John Clay: Where do Cats go from here?

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistSeptember 23, 2012 

A third of the way into the season, Coach Joker Phillips’ Kentucky football team has a 1-3 record.

DAVID MANNING

  • Tennessee at Kentucky

    When: 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 30

    TV: ESPNU

    Records: Kentucky 2-9 (0-7 SEC); Tennessee 4-7 (1-6)

To be sure, the outlook isn't rosy.

There may be vast spaces of empty bleachers this Saturday when Kentucky returns to Commonwealth Stadium, but in reality the walls are closing in on a team with one victory to show for the first third of a 12-game season.

Ah, but anyone with a Qwerty keyboard and a Twitter handle can be negative.

So forget Saturday's 38-0 loss at Florida. History suggests Kentucky could not have beaten Florida with Peyton Manning at quarterback — even at Tennessee, he never beat the Gators, either — much less backup Morgan Newton running an offense built around injured starter Maxwell Smith.

Rather than send their ailing David to fight in The Swamp, the UK decided to save Smith's slingshot for future Goliaths. Smart strategy? Absolutely.

So let's take a deep breath and survey the narrow path ahead.

South Carolina: Ugh. Steve Spurrier has the Gamecocks hitting on all cylinders and that isn't likely to end Saturday. The Old Ball Coach tasted defeat his last trip to the Bluegrass and Spurrier owns a long memory.

Mississippi State: The Bulldogs are ranked, unbeaten and own a convincing 28-10 win over Auburn. On the flip side, Dan Mullen's team must come to Commonwealth and Auburn's not that good this year, anyway.

At Arkansas: Bobby Petrino didn't just wreck his motorcycle when he took his ex-mistress for an ill-fated summer ride, he wrecked the entire Razorbacks program.

Saturday's home loss to Rutgers was one more horrifying headline for the Hogs. Interim coach John L. Smith is apparently experiencing "instant karma" after bailing on Weber State to return to Fayetteville. Can you fire an "interim" coach?

Georgia: Ugh. Better yet, UGA. The Dogs were dominating in a 48-3 pounding of Vanderbilt. Mark Richt's team does come to Lexington, but unlike real estate, location isn't likely to matter.

At Missouri: So, Mizzou, how do you like your new neighbors so far? The SEC welcome wagon flattened the Tigers with a pair of 21-point losses — Georgia 41-20 and South Carolina 31-10. As the Rams' Steven Jackson told the Redskins' Robert Griffin III, "This ain't the Big 12."

Vanderbilt: Give James Franklin credit. For one season he got people to forget he was coaching at Vanderbilt. Trouble is, Franklin is now in his second year. The Commodores are 1-3 after a 45-point drubbing in Athens, and Franklin's star is losing its twinkle.

Samford: If Kentucky can't beat Samford, well, you know the rest.

At Tennessee: Knoxville buzzed after the Vols outscored North Carolina State and battered Bill Curry and Georgia State. Then Florida came to town. Bye-bye buzz.

Terry Bowden and Akron, crushed by Central Florida, went toe-to-toe with Tennessee for three quarters Saturday before Derek Dooley saved himself the embarrassment of being pink-slipped pre-October.

That's right, it's still September, but a lot has changed. Arkansas has gone from national title contender to full-on mess. Missouri has gone from optimistic newcomer to this-might-be-harder-than-we-thought. Vanderbilt has gone from new-and-improved to same old Vanderbilt. Tennessee has gone from revival to survival.

See, there are always others out there hurting.

The trick for Kentucky is to somehow turn those dark clouds into rays of light. A healthy Max Smith back behind center would be a good start. A young defense that matures enough to hold its own against the run would be preferable, as well.

There's still time, two-thirds of the season to go. The path to a turnaround is narrow, to be sure, but there's still a path.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com

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