The University of Kentucky football team had talked all season about getting out of the state of Tennessee for a bowl, but this probably wasn't what the Cats had in mind.
A season of near-misses and lost opportunities has the Wildcats settling for the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, Ala., on Jan. 8, where they will face Big East representative Pittsburgh.
It's been a rough couple of weeks for the UK program. The Cats suffered a 26th straight loss to Tennessee to end the regular season and then had to deal with a pair of potential transfers. But the Wildcat players insist they're ready for the trip to Birmingham.
"Everybody's excited," said senior defensive tackle Ricky Lumpkin. "It's not where we want to be, because the season didn't go the way we wanted. There's a lot of opportunities we missed out on, and that's what more people are down about is what could have been. It's our fault. It's no one else's fault. Nobody's mad about the bowl. We're more mad about the things we didn't do this season."
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"(Tennessee) is going to be a loss that's tough to get over," said junior offensive lineman Stuart Hines. "It'll linger for a while. But what we've got to do now is put that behind us and get excited to be playing in this bowl game. We need to come out and play our best and come out with a win."
Coach Joker Phillips and the players spent much of Monday's press conference going through the positives of the BBVA Compass Bowl.
1. Exposure. The BBVA Compass Bowl will be played Jan. 8, which is after most of the bowl games. Nevada and Boston College will play in the Fight Hunger Bowl on Jan. 9, with the BCS Championship Game on Jan. 10. The Cats said the later date will put them in the spotlight.
"People are going to watch it," Lumpkin said.
2. Home for the holidays: The date will also allow the players to spend Christmas at home. The team will practice through Dec. 22, and the players won't have to be back in Lexington until either Dec. 28 or Dec. 29. "This will be the first time since I've been here that I'll get to spend Christmas with my family," Lumpkin said. "The past couple of years we've practiced on Christmas Day. No one really knew it was Christmas. It's one of the best things about the bowl."
3. Prestige: The Panthers have had a disappointing season, but their name and history carry weight. Coach Dave Wannstedt's club also has an abundance of potential NFL talent.
The game will also allow Phillips to put a positive finishing touch on his first year as head coach. Phillips said he talked with Houston Coach Mike Sumlin about his first year on the job and learned some valuable lessons, including how to manage potential player defections. Three Wildcats (Randall Cobb, Danny Trevathan and Winston Guy) might enter the NFL Draft a year early. Phillips said Sunday running back Donald Russell will transfer, and freshman tackle Elliott Porter is considering leaving.
Phillips said he's tried to convince Russell and Porter to stay.
"You have to turn on the sales pitch again," Phillips said. "Everybody that considered leaving, we want them to stay. Not only are they good kids, but they have a chance to be good football players here."
Phillips also said he'll continue to evaluate his coaching staff and overall recruiting, something that is much different as the head man than it was as an assistant.
"It used to be you'd have opinions or ideas, and some would get used and some would get shot down," Phillips said. "Now I've got to make those decisions and be held accountable for them. It's a lot different than being in the other chair."
Phillips plans on using those lessons to move the program forward. He pointed out that the teams in last year's BBVA Compass Bowl, UConn and South Carolina, moved on to bigger and better things this season. The Gamecocks made it to the SEC Championship Game, and the Huskies won the Big East's automatic BCS bid.
"Next year or period, we don't want to be just going to bowl games," Phillips said. "We want to fight for titles. We do. The sixth straight bowl game, I want to be fighting for a title, where that's not an issue, where you're not talking about a sixth straight bowl game, you're talking about a title."
Two to miss bowl game
Starting left tackle Chandler Burden and reserve defensive end Tristian Johnson will miss the bowl game with shoulder injuries that require surgery. Phillips said junior Billy Joe Murphy will start in Burden's place.