UK Football

An SEC road win would be 'huge' for UK football

Kentucky freshman quarterback Jalen Whitlow (13) walked off the field after the Wildcats held up unexpectedly well against ranked Georgia last week.
Kentucky freshman quarterback Jalen Whitlow (13) walked off the field after the Wildcats held up unexpectedly well against ranked Georgia last week. Lexington Herald-Leader

After the throttling at Arkansas, Randy Sanders saw eyes cast downward, fixed on the ground, and he understood.

The Kentucky offensive coordinator had been in this place before, this place that felt somewhere like rock bottom.

When Sanders was a senior at Tennessee, his Volunteers team started the season 0-6.

So the coach told the players what he learned by being on that team: The only place to go is up.

That's what the Vols did in 1998, starting 0-6 but winning their final five games. And those losses helped teach them how to win, Sanders said.

In the next two seasons, Tennessee went a combined 22-3, won the Southeastern Conference twice as well as Sugar and Cotton bowls.

"Part of the story was to keep them working, keep them understanding that what we're doing is important," Sanders said. "But also to let them know we're not that bad of a football team; we've been dealt a lot of bad circumstances. Let's keep working and keep pushing and we'll see where this thing can take us."

The Cats are 1-7, winless in the conference and out of bowl contention, but they're hoping that this season's adversity can help propel them to wins in their final four games and provide some hope for the next couple of seasons.

None of Kentucky's final three SEC opponents, including Missouri (3-4, 0-4) on Saturday, have a winning record.

Kentucky appears to be getting healthy, likely getting freshman quarterback Patrick Towles back as well as some key defensive players like safety Martavius Neloms.

So the players are trying not to focus on the rock-bottom sensation and looking instead toward trying to get a win in the conference and finish out their season strong.

"We know that in these last four games we have good opportunities to win these games," senior Matt Smith said. "We've had a tough run here of playing all these ranked teams, really good SEC teams — not to say the SEC teams we have left aren't good, too — if we can get one, two, three, four of these next wins it will be huge."

The underclassmen are saying they want to win for the seniors like Smith.

Smith said the Cats want to win for other reasons, too.

"It will show the fans we're still working hard and that we want them to support us because we haven't given up yet and we're not going to," he said. "It would help these younger guys getting playing time if they won an SEC game. Then they can go into next year and know what it feels like to have that win."

Getting a victory on the road in the SEC would be especially good for confidence going forward, Cats Coach Joker Phillips said.

"It would be big for us as a young team, especially going on the road, SEC win," he said. "It would be huge for us in finishing this thing out. I think that would be big for us as we go forward."

Phillips said there are things to take from stories like Sanders' 1998 Volunteers team.

After a close loss to Georgia last weekend, Phillips said he sees a team gaining some momentum.

He sees a young group growing up before his eyes.

"We're battling our tails off to win," Phillips said. "Guys fighting, scratching for each other."

Sanders sees a team that has a brighter future if the players just look up.

"A lot of people ask: When you get to this point, what are you playing for?" the offensive coordinator said. "Obviously we still have a lot to play for. We have the pride of competing, the pride of trying to win. We want to send the seniors off right, but it's not just about the seniors. We've got young guys here that have put in a lot of work and I want to see them have success."

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