Rick MinterRandall cobbjoker phillipsMorgan Newton

Five reasons this bowl matters to UK

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJanuary 8, 2011 

Among the paying public, the BBVA Compass Bowl seems to have ginned up about as much enthusiasm as a mandatory tax seminar.

Meanwhile, the run-up to Saturday's bowl between Kentucky and Pittsburgh — a head coach forced out (Pitt); a starting quarterback and a cheerleader arrested (UK); a starting QB suspended (UK); a new head coach hired (Pitt); a new head coach arrested (Pitt); a new head coach fired (Pitt) — has been a hot mess.

Yet beneath the boredom and the chaos, there is a football game. This minor bowl has major significance on at least five fronts for the University of Kentucky football program.

1. Either a winner or a loser be

When you have as little modern history of success as UK football, anything positive you can build upon is vital. Win this game, Kentucky (6-6) will have had five straight winning seasons. UK hasn't managed that since Bear Bryant and Blanton Collier combined on a streak of 11 consecutive winning seasons from 1946-56. Lose this game, an important symbol of Kentucky's recent football uptick is gone.

2. No joke for Joker

With interim coach Phil Bennett now in charge for Pitt, the Panthers have had three head coaches (following the deposed Dave Wannstedt and the hired and fired Mike Haywood) since the bowl bids went out. The problem with this for Joker Phillips is, if UK beats a talented team that was a Big East Conference tri-champion, it is devalued by Pitt's coaching disarray. But if UK loses, it looks bad to fall to a program with so much coaching uncertainty.

3. Meet the new boss

After Kentucky's defense surrendered 400 yards or more in five of eight SEC games, Joker Phillips brought in former Cincinnati coach Rick Minter as co-defensive coordinator and gave him authority to call the defense over the incumbent coordinator, Steve Brown. If there is a marked improvement in the UK defense in the bowl, it builds momentum for Minter. If not, it confirms that lack of talent was Kentucky's prime defensive problem in 2010.

4. All about the future

Mike Hartline's suspension gives sophomore Morgan Newton a chance to stake a claim to the Kentucky starting quarterback job for 2011. A season ago, a Hartline injury allowed Newton to make eight starts as a true freshman. Though UK went 5-3, Newton struggled mightily, throwing for 100 yards or more only three times. On Saturday, look to see if Newton has improved his ability to read defenses and find secondary receivers when his primary target is covered.

5. All about the past?

This will be the final game in a Kentucky uniform for dynamic senior running Derrick Locke. It might also be the last game in Blue for NFL draft-eligible junior Randall Cobb. A first-team AP All-American this season as an all-purpose player, Cobb already holds the school record for career touchdowns (37 in 35 games) and has five game-winning, fourth-quarter TDs in his UK career.

If this is Cobb's last dance, a bowl victory would make the music so much sweeter.

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