John Clay: After day of tribulation, football Cats still appear headed to Music City

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistDecember 2, 2009 

  • SEC bowl projections

    BCS title game (Jan. 7, Pasadena, $17 million payout) — SEC Championship winner vs. No. 2 BCS team.

    Sugar (Jan. 1, New Orleans, $17 million) — SEC Championship loser vs. BCS team.

    Capital One (Jan. 1, Orlando, $4.25 million) — LSU vs. Penn State or Iowa

    Outback (Jan. 1, Tampa, $3 million) — Auburn vs. Wisconsin

    Cotton (Jan. 2, Dallas, $3 million) — Ole Miss vs. Oklahoma State

    Chick-fil-A (Dec. 31, Atlanta, $2.4 million) — Tennessee vs. Virginia Tech

    Liberty (Jan. 2, Memphis, $1.7 million) — Arkansas vs. C-USA winner

    Music City (Dec. 27, Nashville, $1.6 million) — Kentucky vs. North Carolina

    Independence (Dec. 28, Shreveport, $1.1 million) — Georgia vs. Iowa State

    PapaJohns.com (Jan. 2, Birmingham, $300,000) — South Carolina vs. Connecticut

    John Clay

By mid-afternoon Tuesday, to steal a John Calipari phrase, my head was ready to pop off.

All's well that ends well, I suppose.

Give me Nashville over Shreveport.

But a day of sweat and speculation, with Kentucky (we think) in the Music City Bowl for the third time in four years, could have been avoided had two precautionary measures been taken.

1. Kentucky closing the deal on that final regulation drive Saturday and placing itself squarely in the Outback Bowl.

2. Remembering there is nothing fair and reasonable about the bowl selection process.

It's bad enough that elite college football doesn't have a right-minded playoff system, the fans of the great grid game being forced to swallow the castor oil that is the BCS year after year after year.

But if you think there's nothing fair about the BCS — and come Sunday afternoon, unbeaten Texas Christian and possibly undefeated Boise State and Cincinnati will all bitterly complain there is nothing fair about the BCS — then you should pay a little more attention to the non-BCS bowls.

There, wins and losses don't matter nearly as much as tickets and hotel rooms.

This was a logjam year for the Southeastern Conference. While Florida and Alabama were proving early to be the class of the league up top, mediocrity reigned below.

A confused Louisiana State stumbled to 9-3. Mississippi underachieved at 8-4. And six teams (Arkansas, Auburn, Tennessee, Georgia, Kentucky and South Carolina) each hit the finish line 7-5.

By Monday evening, most bowl projectionists had Tennessee in the Outback on the strength of the Vols' re-energized fan base, its overtime win over Kentucky, and the bowl's tradition of taking the SEC East runner-up.

Then Tuesday morning, the Outback pulled a fast one. Fearing the effects of the sagging economy, the New Year's Day bowl picked Auburn, if partially because it is a scant 483-mile drive from the Plains to Tampa, compared with 696 miles from Knoxville or 860 miles from Lexington. Or even 504 miles from Georgia.

Never mind that Georgia beat Auburn this season. Or that Kentucky beat Auburn this season. (At Auburn.) Or that the Tigers lost five of their final seven games and finished 3-5 in the SEC. Gene Chizik's team will still collect a $3 million payout check for playing Wisconsin come Jan. 1.

That surprise reshuffled the deck for the remaining bowls and presented the very real possibility Kentucky could be bounced all the way down to the Independence Bowl, Dec. 28 in Shreveport, La.

After all, what if Atlanta's Chick-fil-A Bowl chose home-state Georgia? Wouldn't the Music City Bowl then snatch up Tennessee, which has never played in the Nashville game? That would surely ship Rich Brooks' Cats to Louisiana.

Ah, but then the Chick-fil-A shunned the Bulldogs in favor of the Vols, for a New Year's Eve matchup against Virginia Tech. That put the ball in the Music City Bowl's court.

Would it pick the higher-profile Bulldogs? Or with its game date just two days after Christmas, would the Music City make the safe geographic pick in Kentucky, which, after all, won at Georgia just a couple of weeks ago, and has a history of selling out the bowl game.

From all indications, proximity prevailed.

The expected outcome is not what the Cats had hoped for last week, when a victory over the Vols could have easily sent UK in search of sunscreen for its first trip back to Tampa since the 1998 season.

Or so we thought.

But then that's what we get for trying to discern reason from the unreasonable.

Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.

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