John Clay

Kentucky should clinch a bowl game this Saturday. Are you excited?

Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops and athletics director Mitch Barnhart walk off the field after Tennessee defeated Kentucky 49-36 on Saturday November 12, 2016 in Knoxville,TN.
Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops and athletics director Mitch Barnhart walk off the field after Tennessee defeated Kentucky 49-36 on Saturday November 12, 2016 in Knoxville,TN. Lexington Herald-Leader

Austin Peay, Kentucky football’s opponent this Saturday, has emerged victorious in just one football game over the past four years. One. The Governors were 0-12 in 2013; 1-11 in 2014; 0-11 last year and are 0-10 this season after losing 67-30 to Eastern Kentucky last Saturday.

In other words, with five victories already under its belt, Kentucky is all but a lead-pipe cinch to record its sixth Saturday and become bowl-eligible for the first time since 2010.

Here’s the question: Will you be excited about it?

Let’s say Kentucky loses at Louisville in the season finale on Nov. 26. Will the school’s first bowl bid in six seasons be enough for you to travel to Charlotte or Memphis or Nashville or even Shreveport? Is a 6-6 record inspiration enough for you to open your wallet and buy tickets and book a hotel? Have there been enough gains this season for you to be motivated by the prospect of an extra game?

For a program that has made “finish” the hashtag of its season, a lot will depend on how the Cats finish these final two games.

They failed to finish in a 49-36 loss Saturday at Tennessee. On four possessions, UK reached the red zone and failed to score a touchdown. You’ve probably heard the stat. According to ESPN Stats and Info, Kentucky was the 30th FBS team this season to rush for at least 400 yards in a game, but the first to lose.

Nor could the Cats finish the week before, when Georgia kicked a 25-yard field goal on the final play to beat Kentucky 27-24 at Commonwealth Stadium. The series before, the Cats were first-and-goal at the Bulldogs’ 9--yard line only to settle for a field goal when a touchdown would have all but sealed the victory, or at least made Georgia’s task much more difficult.

A win over hapless Austin Peay and a loss at Papa John’s would mean the Cats closed the campaign with three losses in their final four games. They would be the fourth Kentucky team since 1993 to go bowling by meeting the minimum requirements — the 1993 Peach Bowl team was 6-5; the 1999 Music City Bowl team was 6-5; the 2008 Liberty Bowl team was 6-6; Joker Phillips’ 2010 BBVA Compass team was 6-6.

This isn’t to undercut Kentucky’s 2016 accomplishments. Mark Stoops won four SEC games his first three seasons as the UK coach. His team has won four this season. UK hadn’t won four conference games in the same year since 2006. It hadn’t won three consecutive conference games since that same 2006 season.

And yet, there are reasons to believe that the Big Blue Nation hasn’t completely bought into the improvement. Home attendance has been a problem. The Georgia game has been the only announced sellout of the season, and a strong promotional campaign contributed to that effort.

Before that, UK drew just 51,702 for its win over South Carolina; only 50,414 for the thrilling last-minute win over Mississippi State. And Saturday’s performance in Knoxville, on  the heels of the Georgia loss, won’t boost ticket sales for UK-Austin Peay this week, even if it is Senior Day.

Given the level of competition, Saturday should be merely a compulsory exercise for the Cats. Louisville will be the game that matters. Kentucky doesn’t necessarily need to upset its arch-rival to get the fan base pumped for a bowl game, but it does need to make a strong showing, one that gives the regular season a strong finish.

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