John Clay

John Clay: UK's bowl game means a lot

Louisville Coach Charlie Strong, left, and Kentucky Coach Joker Phillips
Louisville Coach Charlie Strong, left, and Kentucky Coach Joker Phillips

Suddenly, for Kentucky, this bowl game is important.

It's not a top-shelf bowl. Let's make that clear from the start. The BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, where Kentucky will play Pittsburgh on Jan. 8, is a bottom-shelf bowl, the one you have to kneel down and reach way into the back of the cupboard to pull out.

In fact, it's the No. 9 bowl on the SEC's list of nine automatic tie-ins to bowls.

Thank goodness the league squeezed two clubs into BCS Bowls. Without Auburn reaching the BCS title game, and Arkansas being tabbed for the Cotton Bowl, Kentucky would have been scrambling around for an open spot as a substitute fill-in somewhere.

Instead, the Cats are headed to Legion Field a week after New Year's with two significant reasons for wanting to finish the season with a victory.

Reason No. 1: UK's record.

Reason No. 2: U of L's record.

This is the Kentucky's fifth straight bowl bid, but that doesn't guarantee its fifth straight winning season.

Joker Phillips' first team sits 6-6 after the regular season-ending loss at Tennessee. And as much as the Cats like to point out their new string of bowl trips, they own a string of four consecutive winning seasons as well, something that hasn't been done at the school since 1953-56.

A loss to Pittsburgh drops the Cats to 6-7, snapping the streak. It would mean UK's first losing campaign since Rich Brooks went 3-8 in 2005, the year before the former coach started seeing some fruits of his labor.

So while this has been a disappointing one, with the Cats failing to take advantage of Florida, Tennessee and Georgia's slide back to the divisional pack, and failing to end that now 26-year losing streak to Tennessee, Phillips and Co. could rub salve into their wounds by beating Pitt to keep the season win streak alive.

And then there is the conference in which Pittsburgh plays football.

It's the same conference in which Louisville plays football.

The Big East.

After UK's Phillips and U of L's Charlie Strong finished their initial seasons as college head coaches with identical 6-6 records, a predictable mini-debate has emerged concerning which commonwealth coach forged the better first campaign.

Under Phillips, Kentucky rallied from a 28-10 halftime deficit to beat SEC East champ South Carolina, and the Cats did go down to the game's final play with conference champ and BCS finalist Auburn, before losing 37-34.

Under Strong, Louisville improved from 4-8 last season to 6-6 this year. The Cards earned their first bowl appearance since 2006. If they beat Southern Miss in the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl, they will have clinched their first winning season since '06.

Most in college football believe the new U of L coach breathed new life into a program that had suffered through three struggling seasons under Strong's predecessor, Steve Kragthorpe.

Yet, UK's counter argument has been that much of Strong's success was attained against an abysmal Big East, a league so bad its conference champ, Connecticut, didn't really deserve a BCS Bowl.

In fact, for many years, and especially this year, the Big Blue Nation has insisted the Cards couldn't cut it in the Big Boy SEC, while the Cats would certainly thrive in Louisville's lesser league.

Birmingham provides the chance to walk the talk.

After all, back on Oct. 30, Pittsburgh ventured into Papa John's and placed a 20-3 tattoo on Strong's squad. Now, the Cats get the Panthers in Birmingham, with a winning season and a summer full of Cardinal baiting hanging in the balance.

Not bad for a bottom-shelf bowl.

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