For the fifth straight season, Kentucky is going to a bowl game. That’s one of the benefits of breaking even in a season that ended with a 26th straight loss to Tennessee.
Obviously, Kentucky coach Joker Phillips was disappointed following the Wildcats’ 24-14 loss to the Volunteers, but placed a positive spin on his first tour of duty as coach at Kentucky minutes following the setback.
“It’s never bitter when you get bowl eligible, but the thing we’ve would like to have done is finish strong and finish the 3-0, which we haven’t done around here in a long time,” Phillips said following the loss to the Volunteers. “We missed an opportunity.”
Like the previous four years, Kentucky had several close calls in the Southeastern Conference that served as a dividing line between turning the proverbial corner and maintaining the status quo.
In the team’s six losses against conference foes, three of those were by seven points or less, including a three-point setback to Auburn, which likely will be playing in the national championship. Kentucky missed out on a chance to take advantage of a “down year” in the Eastern division. South Carolina emerged as the winner in the East and will take on Auburn in the SEC championship game Saturday in Atlanta, Ga. It will be the Gamecocks’ first-ever appearance in the league finale.
“As a whole, it was a season of missed opportunities,” Phillips said.
Kentucky also suffered seven-point losses on the road at Ole Miss and Mississippi State. Of course the biggest victory was a three-point triumph over South Carolina, the team’s first in 18 tries against a team coached by Steve Spurrier.
The biggest issue in the wins and losses was the turnover margin, an obvious factor in the setback to the Volunteers over the weekend. Kentucky had three turnovers, including a fumble at the goal-line that sealed the team’s proverbial fate in the regular-season finale for both teams.
“(Turnovers) have really been the big difference in some of those big games that we’ve lost,” Phillips said. “We’ve come close in every game we’ve played, but (turnovers) have been the biggest difference and the common denominator in winning and losing for us.
“The thing we’ve got to make sure we do is protect the football, especially on the road and we turned it over three times (against Tennessee).”
Another weakness was the team’s inability to succeed in times of prosperity. Kentucky led early against Tennessee and had a chance to go up by two touchdowns, only to cough up the ball at the goal line in the second quarter that Phillips said gave the hosts “new life” at the time.
“We’ve got to learn that when you get people down, you’ve got to keep them down,” Phillips said.
Regardless, the team will have a chance finish the season on a positive note. Kentucky’s likely bowl destination will be against South Florida in the BBVM Compass Bowl in Birmingham on Jan. 8. Another appearance in the Liberty Bowl also is a possibility.
Story by Keith Taylor. Photo by Victoria Graff.