'Big boy' question looms over UK

Cats don't have all the answers yet

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistSeptember 19, 2010 

After an opening-week laugher, and with a tough opponent on the horizon, one SEC coach said it was time for some "big-boy" football.

For Kentucky, now it's time for some big-boy football.

Little Brother Louisville was vanquished on start-up Saturday when the Cats beat the Cardinals. Still-winless Western Kentucky wilted last Saturday when Joker Phillips' Cats trounced the Toppers at Commonwealth.

Then Saturday night, Kentucky overcame a sluggish start to finally, as expected, zip past Akron 47-10 at Commonwealth Stadium.

The Cats answered a few questions, chief among them being could they stop the run against even a bad team?

Answer, yes. Akron is a bad team, now 0-3, and having lost to Gardner-Webb last week. But the Zips could run the ball. They boasted two 100-yard rushers in the loss to G-W.

Not against Kentucky, however. Through three quarters, the Zips had just 22 yards on 29 carries.

Next question: Could UK quarterback Mike Hartline stay efficient? Yes. The senior completed 21 of 29 passes for 250 yards and two touchdowns. Three starts this season for Hartline. No interceptions. That's what you want.

Third question: Would UK's special teams improve? For the most part. Kickoff coverage was better. New place-kicker Craig McIntosh kicked field goals of 32 and 33 yards. Alas, he missed an extra point.

Burning question: How good is this 3-0 Kentucky team?

Answer forthcoming. Next up is a trip to face the Swamp People. Florida is on the docket. Location: Gainesville. Remember, the Cats haven't beaten the Gators in the Sunshine State since 1979. They haven't bested the Gators anywhere since 1986.

"Coach (Jerry) Claiborne used to say like five seconds into stretching, 'Now we start,'" said Phillips. "Now we start. Conference play starts. It's going to be one of those battles where you can't relax, you can't sleepwalk."

True, this isn't the Florida of Tim Tebow and Brandon Spikes. (Or, anymore, Chris Rainey.) But it is the Florida of Urban Meyer, great recruits, and a win at Tennessee on Saturday to improve to 3-0 overall, 1-0 in the league. As always, the Gators are talented, but this group is particularly young.

And as for the SEC East, call the year so far peculiar. Georgia dropped to 0-2 in the league on Saturday in heartbreaking fashion, the Dogs losing to the Hogs of Arkansas on a 40-yard pass with 15 seconds left. Georgia Coach Mark Richt may not be on the hot seat, but it is warm.

Then there's Tennessee, now 1-2 overall after back-to-back losses at Neyland Stadium. (It was Derek Dooley who made the "big-boy" statement.) The Vols hung with the Gators for a spell on Saturday, but had neither the skill nor the moxy to pull off the upset. Those black clouds hanging over Rocky Top aren't parting any time soon.

The East's biggest surprise on Saturday was Vanderbilt going into Oxford, Miss., and knocking off the Rebels 28-14. Ole Miss is way beatable, of course. Jacksonville State proved that. But after a punchless loss to LSU, Vanderbilt did not appear capable of a conference road win, no matter the venue.

South Carolina has been the East's most impressive team thus far, thanks to an air-tight defense and a freshman back who knocks you back in Marcus Lattimore. Will be interesting to see if Steve Spurrier can avoid the fade pattern the Gamecocks have run in recent years.

By the numbers, UK has been the division's most impressive team. We all know that numbers can be manipulated, however. The important numbers here are Sagarin numbers. Heading into Saturday's play, Sagarin's computer had Louisville ranked 93rd, Western Kentucky 136th and Akron 194th.

"One of the things that I like is that we got to play a lot of people, lot of good young players that we are going to count on," Phillips said.

Sagarin had Florida rated fourth.

Says here, Kentucky has a shot at The Swamp. Not a great shot, but still a shot. The Cats are not nearly the long shot as in past years.

After the trip to The Swamp, Phillips' club plays at Ole Miss, then returns home for games with Auburn, South Carolina and Georgia.

That's big-boy football.

And that's how you answer the real question: Just how good are these Cats?

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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