The slogan Joker Phillips coined for his first year as Kentucky’s head football coach left no room for misinterpretation.
Phillips labeled the 2010 season “Operation Win.”
The mantra is plastered on billboards across the state and is a popular refrain in the locker room. His goal was simple: It was time for Kentucky to take the next step toward relevancy in the Southeastern Conference.
Halfway through the season, “Operation Deja Vu” may have been a more appropriate choice.
The Wildcats (3-3, 0-3) head into Saturday’s game against No. 10 South Carolina (4-1, 2-1) lamenting opportunities that slipped away. The latest came in a 37-34 heartbreaker against No. 7 Auburn on Saturday, when the Tigers kicked the game-winning field goal as time expired.
The defeat was Kentucky’s 11th SEC setback by eight points or less in the last three-plus years. They’re the kind of games that separate the contenders from the also-rans.
Kentucky was hoping this would be the season to take the next step forward. Now, it feels as if the Wildcats are continuing to run in place.
Though Phillips remains upbeat, he also knows “our guarantees are running out.”
“I think this team definitely has confidence, and they (feel they) can play with anybody in this league,” Phillips said.
The Wildcats just aren’t beating anybody. Kentucky and Tennessee are the only two teams in the SEC without a conference victory. The road doesn’t get any easier. The Gamecocks are coming off an upset of defending national champion Alabama, and coach Steve Spurrier has never lost to the Wildcats, including a 28-26 win last year.
It’s one of the streaks that have cast a pall over the program for years. Phillips knows the only way for Kentucky to be taken seriously on a consistent basis is for such streaks to end.
He’s already tired of talking about it, yet knows the questions will persist until the victories come.
“I’ve tried not to mention things like that because we got to play,” he said. “This is a diff erent team, you know, obviously.”
One, however, that keeps matching the results of its predecessors.
Where some see the season as half over, optimists such as wide receiver Randall Cobb see it as just the beginning. The junior admits it was difficult to stand on the sidelines helpless as the Tigers chewed up the final 7:31 on their game-winning drive.
But he also believes this isn’t the same old Kentucky.
“We’re not quitters,” said Cobb, who had a hand in all four of Kentucky’s touchdowns against Auburn. “Just because things go wrong or things aren’t going the way we expect them or wanted to, doesn’t mean we can give up. We’ve done some great things and we’ve shown we have an ability to be there. We’ve just got to find a way to win.”
Creating some turnovers would help. Kentucky is tied for last in the league in takeaways, though they’re not lacking for chances. Auburn dropped the football to the ground four times but managed to fall on each one before the Wildcats could get to it.
“When the team puts the ball on the ground four times, we got to get half of them,” Phillips said. “I think that’s the common denominator of the teams that win and lose.”
And Kentucky currently has the longest losing streak in the SEC. A team that began the season with hopes of reaching an upper-tier bowl finds itself another loss or two away from having bowl plans of any kind in serious jeopardy.
The margin for error is thin. The chances of an emotional letdown are high, particularly with star running back and team lightning rod Derrick Locke doubtful this week after injuring his shoulder against Auburn.