Immediately following the University of Kentucky's annual game against the University of Tennessee, (let's avoid calling it a rivalry, because it is hard to have a rivalry between the hammer and the nail), a caller into a local sports call-in show declared that the embarrassing lost had wiped out every good thing that had happened this season. Well, let's not go that far. The loss was bad, real bad. And embarrassing, do not forget that, but it did not completely ruin UK's season. People need to remember, this is a team that had back-to-back 2-9 seasons and there was hardly anyone in the country that thought they would finish 7-5. These kids had everything that a team could play for taken away: division championship, conference championship, bowl game, and they still came out and played hard every game. Except the last one.
This is the second season in a row that UK has ended their season with an extremely bad loss. This is also the second time this season that UK came off their bye week and played a sloppy game, the first being against South Carolina. Everybody knows UK has not beaten the Volunteers since 1984 and a lot of people thought this was the year. It is a shame this is the memory that most fans will take into the off-season. This game in no way reflected the kind of season the Wildcats experienced. Instead, UK fans should focus on the positive.
It would be easy to talk about how Artose Pinner, Dewayne Robertson, Chase Harp, and Leonard Burress let down their teammates by being late to meetings and forcing Coach Guy Morris to suspend them. Or, perhaps how quarterbacks Jared Lorenzen and Shane Boyd combined for one of the worst days from behind center (12-30 for 82 yards) since Bill Curry roamed the sideline. And there is always the fact UK was called offsides on defense SIX TIMES. But, let's praise the Wildcats, not bury them. This is a team that most thought would finish 3-8, and were wrong. This is a team that has the front-runner for SEC Player of the Year in Pinner, features three possible All-Americans in Derek Abney, Pinner, and Glen Pakulak, and four possible First Team All-SEC members in Abney, Pinner, Pakulak, and Robertson. Lorenzen had an outside shot at First Team, but that went up in smoke Saturday afternoon. This team had talent.
Besides the individual accolades, this team earned a great deal of respect. They went on the road to start the season and beat arch rival University of Louisville at Louisville, and in the process ruined the BCS chances of the Cardinals and the Heisman Trophy chances of Dave Ragone. They thumped SEC West champion University of Arkansas, also on the road, and lost to SEC West runner-up Louisiana State University on of the flukiest and luckiest plays in college football history. If you missed that play, don't worry, it will be shown over and over for the rest of our lives. They lost to Florida, again, but at least they made the game competitive. They also accomplished something that is rare at UK, they won the non-conference games at the beginning of the season that usually derail the drive to a bowl before it starts. It is a shame this team will not have the opportunity to go to a bowl. Unlike a lot of "bowl-eligible teams," such as Ole Miss, University of Minnesota, or University of Wisconsin, this team was good, with quality wins over quality opponents.
The coaches also have to be given their due. Coach Morriss came into the season with the task of motivating a team that was stripped of any off-season reward by the NCAA. He also had to turn around a 2-9 team and impress a new boss, all the while working with one of the worst contracts in the SEC. He brought the team together and established a balanced offense with Pinner and Lorenzen. He was rightly rewarded with a new contract. Defensive coordinator John Goodner improved the defense, if not in yards allowed at least in points.
So, is this now the norm for UK football or is this an anomaly? Is winning going to beget winning, or will the NCAA sanctions eventually bring the program back to its knees? Well, UK will lose Pinner, but have Lorenzen, Abney, and possibly Robertson returning. That is a start. Almost the entire offensive line will be back and the defense can only get better, right? The key is going to be Lorenzen. Despite his great season, any hope for a winning record and an NFL draft selection depends on his dedication. On his call-in show, Morriss stated that what he hears from NFL people is that Lorenzen will never get a shot if he cannot lose the weight. If Lorenzen can work hard this off-season at cutting down his weight to the 270 pound range, UK should have a very good shot at going to a bowl next season and he could be a top NFL draft pick. If, instead, he shows up for next season at his current weight, he will have let down his teammates, his coaches, and his fans. Not to mention potentially costing himself millions of dollars. It will be hard for Morriss to look his team in the eye and preach off-season work and dedication if the best player does not follow the advice.
So, forget about the Tennessee game. Remember the good times. Pinner's running, Abney's kick returns, Lorenzen's touchdown to interception ratio, and Taylor Begley's clutch kick against LSU, right before, the, you know. Do not let one game against Tennessee define the season. These Wildcats deserve better than that.
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