BIRMINGHAM — The Kentucky football team tried to make two things clear after its first practice in Birmingham on Tuesday for the BBVA Compass Bowl matchup with Pitt on Saturday.
1. Despite public perception that they don't want to be there, the Cats say they're more than ready to lace them up one final time and finish with a winning record.
2. They're not overly concerned with all of the Panthers' off-the-field drama.
Nobody tried to hide the disappointment from UK's 6-6 regular season, and there may have been some apathy early on, but the players say now they're looking at the Compass Bowl as a last chance at salvation rather than a chore.
"It's game week," junior receiver Randall Cobb said. "We had some guys complaining early on, but now we're ready to take it on. We know the task at hand, and we're ready to go out and play."
"We're not satisfied with where we ended up, but hey, it's an opportunity to play another game," senior running back Derrick Locke said. "Most of the other players have either already started training or doing other stuff or sitting at home on their butts."
What frame of mind the Panthers will be in is anybody's guess. In the last month, head coach Dave Wannstedt resigned under pressure and was replaced by Mike Haywood, who was then fired after being arrested on domestic-violence charges. And Wannstedt just decided earlier this week that he wouldn't coach in the bowl game, leaving things in the hands of defensive coordinator Phil Bennett.
UK senior defensive tackle Ricky Lumpkin said he just shook his head as he watched all the news unfold.
"Honestly, I feel sorry for (Pitt's) players because that hurts," Lumpkin said. "You have a coach and he leaves, then you hire another one and he gets fired, and then you don't know who's coaching you in the bowl game. It's crazy. I feel for them for that. You get close to someone and then they go, and then you don't know who's coming in. It's a big mess. But that's the business of football."
Sympathy for the situation is one thing; sympathy on the field is another. Besides, the Cats expect Pitt to come out and lay it on the line Saturday.
"We expect those guys to be physical like they've always been, we expect them to run the football, and we expect them to play good defense," UK Coach Joker Phillips said.
"Football is football," Locke said. "Things happen. Look at us. We've been through it all. For us to think just because their head coach isn't coaching that they're not going to be Pitt, c'mon. They still have the same players, same schemes, and they're going to come out and play. It's football."
"We can't let that affect us; we've got to make sure we go out there and take care of business and do their jobs," Cobb said. "Whoever's out there coaching or whoever's playing, we've got to be focused and on top of our games."
The Cats will be one of the final six teams playing college football this season, and there will have been a six-week gap between the regular-season finale, a 24-14 loss at Tennessee, and the Compass Bowl. But while such a long layoff typically brings concerns of rust, Phillips thinks it's a good thing.
For one, several players nursing injuries have had extra time to get healthy.
"I don't know about everybody else, but I needed the time off," said Locke, who missed four games with a shoulder injury.
The Wildcats will have had 16 practices by the time kickoff rolls around, which has given the UK staff plenty of extra time to look at the youngsters on the roster.
"It's been like a spring practice," Phillips said. "I think our guys are definitely ready to play."