Sports

John Clay: Gators offer chance for program-defining win

No use whining.

No use complaining.

Kentucky football is 3-0, with the nation's 11th-best scoring offense, 13th-best total offense. The Cats have outscored their overmatched opponents 82-23 in the first half, 133-54 overall.

The reaction has been a wide national yawn.

When the two major college football Top 25s were released Monday, the only team in the nation that has not committed a single turnover picked up not a single vote.

You might expect a little more respect for a program that has been to four consecutive bowl games. You might expect a little more respect for a program that won on the road at Auburn and Georgia last year, that boasts a Randall Cobb, that competes in the SEC.

Yet, truth be told, where Kentucky football is concerned, the perception hasn't changed all that much. Good little program. Improving little program. Not a big-time program. Not yet.

The Cats' Saturday night matchup with ninth-ranked Florida in The Swamp offers the best explanation as to why, and the best opportunity for first-year head coach Joker Phillips to crystallize just what he's talking about with "Operation Win."

"What was the last word you said, 'Win?' " said Phillips when asked about it Wednesday. "It would be a heck of an operation. It would be mission accomplished."

After all, you can't truly stand tall when you are on the short end of a 23-game losing streak to the school that has played maybe the best football in the land over the past two decades.

You can't be a big-time program and have lost 41-7 the last time you played Florida, and 63-5 the last time you played Florida in Gainesville.

That's just one game, you say. What about the bowl trips, and the road wins, and the general impression that your program is on the climb?

Bowls? These days, who doesn't go to bowls? Idaho went to a bowl game in 2009. So did Middle Tennessee, Northern Illinois and Troy. Going to bowl games is an important step in any program's progression, no doubt, but it's not an exclusive step. Plus, there is a feeling Kentucky's post-season berths are as much a result of smart planning, i.e. fortuitous scheduling, and conference tie-ins as they are of persistent production.

Road wins? Those '09 triumphs in Athens and Auburn were sweet, no doubt. But both Georgia and Auburn finished 8-5 a year ago. Georgia was relegated to the Independence Bowl. Auburn dropped five of its last seven regular-season games. Despite those two victories, UK did no better in the league than 4-4.

This isn't meant to diminish Kentucky's accomplishments. UK football is in its best shape since the Bear Bryant days. Rich Brooks laid the foundation. Phillips has applied necessary tweaks. The Cats could be poised for a breakthrough.

But to a national audience, the Cats haven't really broken through. That 2007 win over No. 1-ranked and eventual national champ LSU could have ushered in a fundamental change, but the Cats followed with four losses in their next five games.

One of those losses was to Tennessee, then UK's 23rd straight to the Vols. Another was to Florida, then UK's 21st straight defeat.

It may not be fair that the general public overlooks a program's good work for the sake of one or two losses, but that's reality.

"We introduced ('Operation Win') because we want to take this program to the next level," Phillips said Wednesday. "We want to break some of those streaks that teams have against us. We want to beat some of those traditional powers, which we've already done. But there's a couple of those traditional powers that we haven't beaten in a long time. That's what 'Operation Win' means."

It's also what draws attention. No use whining. No use complaining. It comes down to doing. And winning.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader

  Comments