Memphis Blue? Fans' traveling band put to test

John Clay
John Clay

A bowl game is supposed to be a reward for a college football team that has earned a successful season and to the fan base that has supported that team through its successful season.

But for the Big Blue Nation, this college bowl season might not be so much of a reward as it is a test.

Yes, a test.

The Nation has a reputation to uphold. A sterling reputation.

The Nation is known as travelers, and in the college sports lexicon, and the post-season bowl lexicon, there are few more important reputations to possess. Kentucky fans will travel. That's the feeling. Here, there and everywhere, that's where the Big Blue Nation will go to follow its beloved Cats.

But with Kentucky coming off a 6-6 season, and this being the Cats' third straight bowl game, will Memphis and the Liberty Bowl and a game against Conference-USA champion East Carolina be enough to coax the Nation to slap the K-flags atop the SUV and caravan to Beale Street?

"I don't think our fans are any less passionate about Kentucky football," said UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart on Sunday. "I think they'll follow us. I don't know what the numbers will look like. I hope it will be really strong, as it has been in the past."

There is cause for concern. Barnhart admitted yesterday that the "approximately 7,000 pre-orders" the school has received from its season ticket-holders is a little bit behind last year, though he said he feels confident the number will grow.

"These are different circumstances," said the AD. "We understand that."

First, there's the debate about whether a 6-6 team deserves the reward of a bowl game in the first place. (That's no debate in Barnhart's mind.) But these days, with a zillion bowl games, "deserve" is a relative term. Used to be there were deserving teams left out of bowl games. Now, most everyone deserves a bowl game.

There's the issue of location. You can understand why the Cats were not keen about heading back to Nashville and the Music City Bowl for a third year in a row. And Memphis is a fun place to visit, a new place to visit. But it is also about three hours farther down the road than Nashville, at least if you live in Lexington.

And in these tough economic times, it's fair to wonder if the Nation will bear the extra post-holiday expense of motoring on down to Memphis.

There is also the opponent. East Carolina has wins over Virginia Tech and West Virginia. But it's not Clemson, UK's opponent and victim in the 2007 Music City Bowl, or traditional power Florida State, the Cats' opponent and victim last year. Beating an ACC team is one thing. A C-USA team — Louisville's old conference — isn't quite the same draw.

Last, but not least, is the way the Cats finished out the year. This Kentucky team was young, and it did suffer injuries, but it also wound up last in the SEC East. It did not beat a team with a winning record. Its two victories in conference play were one-point victories over arguably the two lesser teams (Arkansas and Mississippi State) in the league.

"We also had four losses inside 21 points," Barnhart pointed out.

Final two games, however, it finished with a whimper, losing to Vanderbilt at home, then turning up punchless at Tennessee in a 28-10 loss to the 5-7 Volunteers.

"Clearly our offense down the stretch wasn't as exciting as last year's offense. And the economy is a struggle," Barnhart said. "(But) I think (our fans) are appreciative. You saw the reception the kids got today when they went out there (to be introduced at the basketball game). I think that bodes well for what our fans think of these guys and the effort they've given."

Yes, the Nation loves to travel and it loves its Cats.

How much?

We're about to find out.

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