Mark Story: Last three games pivotal to judging Joker's season

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistNovember 5, 2010 

Kentucky Coach Joker Phillips argued a call with an official during the loss to Georgia on Oct. 23.

MARK CORNELISON | STAFF

In what has often seemed a disjointed Kentucky football season, we have now arrived at the fan apathy part of the schedule.

No one is likely to get stoked over impending home dates with Charleston Southern of the FCS and Vanderbilt of the RSP (real students playing).

Yet, odd as this will sound, those two matchups along with UK's season-ending trip to struggling Tennessee are three of the biggest games Joker Phillips will ever coach as Kentucky's head man.

The reason is simple: The ultimate verdict on Joker's first season is still to be rendered. With UK sitting at 4-5, anything less than winning out means the season will represent a step back from last year's seven-win regular season.

We're going to learn a lot about Phillips as a head coach in these final three games.

Can he get a team that has lost five of its last six games to play with fire in matchups against undermanned Charleston Southern and perennial SEC cellar dweller Vandy?

In some ways, these are the most challenging kinds of games for a coach. If UK wins, no one is going to get excited, even though the two victories would make the Cats bowl eligible.

But should the Cats lose either matchup — and Vanderbilt is never a cinch for Kentucky — it is disastrous.

It will also be interesting to see if Kentucky shows improvement in these final games of Phillips' first season.

In its five SEC losses, UK has surrendered 37 or more points four times.

That Kentucky's defense is so porous is hardly a shock. With the massive loss of personnel off that side of the ball over the past two seasons, it didn't exactly take Sean Payton's football smarts to know that UK was apt to struggle in stopping teams in 2010.

Yet for my money, the most disappointing part of the Kentucky season so far has been the UK offense.

A veteran unit with proven playmakers, the Kentucky 'O' has put points on the board. But in three of this season's SEC "swing games" — at Mississippi; Georgia; and at Mississippi State — UK has combined to commit a whopping 11 turnovers.

Rather than taking control of games early with its strongest unit, Kentucky has seen its offense dig Grand Canyon-sized holes early in "winnable games" with the repeated miscues.

If the Cats are going to win out, Phillips has to get that cleaned up.

Waiting at the end of the UK schedule is the weakest Tennessee team Kentucky has faced during the embarrassing 25-game losing streak the Cats have compiled against the Vols.

Derek Dooley's team is 0-5 in the SEC and 2-6 overall with its only wins over Tennessee-Martin and UAB — and the latter was a game in which UT was outplayed but escaped.

Yet to the credit of the first-year Volunteers head coach, Tennessee seems to be competing with vigor. True freshman quarterback Tyler Bray was impressive in a spirited loss to South Carolina and has supplanted former Louisville QB Matt Simms as the Volunteers starter for this week.

After surviving a brutal stretch of games with Oregon, Florida, LSU, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina, UT's schedule lightens dramatically down the stretch.

The Volunteers' next three contests are at Memphis, home with Mississippi and at Vanderbilt. It is entirely possible that Tennessee will be playing for bowl eligibility when the Cats come to Knoxville on Nov. 27.

So any thought that UK will be catching a dispirited UT just looking to get the season over isn't likely.

For a variety of reasons, Phillips didn't get the normal honeymoon period that usually accompanies new head coaches.

As a result, the prevailing narrative after his first season leading the Wildcats is unusually vital to his eventual fate as Kentucky head coach.

If the Cats win the final three, it would mean UK had recorded a fifth straight winning season. It would almost certainly mean Kentucky had earned a fifth straight bowl bid.

It would mean that Phillips' first season featured wins over the three foes that the Kingdom of the Blue most wanted to beat — Louisville, Steve Spurrier and the Rocky Toppers.

Most importantly for the forward momentum of the Kentucky football program, it would mean Joker's maiden voyage as UK head man would be judged a success by fair-minded observers.

Which is why, for Joker, these next three are huge.

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