With me, it was Vanderbilt – not Louisville.
Back in August, six victories for the football Wildcats seemed like a real possibility and with them, the qualifying bowl bid.
Qualifying – not necessarily “deserved.”
In today’s college football world, a half-dozen wins, and a pulse, often lands you in post-season play. Start rolling your eyes now as a I date myself; I remember when there were just a handful of bowls, when eight and even nine wins might not keep your season alive.
When I was a kid, I watched a terrific Louisville team win nine games against one loss, climbing to 18th in the national rankings. Its roster included future ESPN analyst Tom Jackson, a linebacker who became the backbone of the Denver Bronco teams that played in two Super Bowls.
Jackson was one of several Cardinals who made it to the league, and their coach at U of L was none other than future ESPN comic reliever Lee Corso. There was no bowl bid for those guys.
But today, there’s a need – a TV programming need – for more bowl games, so there are more bowl teams. And if you play in the Southeastern Conference, six wins might be good enough. Last year, they weren’t. South Carolina rang up six and stayed home. This year, with Alabama and Florida so dominant, there were fewer victories to go around. Six is sexy.
So when it was time to figure out how many wins for the Wildcats, I studied the schedule and felt good about half the regular season games. I wasn’t certain about the opener, because the Cats had stung the Cardinals last year, the game was in Louisville, UK’s offense was depleted and U of L had to be better. But it wasn’t, and the Cats rolled.
I knew, as you did, that Arkansas would be down (for the time being). I also wasn’t convinced Kentucky could beat South Carolina. And I will remain that way until the Cats get it done against The Visor. For some bizarre reason, they can’t seem to get around Steve Spurrier.
Fast forward, if you will, to Sunday afternoon, when defensive end Jeremy Jarmon informed UK fans in Rupp Arena that he and his teammates had accepted a bid to play in the Liberty Bowl. It put a formal exclamation point on the team’s latest chapter.
The players have taken to heart another history lesson from Professor Rich Brooks. He made them understand how relevant a third consecutive bowl bid would be for a program that has realized that goal only once – back when Bear Bryant stalked the sidelines.
“It’d be even better if we could go ahead and get a win, something that’s never been done,” linebacker Braxton Kelley said after the basketball game. “We’re taking strides in Kentucky history right now and hopefully we can continue doing that.”
Joining Kelley in Rupp Arena was fellow senior co-captain Anthony Dixon. “It’s a great feeling knowing we can win a third straight bowl game, doing something the only team in school history has done,” he said. “I’m proud to be in this position. Even though it’s not the Sugar Bowl or the Orange Bowl, I’m just proud of where we’re at.”
And “where they’re at” is a point only four other SEC teams know right now: Three consecutive bowl bids.
“We can walk into homes and say, ‘We’ve done this three straight years,’ ” said athletics director Mitch Barnhart. “It’s important for us in recruiting, it’s important for us in momentum, it’s important for our kids to believe.”
They not only believe, they understand that this is how it’s done at traditional powerhouses. “Hopefully, it’ll get to the point here where the next time, IF the time arises that we don’t go to a bowl game, people will be disappointed,” Jarmon said. “There’s four other teams in the SEC that can say they’ve been to three consecutive bowl games and they’re usually perennial powerhouses. This is where it starts.”
Kentucky could have made a third consecutive trip to the Music City Bowl in Nashville, which it has owned each of the past two years. Why Memphis? Several reasons, but chief among them was the fact that the players wanted a new experience. Nashville on New Year’s Eve was beginning to feel way too familiar.
“I think (Barnhart) felt it was important for us to get a change in scenery to keep us hungry,” Jarmon said, “because sometimes it’s easy to get complacent, for guys to lose interest. So a new environment, a new city, a different team – that’s going to be something that keeps us motivated and keeps us going.”
Kelley said he wanted to feel that first-time bowl experience again. “I’m not going to say going to a bowl game gets old because it’s a privilege,” he said. “But going to a bowl, the excitement we’ve had the last two years, is kind of something we wanted to do this year.”
In a season that has seen Kentucky struggle offensively, perhaps facing the champion from Conference USA in lieu of another Atlantic Coast Conference team might not be a bad thing, although East Carolina made headlines early this season by upsetting both West Virginia and Virginia Tech.
The Cats need a victory. It’s vital to illustrate progress, win back fans who have become disgruntled during the second half of the season and, most importantly, finish with a winning season.
