John Clay: Cats good but not great, again

UK Football has been here before

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistOctober 25, 2010 

John Clay

  • Next Game

    Kentucky at Mississippi State

    When: 7 p.m. Saturday

    TV: ESPNU

This isn't Joker Phillips fault.

He's a first-year head coach.

But if you're a Kentucky football fan, you can be forgiven for that familiar fall feeling.

After Saturday night's 44-31 loss to Georgia, the Cats campaign has taken the form of the past few seasons. It's good but not great. It's probably bowl-eligible but not great-bowl-eligible. It's not a step back, but it's not a significant step forward either.

For the third time in the past five seasons, the Cats sit 4-4 overall. For the second straight year, they are 1-4 in the SEC. There's no real chance at a division championship. There's no real chance at a New Year's Day Bowl, not without some considerable breaks along the way, and certainly the breaks did not go UK's way on Saturday.

Yes, the Cats outgained Georgia 423-290 on Saturday. But that's a deceiving statistic. Georgia only needed to gain 290 yards to administer its thorough Saturday squashing of the Cats. Kentucky turned it over four times on the night, giving the Dogs a short field. Plus, UK allowed a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. And it failed on a fourth-and-one sneak from its own 39-yard line. Those are like an additional two turnovers right there.

Ball security is job one. And it's not Mike Hartline interceptions that are killing the Cats. Hartline has tossed just two picks the last four games. Fumbles are putting the Cats in significant holes. Randall Cobb fumbled at the UK 11-yard line at Ole Miss. Donald Russell failed to catch a pitch out at his own five-yard line against Georgia — though you can certainly question calling a pitch-out in the shadow of your own goal-line.

But then it doesn't really matter how Kentucky got to this point as much as it does that the Cats are here yet again. Four games to go. Two wins needed for bowl eligibility. A third win is needed for something a little better. A four-game win streak is the only thing that can turn modest disappointment into pure delight.

As it stands now, surely Auburn, LSU, Alabama, Arkansas, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Mississippi State are ahead of the Cats on the bowl pecking order. FYI: The SEC's ninth-place tie-in is the Papa John's Bowl in Birmingham.

Only this time the team Kentucky needs to upset down the stretch to make a bigger bowl is not Tennessee but Mississippi State.

The Bulldogs have won five straight games for the first time since 1999. They are bowl-eligible for the first time in three seasons. They have won five of their last six games in Starkville. They have the hottest young coach in the conference in Dan Mullen.

Is State beatable? Yes. UAB put a scare into Mullen's men before losing 29-24 Saturday night in Starkville. UK-MSU has been an even series over the last six years. Kentucky has won three, including the last game in Starkville, 14-13 in 2008. Mississippi State has won three, including last year in Lexington.

That was the game that dropped the Cats to 4-4. But last year was different. Florida had already wrapped up the division. UK was playing with a limited offense led by its second-string quarterback. This year, after eight weeks, there's no clear-cut favorite to win the East. Kentucky is 31st nationally in total offense.

Yet, again, the Cats are 4-4. A familiar 4-4.

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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