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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Swan Song

I've been putting it off for a couple of days but it is time for UK Football Fan's final post. We'll make this a double column, looking at UK's bowl game, then turning the focus over to the season as a whole and the direction of the Wildcat program. Update: I wrote most of this column last night then learned this morning that Randall Cobb is planning to enter the NFL Draft.

This past weekend I travelled down to Birmingham with my 7 year old son, who just may be the biggest seven-year-old football fanatic in the country. This kid will occasionally say things to me like, "he is locking in on one receiver, and not looking for someone who is open" or "if Boise State had beaten Nevada, Arkansas might not have gone to the Sugar Bowl". I swear.

We met up in Nashville with my cousin, who'd flown out from Denver. By 6pm we were in Birmingham. Having lived for several years in neighboring Tuscaloosa, the only thing I remembered about Birmingham was its paper mill, and the consequent rotton eggs smell eminating onto the highway every time we drove through. Birmingham wasn't too bad. Pretty typical southern mid-sized town. The "Magic City" went out of its way to make people feel welcome. At least the local bars and restaurants did, with welcoming signs and BBVA Compass Bowl branding everywhere. Streets were easily navigated. There were no crowds.

Unfortunaely, that is where the party ended. The Bowl experience itself could not have been more second rate. Legion Field is a pit. The parking lot had abandoned basketball courts in it, covered with gravel but with baskets still up. The stadium was in obvious disrepair (the opper deck on one side has been condemned and was torn down), concessions were out of the 70s and there was not a hint of modernity to any of the amenities.

The game itself was marred by nearly inaudible Referree-PA connection, no PA music whatsoever and of course a spartan crowd. By far the biggest problem, though, was a lack of instant replay in the stadium. For the first few minutes of the game, one end zone screen (tiny as it was) would show the ESPN feed while the other showed ads. Inexpicably, the two would switch on occasion, making it hard to know where to look. Late in the first quarter the ESPN feed went the way of the dodo, never to be seen again.

Of course all of this pissing and moaning on my part is hard to separate from the game itself. Given the stakes and the circumstances, this might have been the worst performance by a Kentucky team since we dropped one to Ohio back in 2004. Yeah, we got our asses kicked by Florida really bad a few times since then, but when is the last time your felt this let down by a Kentucky team? Basically six weeks to prepare and we showed up with no game plan, no fight and no ability to execute.

I owe an apology to Steve Ortmeyer. Maybe you weren't the problem all along. A fake handoff off of a fake punt. Really? Another blocked punt, a holding call on a return. The beat goes on and on. New defensive coordinator comes in. Does he not realize Pitt is going to try to run the ball down our throats? No game plan, no nothing. Just a putrid, sleepwalking performance. The biggest disappointment may have been only seeing Cobb touch the ball a handful of times in what is now said to be his last game.

Where does this leave us? At this point I think Joker has two years to move the program forward. Next year will have to be written off as a disaster. Without Matthews, Locke and presumably Cobb, the Cats will have fewer offensive weapons than in 2008, generally considered the low water mark on offense in the "New Kentucky" era. As for the triggerman, things look even bleaker. For all of Morgan Newton's merits, he is nothing like what was advertised coming in from high school. A supposed dual threat, Newton looks like he has trouble getting out of his own way while running. Never was that more apparent than on a crucial 4th and 1 in the 3rd where Newton appeared to count three Mississippi before running on a quarterback sneak when he literally needed to do nothing other than fall forward. That Ryan Mossakowski did not sniff the field in this game speaks volumes about where he must be as a quarterback. Nonetheless, the Cats need to have an open competition for QB1 next year because that person is going to have to carry the team. Sadly, whatever "it" is, Newton doesn't seem to have it.

The Defense should be somewhat improved, with Minter given a year to implement his schemes and added experience. Assuming Travathan and/or Winston Guy don't follow Cobb to the pros, we lose only Dequin Evans and Ricky Lumkin from the starting 11. The Cats will have to shore up their front 7 to have any chance to compete in the SEC next year. How they plan to do that with the talent on hand is anyone's guess.

All in all, I assume 2011 will be the year the bowl streak ends. The Louisville game will be a mighty challenge, and UK will probably be underdogs in 6-7 conference games (possible exceptions being @Vandy and a merciful home date with Ole Miss) . LSU joins the schedule and Auburn falls off, which as far as we're concerned is basically a wash. Six and six will be an accomplishment. I know this: No more BBVA Compass Bowls for UK Football Fan.

As you can tell from the tone here, I am not happy with the direction the program is going. The Cats looked like a poorly coached team a good portion of the year. Slow starts, silly penalties, guys (pun intended) way out of position in pass defense. When Steve Brown admitted that he didn't like to blitz because the team usually screwed it up, I knew something was wrong. Special teams remain a disaster, and we have two 4 star QBs entering their Junior years who aren't yet SEC starter calibur. Beyond coaching, I'm now convinced that UK is never going to devote the resources to the football program it needs to in order to be a top tier program. Part of that is lack of funding, part a lack of will, and part the albatross that is Kentucky Basketball. Finally, the loss of Cobb is a will zapping moment for this program. It isn't just the fact that he's leaving, it is that no one can come up with a decent reason why he shouldn't. (Parenthetically, I think this is Cobb's only move, he is doing the right thing, and I wish him nothing but the best)

So, am I giving up? Hell no. This is my team. I've spent some time over the last week thinking what it would be like to follow a good program that went to BCS Bowl, competed for conference championships and occasionally played for a national title. Could I just pick a team, say Texas, and decide that is my team? But we all know that isn't how this works. You have to come by these things orgaincally, and my love for UK Football is about as organic as it gets. I used to feel like there was something noble about following a team that you know is probably never going to get over the hump. But really it is a morally neutral thing to do. Sure, it is easier to root for a good team, but no one is forcing me not to. In fact, it is a kind of Zen. It just is.

As I've said, however, I am giving up UK Football Fan. My disappointment in this year is not a factor. The truth is, I have another writing project that has finally crystalized in my head. I didn't spend much time writing on the site this year, but whatever writing I do for fun is going to be put to what I hope will be better use over the next few months. Stay tuned. I'll maintain the UK Football Fan Facebook and Twitter accounts for occasional tidbits, but there will be no more columns. Thanks for reading.

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