“Yeah, there is a little pressure there,” Jarmon said, “and there’s also pressure because we’re representing out league. It looks good for our conference to go out and get victories against non-conference opponents.”
UK fans used to snipe at U of L for being a member of C-USA, even though, as the Cards played in the Liberty Bowl, the Cats stayed home, well short of six wins. You won’t catch Jarmon speaking ill of the non-BCS league.
“I grew up watching Conference USA football, because I’m from Memphis,” he said. “I know how strong a lot of those guys are, how hard they work. East Carolina is a very good football team. They’re a team I’ve had a chance to see in person since I was a little kid. I watched their last game (ECU’s upset win over Tulsa in the C-USA title game). They’re a very good football team.”
A record of 6-7, in spite of the appearance in post-season play, would be a step backward after successive 8-5 seasons. It’s vital, Barnhart says, that the Cats keep moving forward.
“Rich keeps talking about things we haven’t done before and there’s a reason for that,” he said. “We’ve got a short history in football and we’re trying to gain ground on it. You do that by taking baby steps and closing the gap a few steps at a time. Rich has closed the gap. Considering we’ve come from a probation-laden program to three straight bowl games is pretty significant.
“It’s a good time for our program. I want these players to understand we appreciate what they’ve given to us and what they’ve worked hard to do and we’re not done. I think that’s the message: We’re not done. This is the foundational piece and now we grow out of it and continue to get better.”
You know about the talent Kentucky lost from last year’s team. And you know how tough it is for an SEC team to win games. But Big Blue fans got used to watching their team ring up points, and victories.
Barnhart is asking for perspective. “One of the columnists in our city wrote, ‘At the beginning of the year, if we had said 6-6 and going to a bowl game, would you have taken it?’ We all said ‘yeah.’ Now we’re looking for style points and that’s not necessarily the best.
“If you’d have said, we lost our three top playmakers in the first four weeks, and we’re rebuilding, and we lost 97 percent of our offense, everybody would have gone, ‘Sign me up.’ It just got a little difficult down the stretch.”
But even though the Wildcats who made last year’s offense so entertaining are on NFL rosters or the injured list, Kentucky still qualified for a bowl game.
“This is how you lay a foundation. You don’t miss,” Barnhart said. “You keep taking steps, little steps – even when you’re rebuilding, you take a step.”
The key question now is how many fans will take the steps to Memphis? It’s farther away from Lexington but, of course, closer to the cache of Big Blue fans in western Kentucky. As he stood at midcourt, Jarmon told the fans in Rupp Arena that he and his teammates needed their support, pledging a victory if they show up in his home town.
“Did I say that?” he said with a smile, and then admitted knowing he did. “I think it’s important that we get a good turnout for this game, because the crowd means so much to us. If we can have a similar crowd to what we’ve had the last two years in the Music City Bowl, I think our crowd will help propel us to a victory in Memphis.”
If the Cats do beat East Carolina, it likely won’t be pretty, but a victory born of defense. Just like the Pirates, Kentucky has about a month to practice and heal – especially important for a UK defense that suffered a rash of injuries late in the season.
Cornerback Trevard Lindley, defensive tackle Myron Pryor, linebacker Micah Johnson and Jarmon all were named All-SEC, and all missed time with injuries. Kelley says he’s been playing with a bad shoulder, which will require off-season surgery.
“There’s been a lot of injuries on defense and we suffered the consequences,” he said. “If we can continue to work hard and get everybody fresh, then we have a better chance to compete at a high level. We’ve seen what we can do when we’re fresh and healthy. We were up there with the top defenses in the nation. Unfortunately we haven’t been healthy all year and it’s kind of cost us. Hopefully we can get back to the way we were – being able to dominate people. “
Jarmon missed the Tennessee game after minor knee surgery. Already, he’s been back on the practice field, intent on giving ECU his best shot in the town where he grew up.
“You’d better believe I’m working hard to be in the best shape that I can be in,” said Jarmon, who may well be playing in his final game as a Wildcat. Just a junior, he likely will test the NFL waters. But that’s the last thing on his mind right now.
“I’m just excited,” he said. “I haven’t seen some of my family in a really long time. I haven’t been in Memphis since the first weekend in May, so you can imagine how excited I am to be going back home.”
So if you’re one of those fans who can’t get excited about this particular bowl bid, remember – your team is in the process of taking another step in the right direction. Even if you’re watching from your living room, instead of Memphis.
(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.)