UK Football

Mark Story: 'New Kentucky' or 'Same Old Kentucky?' Auburn will give us a read

Kentucky wide receiver Dorian Baker, left, Kentucky coach Mark Stoops and linebacker Josh Forrest left the field after an overtime win over Eastern Kentucky on Oct. 3.
Kentucky wide receiver Dorian Baker, left, Kentucky coach Mark Stoops and linebacker Josh Forrest left the field after an overtime win over Eastern Kentucky on Oct. 3. Herald-Leader

OK, so there's no Jon Gruden. None of the flourishes (duh-ta-duh-duhhhh) of the best introductory music in televised sports. No ghosts of Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell and "Dandy Don" Meredith in the broadcast booth.

We'll stipulate up front that ESPN's Thursday night college football does not have the cachet of the network's NFL Monday Night Football broadcasts.

It is, nevertheless, the closest thing college football has to MNF.

So when Auburn visits for the first Thursday night UK contest ever played in Commonwealth Stadium, it is a big platform for the Wildcats to show they are becoming more a "New Kentucky" and less the "Same Old Kentucky."

"You sell it to your guys (as) 'Everybody is watching, it's a chance for you to go out and make a statement,'" Kentucky offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. "I'm sure Auburn is saying the same thing (to its players)."

For UK (4-1, 2-1 SEC), even what has so far been a disappointing Auburn (3-2, 0-2 SEC) represents a big opportunity.

If Kentucky football is ever going to make real noise in the SEC, you have to be able to beat the more traditionally successful conference teams during their down years. That is especially true when you get them in Lexington.

When Florida and its then-28-game win streak against UK came to the new CWS last month, Kentucky had a chance at a "hey, nation, look at us" victory. The Cats fought hard but played tight offensively and instead took their 29th loss in a row to the Gators.

A lesson learned? This time, Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops says he likes how the Wildcats are handling the pre-game build-up to Thursday night football.

"There is a focus and energy," Stoops said Monday at his weekly news conference. "(But) I haven't seen anything above and beyond (normal excitement) and, quite honestly, I don't want (to see that). I want it to be a good workman's like approach all the time."

For its trip to Lexington, Auburn should be packing its suitcases with desperation.

Gus Malzahn's Tigers began the season ranked sixth in the country. Yet after opening with narrow wins over Louisville and Jacksonville State, Auburn was throttled at LSU, 45-13, and shut down by Mississippi State, 17-9.

If Malzahn and Auburn don't win here, there is a viable chance they will not win an SEC game this season.

Malzahn was the offensive coordinator when Gene Chizik coached Auburn to the BCS national title after the 2010 season. Two years after Chizik held up the crystal football BCS championship trophy, he was fired after a 3-9 season in 2012.

It cannot be lost on Malzahn that they do not deal real well at Auburn with hugely disappointing football seasons.

Job one for UK on Thursday night: Match what should be a zealous urgency from the Tigers.

Now, this being Kentucky football, there are a few negative streaks on the line for the Cats to break against Auburn.

Kentucky has never beaten the Tigers in Commonwealth Stadium (0-6 in a venue that opened in 1973) and has not beaten Auburn in Lexington since 1966.

UK is 1-11 in its last 12 games against SEC West foes and has not won against an inter-division opponent since beating Mississippi in 2011.

The Wildcats won in their first-ever ESPN Thursday night appearance, beating South Carolina 21-17 in Columbia in 1993 in "the Randy Wyatt game." However, UK has gone 0-5 since in Thursday night contests vs. SEC foes (the Cats did beat Western Kentucky on a Thursday night in Nashville to open the 2011 season).

That frustrating 14-9 loss to Florida notwithstanding, the good news is that the Cats have some good streak-busting mojo working.

UK has already ended a 21-game losing skid in true road games with its victory at South Carolina; beaten Missouri for the first time since Mizzou came into the SEC in 2012; and snapped a six-game losing streak against in-state foes with that furious rally to nip Eastern Kentucky.

Now, playing Auburn in front of God, Mack Brown and an ESPN Thursday night national audience gives UK a chance to use one of the largest media platforms in college football to advertise that there truly is a new day dawning at Kentucky.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader