Where Do Cards, Cats Go From Here?

09/19/2011 04:11 PM

Most of the re-hash from Saturday night’s Governor’s Cup has centered around two programs seemingly going in opposite directions. This series has been big on symbolism. Hal Mumme arrived in 1997 and registered two convincing wins over the Cards, but after a 40-34 loss to U of L on a rainy night in Papa John’s Stadium in 2000, Mumme was shown the door later in the year amidst NCAA violations. Bobby Petrino and Rich Brooks arrived simultaneously in 2003. Petrino won four in a row over Brooks, who was on thin ice until Petrino left and Steve Kragthorpe entered. Kragthorpe’s tenure got off to a rocky start with a 40-34 loss to UK and things never stabilized. Three years later, he was gone.
Now people are wondering if U of L’s 24-17 win over UK, which ended the Cats’ four-game winning streak in the series, is the beginning of the end for Joker Phillips. The U of L players certainly seem to think that Saturday’s win was a turning point.
In reality, the outcome of the game shouldn’t have been all that surprising. Yes, I picked UK to win, largely because I felt like its offensive line would rise to the occasion and control the game. But Louisville controlled both lines of scrimmage.
I also think people may have read too much into Louisville’s loss to Florida International while ignoring some of the warning signs that were present in UK’s first two games.
I said after the game that the Florida International loss wouldn’t look as bad as it did at the end of the year as it does now. No, I don’t expect the Golden Panthers to crash the BCS or anything, but they are legit Top 30 type of team. They beat a decent Central Florida team 17-10 on Saturday and are clearly the class of the Sun Belt. I wouldn’t be shocked at all to see FIU run the table.
Meanwhile, UK went life-and-death with Western Kentucky and Central Michigan, two awful teams. The Hilltoppers were waxed 44-16 at home by Indiana State over the weekend, which marked the Sycamores first win over an FBS program in 10 years. And Central Michigan got destroyed by Western Michigan, a 6-6 team in the MAC a year ago. In fact, if Western had a QB that could hit the side of a barn and CMU Coach Dan Enos hadn’t made the bone-headed decision to go for it on fourth-down from his own 35 in the third quarter, the Cats might have entered the U of L game at 0-2.
As for the Cardinal fans, be happy, but let’s not get carried away. Despite the big win, this is an average Louisville team at best. Beating UK doesn’t change my overall prognosis for 2011. I still see the Cards finishing 6-6, with the UK win basically negating the FIU loss. But the one thing Charlie Strong can sell right now is hope. He’s got a potential program-changing QB in freshman Teddy Bridgewater. He may have a found a stud RB in sophomore Dominique Brown. And in Michaelee Harris, DeVante Parker and Eli Rogers, Bridgewater will have plenty of weapons to throw to in the coming years.
As for Kentucky, what can Phillips sell right now? Where is the hope? The UK coaching staff has talked about how well they’ve recruited the past 2-3 years,* but fact of the matter is that most of the top young talent on the field Saturday was wearing Cardinal red, not Wildcat blue.* UK could still salvage this season, but the schedule makes it unlikely. Where are the wins going to come from? The UK team I’ve watched the first three weeks won’t win at Vanderbilt, who looks rejuvenated with a 3-0 record after a 30-7 rout of Ole Miss. Jacksonville State won at Ole Miss last year, so you know they’ll think they come into Commonwealth and steal one. And as bad as Ole Miss looked against Vandy, they’re still much better than Western and Central Michigan. If this next three-game stretch (Florida, at LSU, at South Carolina) goes the way most thinks it will, UK will be 2-4 with beat-up bodies, bruised psyches and a coach facing major heat.
That brings us to Phillips. Many Cat fans are already calling for his head. But I just can’t see UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart pulling the plug after two seasons. No matter how this season plays out, Phillips deserves a third year. Yes, I know Barnhart canned Billy Gillispie after two seasons. But that was more about Billy G’s oddball behavior and off-the-court issues than wins and losses. And I’m sure Barnhart remembers how his decision to stick with Brooks ultimately paid off with four straight bowl appearances.
Make no mistake about it, though, Phillips needs to do something big. And fast. Think about it. When was the last time UK looked even halfway decent? They beat Vandy 38-20 last Nov. 13. Then came a listless performance against Tennessee, a no-show in the bowl game, two horrible games to start the 2011 season, and a loss to arch-rival for the first time in four years. I’d say anything short of bowl eligibility would put Phillips firmly on the hot seat for 2012.
Phillips says he’s tuning out the negativity, and that might be a good thing, because things could get much, much worse before they get better.


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