The annual Kentucky vs. Tennessee All-Star Game was, for a good period of time, an opportunity for the finest high school seniors from each state to square-off against each other so the kids from Tennessee could have a little practice at kicking our ass before they went on to college. Then, at the University of Tennessee, they would be familiar with the ass-kicking concept when they squared-off against the University of Kentucky. That has not been the case in the recent past, as Kentucky has begun to churn out high-quality football prospects such as Tim Couch and Jared Lorenzen. Last Friday night, our boys went out on the field at Commonwealth Stadium and did the home crowd proud, producing a 28-14 victory. UK signee Keenan Burton was named the MVP of the game. He finished the game with four catches for 66 yards with one touchdown and also returned an interception deep into Tennessee territory. He has the potential to be a two-way player for the Wildcats, but despite his MVP trophy, he was not the brightest star on the gridiron. That honor belongs to Male High School senior, and University of Louisville signee, Michael Bush.
Bush's numbers in the game reflected his multi-talented ability. 8-of-15 passing for 47 yards, 5 carries for 43, and 3 catches for 21 yards. Nothing spectacular, but you cannot help but wonder if he was going to be a Wildcat, instead of a Cardinal, he might have walked away with the MVP.
To call Michael Bush athletic would be an insult. Anyone can be "athletic;" this kid is amazing. And once again, amazing does not quite feel like the correct word. His abilities demand something new, beyond Couch-like, but perhaps coming close to Vick-like. He could start for almost any Division I school at three different positions, quarterback, wide receiver, or safety. He was recruited by every school you can think of; every school you see playing on New Year's Day has, at one time or another, recruited Bush. He is the most important football player to don a home jersey for an in-state school since Tim Couch committed to the Wildcats. Unfortunately, his jersey will be red and black, and not blue and white.
Why is he so important to U of L? The same reason Couch was to UK; Bush has the potential to give the Cardinals big-time credibility. Bush is the only top 100 recruit on ESPN.com's list that committed to a school that is not in a Bowl Championship Series Conference. The way the Bowl System works now, the champions of the Big 10, Big East, Big 12, ACC, SEC, and Pac 10 receive automatic bids to the big-money bowls. The other spots in the BCS are generally filled in with other schools from those conferences. If you are not a member, you are not getting paid, and if you are not getting paid in college football, your school is in big trouble. No non-BCS conference team has ever played in a BCS bowl. The way the system is set up, even if a team went 11-0, such as the University of Tulane, a fellow member of U of L's Conference USA, did in 1999, their strength of schedule would not be strong enough to make them a factor in the BCS formula. So, what is a school like U of L supposed to do? They win some games, they upset some teams, and they receive invitations to mediocre bowls played on a Wednesday night at some point in the middle of December. They are so desperate for television coverage they sell their soul to play any night of the week, which earned former quarterback Dave Ragone the title "Mr. Thursday Night," and they still are unable to make money. The problem is not Louisville, the problem is Conference USA, a conference that is, in the words of Cardinals coach Rick Pitino, "God awful!"
U of L football is standing at a crossroads. Bush, a homegrown Jefferson County product, will provide some star power. Papa John's Stadium is notoriously full of fans disguised as empty seats, unless Big Brother UK is in town or a tremendous non-conference opponent such as last year with Florida State. The home slate this year is the following: UTEP, Temple, South Florida, Army, Tulane, Memphis, and Houston. Those teams went a combined 32-52 and are not exactly wowing the fan base. If Bush starts August 31st against UK in Lexington, the clock begins ticking. U of L needs to make the jump now, because like Couch, he will probably not be here for all four years. U of L is lucky in that the ACC and Big East are locked in an expansion fight that could, if they are lucky, end up with U of L joining the Big East. Depending on how many teams they lose, and at the last check it appeared to be only the University of Miami, they would join a conference that retained a BCS bid. A home slate of West Virginia, Virginia Tech, Pitt, or Syracuse would definitely be much more attractive. A membership in a BCS Conference would also bring money and prestige to a football team that is far from the "collision course" with a national title that Howard Schnellenberger started them on years ago.
This is where the world is now in college football. You are either in the BCS or you are out. You are either in the money or you are out. There really is no in between. The funds needed to run a big time athletic department, which U of L aspires to be, require the success of football on a large scale. The next few years for U of L could be golden. The best player in the Commonwealth will not be playing his games in Commonwealth. Michael Bush stayed true to his hometown, defying the big schools to be the sole top 100 prospect at a non-BCS school. If the ACC/Big East fight ends with no U of L invite to join a BCS conference, he could be the last.
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