It's almost a weekly ritual. Ask a University of Kentucky football coach or player if the upcoming game is a big game, and you'll get the standard response.
Every week is a big game. They're all big games. This is the SEC. Blah, blah, blah.
Coach Joker Phillips' wife, Leslie, is even tired of hearing it.
When asked about Saturday night's game with Georgia, UK Coach Joker Phillips said, "Every game's big. We can start off the press conference (every) Monday saying it: Another big game. I went home the other night and said to my wife, 'This is a big game.' She said, 'I wish you'd come one night and say it's a small game.' It's not going to happen when you're playing in this league."
In fairness, the coaches and players have a point. The Cats have faced seemingly make-or-break situations for the past month. After consecutive losses to Florida, Mississippi and Auburn, many fans and experts were ready to pull the plug.
But UK got a major resuscitation job thanks to a 31-28 win over then-No. 10 South Carolina last week. Though they'd likely have to run the table, the Wildcats can conceivably win the SEC East. It's been a long time since Kentucky could say that in late October.
The 2006 team finished in a tie for third in the East but won three of its last four games to climb out of the bottom half. The 2007 team, regarded as the best of the Rich Brooks era, was 2-1 in league play after beating then-No. 1 LSU on Oct. 13. But a 45-37 loss to Florida the following week started a downward spiral that saw the Cats drop four of their last five SEC contests.
You have to go back to 1993 to find a UK team that still held out hope at this point of the season. That team, Bill Curry's fourth at Kentucky, got off to 3-1 SEC start, the lone loss a 24-20 heartbreaker to Florida. But they lost three of their last four games and finished in a tie for third.
The SEC East is as wide open as it's ever been, with all six teams mathematically in contention. If Vanderbilt wins at South Carolina on Saturday, the Commodores, who got wiped out 43-0 at Georgia last week, would sit alone atop the division. Now that the Cats can see some light at the end of the tunnel, defensive tackle Ricky Lumpkin said it's important not to backslide.
"This game is loser go home," he said. "This is a huge step for the program to show that we can win these games and keep going forward not backwards."
"Right now we control our destiny," junior receiver Randall Cobb said. "We've just got to try and put ourselves in the best position we can to fulfill our dreams. It's a very big game, and we've got to go out there and play like it. But we've also got to stay loose. If you start playing tight and start stressing too much, you don't play as well. We've got to stay calm, execute, and do our jobs."
Phillips hasn't shied away from talking about the possibility of winning the East, and he doesn't mind his players talking or thinking it, either.
"Some places it may not need to be talked about," Phillips said. "Here, I think it needs to be talked about. We've been in the race before, and we've talked about staying in it longer. We're still in it. Hopefully we can still be talking like this next week."
Phillips said the more it's talked about, the more realistic it can become in the players' minds."
"A lot of people outside don't think that we have a chance," Phillips said. "But I want our group to know that we do."
Saturday, October 23, 2010 Lexington Herald-Leader | kentucky.com