From the Sidelines - Wildcats Finally Have Case for Top 25

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Wildcats Finally Have Case for Top 25

By Dick Gabriel
Big Blue Sports Network

It used to show up each week like so much junk mail. Kentucky fans wouldn’t give it much more than a passing glance; a peek, perhaps, and a sigh, tinged with envy.

Like any envelope that includes a bar code on the address line, they knew it wasn’t worth their time. Tear it open and read, “You have been pre-approved…” Or, even worse, “You may already be a winner!” It made them feel like losers.

Only occasionally was the Top 25 poll of any interest within the Big Blue Nation. It got real interesting last year, as Kentucky rocketed to the number eight spot after winning its first five games.

But on this Monday morning, following a victory that saw the Wildcats run their record to 4-0, it is worthy of discussion. This week’s surveys hit the mailbox yesterday and, what do you know? More junk.

In the interest of full disclosure, I argued against the Wildcats being included through their first three games. I gave voters credit for realizing that 97 percent of UK’s offense said goodbye on senior day in Lexington last year. And I witnessed first-hand how close the Cats came to becoming the only team on the planet to lose TWO games on Hail Mary passes within the same decade.

But following the rash of upsets this past week, and given the fact that Kentucky is, indeed, undefeated through four games, I think the Wildcats can make a case for themselves, albeit not a strong one.

Before we examine the fine print, allow me to present one more parameter: I know a lot of voters are swayed by the jerseys and the helmets. In other words, traditional powers often get more benefit of doubt than they should. But oftentimes, the deserve it. Tradition generally means perpetual talent. Kentucky football is still a tough sell. You don’t build a sparkling reputation on 23 games. This was a program that stood 3-4 after the blowout loss at LSU in 2006.

You have to ask yourself: On a neutral field, how would the Wildcats fare against any of the teams in the polls? UK features, statistically, one of the top defenses in the country. But Andre’ Woodson, Keenan Burton, Rafael Little, Jacob Tamme and Stevie Johnson aren’t going to be walking through that door.

The AP and USA Today polls mirror each other in the teams included; the order of each varies slightly. And they are legitimate:

AP Top 25

1.) Oklahoma
2.) Alabama
3.) LSU
4.) Missouri
5.) Texas
6.) Penn State
7.) Texas Tech
8.) Brigham Young
9.) USC
10.) South Florida
11.) Georgia
12.) Florida
13.) Auburn
14.) Ohio State
15.) Utah

The USA Today poll is almost exactly the same; the coaches like Ohio State a little more.
The next five, according to the AP, are Kansas, Boise State, Wisconsin, Vanderbilt and Virginia Tech.

Kansas was good last year and had a lot coming back; its only loss was at South Florida, which is 10th this week, 19th when the Jayhawks visited. Boise State’s worksheet includes a win at Oregon, one of the toughest places to play in all of college football. Wisconsin has won at Fresno State; its only loss coming Saturday, by two points, at Michigan.

Which brings us to category “V,” Vanderbilt and Virginia Tech.

No one begrudges the Commodores any of their success or happiness. Vandy even winning a game, much less landing in the Top 25, is like the basketball manager coming off the bench at the end of a blowout and tossing in a three-pointer. Everybody loves to see it – unless it comes at the expense of your team.

More importantly, the ‘Dores have won two games in what is being touted as the toughest league in the land. They beat the offensive genius at South Carolina by shutting down the Gamecocks’ offense when SC needed it the most. And they held off Mississippi – the same Rebels who stunned mighty Florida in Gainesville Saturday afternoon.

Virginia Tech didn’t look like the button-down team Frank Beamer usually produces when it lost at East Carolina in the Hokies’ season opener. But ECU since has shown it can beat (and lose to) a lot of teams this season. Tech also has won at Nebraska and at North Carolina – neither a powerhouse, but they were road wins against BCS conference teams.

Now, we get to the bottom five. In the AP Poll, they are:
21.) Oklahoma State
22.) Fresno State
23.) Oregon
24.) Connecticut
25.) Wake Forest

The USA Today poll swaps Virginia Tech with Oregon.

It’s tough to argue against OSU, Fresno State and Oregon. But Connecticut? The Huskies crashed the poll on the strength of their win at Louisville – a mediocre U of L team at that. And I don’t care that they did it by virtue of an interception returned for a touchdown. The Cats got lucky against the Blue Raiders. Everyone catches a break now and then.

What IS important is the fact that in the eyes of the voters, winning at Louisville means something. And while it was an entertaining game, perhaps one the Cardinals should have won, it underscored the fact that the UK-U of L game was a beat-down. The Wildcats dominated. And while the Cards have improved since then, so have the Cats.

You can make a better Top 25 case for Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons, the defending champions of the Atlantic Coast Conference, blew out Baylor in Waco and then beat Ole Miss before winning at Florida State. Their only stumble has been Saturday to a Navy team that couldn’t win at Ball State or Duke.

The MTSU game still haunts the Wildcats. Voters from both surveys saw the ending and likely made mental notes that Kentucky still has much to prove. A victory in Tuscaloosa this Saturday afternoon would render it an undeniable Top 25 team, one whose jerseys and helmets deserve a lot more respect.

(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.)

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