Kentucky's 41-7 loss to Florida on Saturday night showed that the Wildcats weren't quite ready to stomp with the big dogs.
On paper, a date with Rich Brooks' favorite fictional school, the Squawhaukee Canyon Institute of Technology, would seem ideal for the Wildcats to get back their mojo.
But instead, UK draws No. 3 Alabama, a team perceived by some to be playing as well or better than the top-ranked, defending national champion Gators. The two are the highest-ranked opponents Kentucky has faced consecutively in school history.
That's just fine with the Kentucky players, who would rather try to regain some credibility against a team like Bama than pound on a cream puff. Defensive tackle Ricky Lumpkin said UK needs a good showing to keep Wildcat fans from jumping off the bandwagon.
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"We don't want to lose our fan support; we want to keep our fans in it," Lumpkin said. "Our fans, we love them, they love us. But there's time where people might think 'Uh-oh, here comes the old Kentucky' after a game like that, and we don't want anybody to think that. We keep talking about competing, but we've got to show it and stop losing to the same teams over and over again. We have to change that starting this week against Alabama."
"We just took (the crowd) out of the game in the first quarter," sophomore offensive guard Stuart Hines said. "We didn't give them anything to cheer about, really. We're not that bad of a team. We're not a team that should get killed like that. We've gotten better, and we need to go out there and show it."
The numbers suggest the Crimson Tide are at least on par with the Gators. Nick Saban's squad is first in the SEC in total defense (202.5) and third in total offense (490.5). Quarterback Greg McElroy leads all SEC starters in pass efficiency and, like Florida, the Tide has a deep stable of skill people to get the ball to. And Bama has played a tougher schedule than Florida: the Crimson Tide had their way with No. 6 Virginia Tech in the season opener and spanked Arkansas 35-7 last week.
The only real difference between Florida and Alabama is how they go about their dominance. While Florida spreads you out and uses speed and misdirection, the Tide come right at you with a smash-mouth running game to set up the play-action pass. Brooks was dismissive of the polls and wouldn't speculate as to which team was better. But he did say Alabama "is as good as Florida in a different way."
"They're not any worse; I think you saw that last week and the week before," Brooks said. "As for who's the best team in country, it's a little early to tell. It's hard enough to tell at end of the year. (Alabama) is a totally different offense, but it's one of the best offenses in the league. They have no weaknesses. They could be No. 1 when all is said and done."
Unlike Florida, the Cats can at least take solace in the fact that they were competitive with Alabama last year. Kentucky fell behind 14-0 in the first quarter at Tuscaloosa and was outgained 388-276, but it hung in thanks to three Alabama turnovers and a couple of missed field goals. But Brooks isn't hanging his hat on that narrow 17-14 final margin going into this week's matchup.
"What we did last year has very little bearing on what we do this year," Brooks said. "The fact there are players here who have experienced big wins is a positive. The fact that we've played certain teams better than others is a positive. But we have to go out and play 60 minutes. The bottom line is there's not many games since I've been here where we have played a full 60 minutes of really good football. That's what it's going to take to play a team like Alabama."
Brooks is clearly anxious to get the bitter taste of the Florida game out of his mouth. He ranked it one of the most disappointing of his lengthy coaching career.
"Not the loss, but the first 15 minutes," Brooks said. "We're a much better football team that that. I thought we were past that kind of crap, but we're still not past it. I've got better players than to have that happen."
UK-South Carolina at 12:30
The Kentucky at South Carolina game on Oct. 10 has been selected for live telecast on Fox Sports South. Game time is 12:30 p.m.