Right now, it’s easier to count teams in the Top 25 with one loss (seven in both the AP and USA Today polls) than it is the undefeated ones. Kentucky is ranked in neither, but just might end up there if the Wildcats can knock off Western Kentucky this Saturday night in Commonwealth Stadium.
The Cats are 3-0, just as they were this time last year. Doesn’t feel the same, does it? That’s because it’s not.
Win number three in 2007 was a shocker – the last-second, comeback win over Louisville. (Some of) the nation saw it, on whatever flavor of ESPN was available that night. Game number three in ’08 was the last-gasp win over Middle Tennessee State, which saw the Wildcats snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, look it over, and then shove it back.
SportsCenter showed the last play of UK vs. MTSU, accompanied, naturally, by the Bluegrass Miracle from LSU’s comeback win over UK in 2002. Add that to the solid but unspectacular win over U of L on ESPN (the mother ship, this time – the main channel) to kick off this season, and the Cats have left a lot of voters unimpressed. Fans, too.
“We are 3-0, but after the last game, guys don’t really respect the way that we played,” linebacker Braxton Kelley said. “Guys on the team don’t accept it as a win. We feel like we have to do a lot better than that if we’re going to call ourselves a quality team. We’re going to have to do a whole lot better in the SEC, in order to beat teams. We can’t go in there doing what we did last week and expect to win games. You can’t keep games that close.”
Rich Brooks was one of those guys who didn’t respect the way his team played. Like practically every member of the Big Blue Nation, the final play resonated in his gut so deeply that the result felt like a loss. A few days later, he thought better of it while admitting Monday that this year’s version of 3-0 bears little resemblance to last year’s. But go back two more seasons for more perspective.
“It’s obviously a different feeling than it would have been three years ago,” he said. “I think the good news is that we’re 3-0 and we’re not happy with it. We know we can get better and we have to get better, because we know what’s ahead of us. The SEC is ahead of us, and if we don’t get better, then, what we all want to accomplish will be a heck of a lot more difficult to achieve.”
He’s talking about championships. In year six of the Rich Brooks era, less than three years after the cry of the Big Blue mob for Brooks’ head on a pike went unsatiated, the UK coach has taken aim at a trophy.
His teams already have netted winner’s hardware from two different Music City Bowls and now, despite heavy losses to his offensive unit, Brooks wants his team to take the next step: Contend for an SEC Eastern Division title. Land that fish, and you have a chance to haul in the big one. Kentucky has won exactly one overall SEC football championship, and it came with an NCAA-laden asterisk.
Brooks last year said he wanted his team to be a “factor” in the race for the SEC East, and it was. Tennessee had to beat the Wildcats to win the division, which it barely did. During the regular season, while UT, Florida and Georgia were beating on each other, the Wildcats were doing their best to stay in the race, including the upset of #1 LSU. But losses to South Carolina and Mississippi State eliminated any chance Kentucky had for being anything but a spoiler.
Brooks didn’t mention Alabama specifically, but he may as well have when he talked about what lay ahead. If the Cats can knock off WKU, they just might join the remaining undefeated teams in the Top 25. Logic dictates that there won’t be 18 of them next week, but that’s no guarantee voters suddenly will re-discover the team in Lexington. Given the strength of UK’s non-conference schedule, the Cats might slip into Tuscaloosa unranked still.
But by then, their record will be 0-0 – in the SEC, the part of the worksheet that matters the most. Non-conference victories certainly can get you into a bowl game but the true measure of a college football team is a conference championship.
Brooks won a Pac-10 title at Oregon, a reclamation project that still rates as one of the all-time best. Back in the day, the Ducks, along with Oregon State, were the Kentucky and Vanderbilt of the Pac-10. Thanks to the work he did in Eugene, OU is a perennial conference contender. And the Ducks play on Rich Brooks field.
Now he has Kentucky playing respectable football, on the brink, once again, of cracking the Top 25. Vandy is already there, ranked 21st by the writers, 25th by the coaches. Between the two of them, the Cats and Commodores are undefeated in seven games. That, as much as the polished work being done in Baton Rouge, Athens and Gainesville, is why the SEC is the preeminent college football league.
“There (are) no cupcakes in this league.” Brooks said. “It is a difficult, difficult league.
“I think the bottom half of the league has come up closer to the middle and upper half of the league. It’s a changin’.”
And so is the perception of a 3-0 start. Teams on the rise celebrate it. Good teams expect it.
(Former WKYT Sports Manager Dick Gabriel is a 20-year veteran of the UK radio and TV networks. He reports from the sidelines during Wildcat football games on the Big Blue Sports Radio Network. He can be heard each evening from 6-8 p.m.ET on “Sports Nightly,” on 630 WLAP-AM.)