin toss, take the ball. Trust me.

The other concern is UK’s psyche coming off the mauling in the Swamp at Florida. A handful of Wildcats showed up at Phillips’ weekly press conference on Monday, and frankly, all seemed a little depressed.

More alarming is a feeling that not all the Wildcats on the defensive side of the football are buying into the philosophies of defensive coordinator Steve Brown. I read quotes from a couple Wildcats this weekend suggesting that UK’s defense was out-schemed by the Gators ... suggesting that UK was slow to adjust.

And I was on hand Monday when UK defensive back Winston Guy said this: “Florida is a really good team and really fast, and I think we should have put more pressure on. I think we should have run more blitzes than what we did on Saturday. And I think if we did that, we would have had a better chance than we did.

“But, I mean, I’m not the play caller,” Guy added. “I just have to do my job ... do what I have to do to help this defense out.”
Comment: Ouch. It’s alarming to hear a player saying THAT in the media, and with that being the case, what must the Wildcats be saying INSIDE the locker room?

Phillips, for his part, says the Wildcats must simply tackle a lot better and not listen to what he calls “the noise” ... meaning the criticism from outside the program.

“I’ve been well trained,” Phillips said of fan criticism. “I was the offensive coordinator calling plays for the last five years. People talk about our defense not doing this. Our defense in spots was playing really, really well. So we have to reel those guys in and let those guys know we’re 3-0, not 0-3. We’re now 3-1, and I haven’t gotten the feeling that our guys think they’re 0-4.

“We’ve got to stay positive,” he added. “Like I said, we can’t listen to the noise. I know there will be noise. It comes with it. But we don’t need noise within our locker room ... that’s the thing.”

Big picture, here’s the deal. After Saturday, UK returns home to face Auburn (Oct. 9 on ESPN or ESPN2), South Carolina and Georgia. If the Wildcats lose at Ole Miss, I believe they could very easily lose all three of those home games and would at least lose two of them.

That would leave them 4-4 or 3-5, and UK fans would once again count down the wins needed to get into an Independence Bowl, Music City Bowl or Liberty Bowl.

Beat Ole Miss, gain some confidence, and maybe win two of the ensuing home games and eye something like the Outback Bowl or at least Peach Bowl.

“If we want to have a great season, this is a game we’ve got to have,” Phillips said of the Ole Miss battle. “We’ve got to go on the road and beat opponents.”

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