Liberty Bowl no yawning matter

MEMPHIS — Here in the hometown of The King and Justin Timberlake, we find ourselves with quite the paradox.

Signs say that Kentucky's historically rare third straight bowl trip has not exactly captured the imagination of the Kingdom of the Blue.

I drove the six-and-a-half hours from Lexington to Memphis on Wednesday afternoon and saw exactly one car flying the blue K flag.

The previous two seasons, waves of blue flags — as many as 50,000 Kentucky fans each year — filled Nashville to see the Cats in the Music City Bowl.

The trek of the 2008 Wildcats to the AutoZone Liberty Bowl to face Conference USA champion East Carolina is being projected to draw "only" some 10,000-15,000 Cats fans.

"It seems obvious we are not going to fill the stadium with as much blue as we had the past two years in Nashville," Kentucky Coach Rich Brooks said Thursday. "I'm sure the fans we do have here will be very supportive."

In lean economic times, it's understandable why the cars are not exactly flying out of Kentucky to follow a 6-6 team that has lost six of its last eight games.

Yet there is an irony in the apparent UK fan disinterest.

In a college football world where perception is everything, the Kentucky football program has a ton riding on this bowl.

Before the year began, I thought the 2008 season would tell us whether UK football was — at long, long last — finally turning the proverbial corner.

Or whether the 16 wins from 2006-07 were only the product of one unique class (think Woodson, Woodyard, Burton et al.) of exceptional difference-makers.

After the full 2008 season, the verdict on that seems as clear as the London fog.

UK did make a third straight bowl for the first time since Bear Bryant lived in Lexington. The Cats did it in about the least impressive manner possible.

They finished 6-6.

They were last in the SEC East.

They failed to beat even one team that had a winning record.

However, with a win over East Carolina, UK will have beaten a 9-4 team that won its conference title.

They'll have a victory over a program that, in the past two seasons, has wins over North Carolina, Boise State, Virginia Tech and West Virginia.

Kentucky also would have a 7-6 record.

"It's just a heck of a lot of difference between 6-7 and 7-6," Brooks said. "It's a heck of a lot of difference between winning a bowl game and losing one. A win gets you a whole lot more exposure."

Playing without its three most potent offensive playmakers (the injured Dicky Lyons Jr., Derrick Locke and Randall Cobb), can the Cats — a justified underdog — do it?

They can if the Kentucky defense, beaten up and beaten down late in the season, has had time to regain its health and its swagger.

East Carolina, which scored 20 or fewer points four times in its final six games, is hardly an offensive juggernaut.

The UK defense that throttled Louisville in the season opener can shut down this team. Problem is, we didn't see much of that version of the Kentucky 'D' in the second half of the year.

Skip Holtz's Pirates live off a staunch defense and the turnovers they force (at least two TOs caused in 18 of ECU's last 22 games).

That puts quite the onus on Mike Hartline, who returns to the Kentucky starting quarterback job he lost after eight games (and five wins).

With highly touted high school QBs Ryan Mossakowski and Morgan Newton expected to sign with Kentucky next month, this game is Hartline's chance to stake a renewed claim on the UK starting job.

Said Brooks: "It is important, I think, that Mike does play well in this game to put himself in better position for the competition to come."

That same might as well be said for UK football itself.

Lose to East Carolina, and those who see the glass half-empty will cry Same Old Kentucky.

They will point out that, with a loss to East Carolina, UK would be 8-11 since the epic upset of eventual national champion LSU in the seventh game of 2007.

Beat the Pirates, and those who see the glass half-full can regain belief in New Kentucky.

They will note that UK would have won 23 games over a three-year stretch for the first time since 1976-78.

For Kentucky, it would just be so much better on so many fronts to be able to claim three straight winning seasons for the first time since 1954-56.

Which is why this game that seemingly has Kentucky fans yawning carries significant importance to UK football and its hopes for building something lasting.