John Clay: UK must say no to neutral-site, non-conference games

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistSeptember 4, 2011 

University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto, left, talked with Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart during UK's game against Western Ketnucky University at LP Field in Nashville.

MARK CORNELISON | STAFF

There was word that on the pre-game radio show Thursday night, Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart said Lucas Oil Stadium had approached UK about playing a Mid-American Conference school in Indianapolis next season.

Stop.

Don't do it.

Put down the phone and walk away.

Wasn't that Thursday night debacle enough to make you forsake non-conference neutral-site games for the rest of your administrative career?

SEC teams don't play in front of a measly 24,599 on a Thursday night in a 70,000-seat stadium three-and-a-half hours from your own campus against a lower-level Sun Belt Conference football team.

It looks bad.

It's poor form.

It just isn't done.

Somewhere Thursday night, Mike Slive flipped over from 30 Rock, landed upon ESPNU and the Cats and Western Kentucky, and surely the SEC commissioner peered up from his bifocals and frowned.

(But then you could argue that SEC teams don't have just 75 yards of total offense after three quarters against that same lower-level Sun Belt Conference team that has won two games in the past two seasons.)

No longer can Kentucky fans poke fun at Louisville for playing every weekday night just for the sake of exposure and a cashed check.

By my crack research, Thursday marked the fewest people to watch a Kentucky football game since 1995, Bill Curry's next-to-last season, when 25,231 was the listed attendance for a UK-Cincinnati game at Commonwealth Stadium.

In UK football history, any time you are compared to something that happened in the Curry Era, that's not good.

And the Cats were not good on Thursday. They hit the field flat, and you just have to wonder if that had to do with the lack of fans in the stands.

You could almost read the players' minds: "We went through two-a-days for this?"

Oh well, UK officials say, we didn't know that Tennessee State had first preference on LP Field and that TSU had scheduled a Saturday afternoon game. When we signed the contract, we didn't know we'd have to play on a Thursday night at 9:15.

Well, it's your job to know. That's why you get the big bucks and the nine-year contract extension.

That's why you're in the SEC, for BCS sake.

And isn't that what we heard all pre-season, how the Cats now had more players that "look like SEC players," that competing for an "SEC championship" was Joker Phillips' goal?

We might want to dial back those expectations.

It was just one game. (A winning game, Joker would point out.) And it was the first game. Strange things can happen in a first game. UK beat Louisville to start the 1994 season, then lost the next 10. Kentucky was blitzed 59-28 by the Cards to start the 2006 season, then continued on to its first bowl berth in seven years.

Ah, but even a Mr. Positive might have been discouraged by UK's performance on Thursday. Morgan Newton once lost his balance on a pass drop and fell flat on his back. Receivers dropped balls. There were delay-of-game penalties. All flashbacks to a year ago.

The biggest red flag was the offensive line. True, the starters missed considerable practice time during training camp. But the O-Line was to be UK's strength. If it can't block Western, how will it block Florida, or South Carolina, or (my gosh) LSU?

For the most part, the defense played well, but let's be honest. If Western Kentucky had a viable passing attack, the Cats would have been in a world of hurt on Thursday night.

Thank goodness there were only 24,599 there to see it.

Let's not do that again, OK?

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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