John Clay: Youth will be served but Kentucky needs time to grow

Herald-leader.com columnistSeptember 1, 2011 

Once again, the adventure begins.

Kentucky's football season starts Thursday night, this time in Nashville, against Western Kentucky, in a poorly planned 9:15 work night game to be played out in a pro stadium that maybe, just maybe, if all goes well, will be half full.

Let's hope that's not an omen for the campaign to come.

But it could be.

Truth be told, UK football seasons of late haven't been so much adventures as formulaic good starts and fading finishes.

The over/under on the win total has been a consistent seven, with a second-tier bowl being the pull-tab prize. Those were fun at first, but after a while even the same old bowl games get old.

Now, following last year's BBVA Compass Bowl loss to a coach-less Pittsburgh, there is a sense of foreboding that this season could be more regression than rebuilding.

Some A-teamers are gone from last year, especially on offense. Randall Cobb. Derrick Locke. Chris Matthews. Mike Hartline.

I'm not worried about Morgan Newton, the starting quarterback. He can throw. The line will protect him. I'm more concerned about what happens when the ball leaves Newton's hands.

Second-year head coach Joker Phillips believes he has some potent young guns, and he won't hesitate to remove the bubble wrap.

On the one hand, age is nothing but a number. On the other, the Cats toil in an outrageously athletic league where just about every team has elite talent, some in droves. This isn't high school anymore.

Phillips isn't a waffler. He supplanted defensive coordinator Steve Brown by giving newcomer Rick Minter an equal title and decision-making responsibilities.

Brown's bend-don't-break approach has given way to Minter's real rock that really rocks. His defense will be aggressive, to a fault. There will be big plays, either way, turnovers and touchdowns. It should be fun to watch, but you might keep some antacids around, just in case.

The Cats should start 3-0. Louisville is too young to win in Commonwealth Stadium. Florida is at low tide on talent, but I doubt UK has the firepower to gig the Gators. That starts a predictable three-game conference skid.

Non-conference breather Jacksonville State is beatable, but no bunny — ask Ole Miss. Still, UK should be 4-3 entering the season's most important stretch.

Slap together back-to-back wins over visitors Mississippi State and Ole Miss on successive Saturdays and Phillips gets free meals all over town.

Right now, however, were I him I'd be saving my meal money. A loss to MSU and a win over the Rebels appears more likely.

Then Nov. 12 brings the campaign's most dangerous game, a trip to Vanderbilt.

New coach James Franklin has given the Commodores a booster shot of enthusiasm, giving this contest all the makings of a trap game. The weather is cold and back home basketball is heating up. Says here Vandy will pull the upset, leaving a deflated UK easy prey for Georgia and Tennessee.

Final record: 5-7.

No bowl.

Take heart, it won't be that bad.

By year's end, the freshmen will no longer be freshmen. A fresh batch of rookie reinforcements — better than even this year's class — will be on the way. Potential will begin translating into production. Promise will start yielding to performance.

Eventually, the disappointment with the present will give way to the hope for the future.

Look at it this way: A little pain now could lead to a more prosperous future.

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. Check out his Facebook page at www.facebook.com/johnclayhl. Follow him on Twitter at @johnclayiv.

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