Sports

Kentucky's uphill battle

If the job of coaching football at UK can be likened to scaling a mountain, Rich Brooks has been able to maintain a base camp at mid-mountain longer than has been done in Lexington in years.

Yet No. 1 Florida coming to Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday is a reminder of just how much distance remains between UK football and the lofty peaks of the SEC East.

Under Brooks, Kentucky has made significant advances. After its come-from-ahead, then come-from-behind victory over Louisville, UK has won 22 of its last 34 games.

Included in that stretch are 11 victories in which Kentucky trailed or was tied in the fourth period.

After turnover-plagued UK spent the third quarter Saturday against Louisville firing a howitzer at its own collective foot, the Cats still found a way in the fourth period to avert what would have been a disastrous defeat.

"Things were not going our way," Brooks said Monday, "... but our players didn't hang their heads and go 'woe is me.' They rolled up their sleeves and went out and started playing some football."

Moral: For a football program that once seemingly held a patent on the fourth-quarter meltdown, a significant culture change has not just started, it's shown signs of enduring.

The victory over U of L ran Kentucky's streak of wins over non-conference foes to 16 games. It's easy to throw stones at a streak built on a steady diet of Norfolk State, Eastern Kentucky, Western Kentucky and Texas State (though, in fairness, it also includes three wins over Louisville and bowl victories against Clemson, Florida State and East Carolina).

But I wouldn't be too quick to pooh-pooh what Kentucky is doing. Having grown up in the 1970s, I have distinct memories of Kentucky losing home games to Miami (Ohio) in 1974 and '79.

As a UK student, I saw Bowling Green beat the Cats (1985). Since I've worked at the Herald-Leader, I've covered Kentucky losses to the school that is now Louisiana-Monroe (1994) and Ohio University (2004).

Moral: In its past, Kentucky often has not been able to routinely beat teams from lesser conferences. That it is doing so now is a sign of progress.

However, even with all its improvement since the midpoint of 2006, UK has yet to make any real strides within the SEC East. Versus East Division foes other than Vanderbilt, Brooks is 1-23 as Kentucky coach.

Against all other teams, he is 33-18. Even against all other SEC opponents, Brooks is a respectable 12-12 (with eight of those wins against Vandy and Mississippi State).

UK's inability to win against teams in its own division other than Vanderbilt hardly started with Brooks. So far this decade, Kentucky is 1-35 against Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee.

The sole win was the 2006 home-field upset of Georgia. Brooks sites that and the 2007 UK victory over eventual national champion LSU as planting the seeds of belief that Kentucky can vanquish SEC big boys.

"It's a lot easier to build mental belief when you've been there and done that," Brooks said. "None of the players on the team that I came in to coach had those kind of significant victories. In the last 31/2 years, we have. As infrequent, unfortunately, as they have been, we have had them."

A Florida with 11 defensive starters returning from a national championship team and one of college football's all-time greats at quarterback does not form a real likely opportunity for Kentucky to break out of its base camp this week.

In the long view, Florida, with its vast financial resources and abundant in-state recruiting base, might have more advantages than any college football program in the country. Georgia would be on the Top 10 of that list.

The most disappointing aspect during UK's recent football uptick has been the inability to break through against South Carolina or Tennessee.

Kentucky is on the verge of going a full decade without beating a South Carolina program that UK went 5-3 against in the 1990s.

As for Tennessee, the Cats physically whipped the Volunteers along both lines in 2006 but lost on the scoreboard. UK arguably had the better team in 2007 but fell to the Rocky Toppers, agonizingly, in four overtimes.

Moral: By Kentucky standards, the job Brooks has done as coach rates somewhere between good and very good. But to keep advancing the program, UK and its coach have to do some climbing on the SEC's Mount East.

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