Let’s play a little of good news and bad news this week:
Good news — UK as expected now has a credible and productive starting quarterback in Maxwell Smith. The Wildcats also have several promising corps of young receivers around which to build a passing attack while the young Smith builds continuity and depth at this very important position. Kentucky is set for the foreseeable future at the playmaking positions, but needs time to develop consistency.
Bad news — UK obviously now must go back to the drawing board to build another defense good enough to give itself a chance to beat a quality opponent.
Good news — UK has enough young defensive players in both quality and quantity in all the important departments of size, speed and athleticism to build that defense.
Question — Will Big Blue Nation and the Commonwealth’s media contingent stay off Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart long enough this year to give the present head coach and his staff enough time to accomplish the above-mentioned task?
Answer — We shall see, but Sunday afternoon’s exhibition at Louisville didn’t buy Joker Phillips and his staff any more time. It actually put them squarely behind the eight ball with very little wiggle room left for future Saturdays as they continue the path through the 2012 season.
Now that we’ve witnessed four quarters of live action by this Kentucky football team it appears the 2012 version is headed toward the direction of another classic example of what has been a thorn in this program’s side for many years — especially the last 10: Two steps forward from last year’s team in a couple phases of the game (offensively and parts of the kicking game), but three steps back in other phases (defensively and turnovers).
As I’ve written on many occasions, UK is what I call a developmental program, meaning it must spend one two years on its players in the weight room and teaching them fundamentals in order to get two or three years of productivity from them on the field. However, the Wildcats simply can’t seem to get both the offense and defense to peak in the same year because of lack of experience and/or lack of talent and playmakers on one side or the other.
This year it appears to be the defensive side that is lacking in size, speed, and talent at a couple positions and just simple game experience at a few other positions.
This year’s opening game against Louisville was a classic example of the final score not indicating how the game went. Yes, the Cats got a pretty good spanking — especially the defensive line — but there could have easily been much more to build on and not near as much negativity to endure if the two Wildcat fumbles deep in the red zone would have materialized into touchdowns. The mental game is so sensitive and delicate with today’s football players that a final score of say 32-24 would have gone a long way toward easing what the UK freshmen and sophomores will have to deal with on the Internet and talk show circuit this week.
The next two weeks can provide some confidence and momentum, but it must be earned. Kent State (Sept. 8 at 7:30 on ESPN3) and Western Kentucky University (Sept. 15 at 7 on ESPNU) will visit Commonwealth Stadium, and both were punched in as wins long ago. Still, UK must go out on the field and produce with intense play, because by all rights the talent level and speed of the game across the board should be in the Cats’ favor. But make no mistake, the gap of talent between a midmajor football player and a player at a BCS school has closed drastically in recent years.
If the Cats can accumulate 375 yards of offense in its season opener on the road against the favorite to win the Big East Conference it should top out at 450 to 500 yards against its next two opponents in Commonwealth Stadium. The real interesting question will be how defensive coordinator Rick Minter makes his defensive adjustments in personnel and schemes as Kentucky gets ready for SEC play.
Observations From Week 1
• Under the category of be careful what you ask for you, Michigan coach Brady Hoke said he wanted an early season challenge to better prepare his team for the Big Ten. Well, they got one from Alabama, but I doubt the Wolverines will see that type challenge again in the Big Ten this season.
• I like the new rule of kicking off from the 35 instead of the 30 and spotting the ball on the 25 instead of the 20 for all touchbacks. It will keep those horrific high-impact tackles in the return game to a minimum yet create a few more kickoff returns that will generate a little more excitement into the game.
• I simply detest a female broadcaster (even a sideline reporter) trying to explain anything about football to me. I’m not alone, either. Several friends of mine, both in the media and not, have told me on many occasions it is the biggest turnoff in sports television today.
When I’m not traveling to cover the Cats live I turn on the UK radio network and tune out the TV crew and listen to Tom Leach, Jeff Piecoro and Dick Gabriel give their take on the game. The UK crew is always very insightful and many times entertaining.
By the way, did anyone notice the slight tweaking of the UK Radio Network’s pregame show? My brother Oscar Combs, former owner and publisher of The Cats’ Pause, is joined this year by the very likable Neil Price for the segment leading up to the coach’s show with Tom Leach. The old saying around the UK press corps is if the “Big O” doesn’t know, nobody knows when it comes to UK sports history.
• I’m very interested to see how the John L. Smith and Arkansas marriage plays out this fall.
• We all know now what it did to the SEC when South Carolina and Arkansas joined in 1992. Now the new kids on the block are Texas A&M and Missouri. I hope we can now hang tight for a while and not go down that road to four major 16-team conferences. I don’t think Vandy, Ole Miss, UK and Mississippi State can take much more of a beating than they have during the last few decades.
Right now it’s quite obvious the BCS champion must go through the SEC first, but if this conference realignment and scheduling trend continues it may be going through the West Coast or the Midwest in the near future, or God forbid, maybe thru South Bend, Ind., and none of us wants that to happen.
Ira Combs directs Tri State Sports Media Service Inc., which he operates from Jeff in Perry County with this brother Harold.