Any Given Saturday

Say you are Matt Layow. Say you are a defensive end and approximately the size of a naval destroyer. Say you are in the midst of the most productive stretch of your University of Kentucky football career. Say you have aspirations of playing professionally.

And say, for now, that this is all bizarrely irrelevant.

Because your team has won two, lost six, and will be watching a bowl game on TV this year - not playing in one.

Indeed, it is your team, your responsibility. This is your senior season. This is your 11-game moment. Your time to bear tradition's burden across your back and carry it to a higher mountaintop.

Yet valleys, not peaks, characterize the topographical map of your 2000 season. This is the same map that was supposed to lead the team to some sunny southern destination come Christmas time - but will now instead be pointing each player a different direction homeward for the holidays.

Obviously, you feel guilt.

But you express no disgrace. You have your dignity.

"We're a family on the defensive side of the ball," the brawny redhead said in a post-game interview following the Cats' most recent contest, a 34-30 heartbreaker to then 12th-ranked Georgia. "I'm proud of the way we've played and fought all year long."

Football is family - win or lose. And so it is certainly a fight as well.

This season, the Kentucky football family has demonstrated degrees of dysfunctionality. The main symptom: schizophrenia. One game, the defensive persona presents itself. The next game, the offense shows up in its place. The two have yet to collaborate completely, and no one can seem to locate any kind of Thorazine. As a result, the fight has become quite a struggle.

For his part though, Layow has added consistent, significant punch. Twelve tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, and 3 fumble recoveries - one of which he took 21 yards for the game winning score against Indiana.

Layow mentions that he still has individual goals to reach, but you can tell from talking to him that he doesn't want to talk about that. Discussion of individual accolades is a short one with guys like Layow, guys that truly are team players. This discussion becomes even more abbreviated when a team player's team is losing.

"Sometimes that's the way the ball bounces. Like in life, everything in football doesn't go your way and you have trials and hard times," the 6-4, 255-pounder says about 2-6. "This was one of those year's that's been unlucky - that's the best way to say it."

And that's the correct way to say it, too. How else can you explain this season's results?

Is Louisville flat-out better than Kentucky? No. Is Ole Miss, South Carolina, or even Georgia? No, no, and no.

Any given Saturday, the Cats beat any of these teams. Of course, the tables can very quickly turn, because, as UK's record shouts, neither is Kentucky flat-out better than any one of these teams.

Let's face it; Kentucky is just mediocre this year. Just okay. You can't say the Cats are a bad team - they have too much talent. Nor can you say the Cats are a good team - because that talent hasn't produced Ws.

When you have a very good team or a very bad team, you ask "What next?" You have a future either way - if you're terrific, you have faith that you'll keep winning, and if you're terrible, you have faith you'll eventually get a win someway/how.

But when you're middle-of-the-road, the "What ifs?" are infectious, nightmarish. You lack direction. And identity. You start to wonder instead of focus.

Being a decent team is the most difficult type of team to be.

Philosophizes Layow: "We've had that feeling of being close - just a few plays away each game. We have had opportunities - that makes where we are right now disappointing. Disappointments come with competitiveness; if you are a competitor, you have disappointment when goals aren't reached.

"But you can't control everything."

What Layow - along with many other UK seniors - has masterfully controlled, however, is his attitude. You mark it in his eyes and in his affectionate speech about his sport and those he plays it with.

"I'm going to enjoy the time I have remaining, the last three games. College football is special because every Saturday you have the opportunity to play in front of thousands of people and go into battle with guys you love. This is our [seniors'] chance to take snapshots and make memories to the fullest. This is a chance for us to really help the freshmen learn how to compete.

"I have no regrets. What was asked of me, I feel I've done to the best of my ability - with honor. I've fully enjoyed all the experiences I've had at UK - wouldn't change it for anything."

Still, you get the feeling that, if possible, he would certainly change the Cats win-loss tally.

But you get an even stronger feeling that that tally wouldn't change him.