Joker Phillips is in his third season as the football coach at the University of Kentucky. During his tenure, his Wildcats have won 12 games while losing 20. His SEC record is a chilling 4-20 and the common thought in the Commonwealth right now is that he shouldn’t buy any green bananas. But the truth of the matter is that Joker is a better coach than his record shows.
Nobody gives him a cut dog’s chance against Georgia this Saturday night, with the No. 13 Bulldogs coming in as a 28-point favorite, but the truth of the matter is that Lexington is where good coaches go to die. At some point, the University of Kentucky – which is governed by a lot of smart people – needs to realize that changing coaches every three or four years isn’t the answer at a place where the nation’s top basketball program thrives year after year.
There has to be a dramatic change, a commitment to excellence, that has somehow eluded Kentucky while every other school in the SEC, including Vanderbilt, has adapted. Far be it for me to offer a ready solution – there may not be just one – but a quick look at Kentucky’s coaches since World War II paints a dismal history:
1946-53 – Bear Bryant, 60-23-5 overall and 22-18-4 in the SEC. Left to become coach at TexasA&M.
1954-61 – Blanton Collier, 41-36-3 overall and 21-34-3 in the SEC. Fired.
1969-72 – John Ray, 10-33 overall, 12-30-2 in the SEC. Fired.
1973-81 – Fran Curci, 47-51-2 overall, 25-30 in the SEC. Fired.
1982-89 – Jerry Claiborne, 41-46-3 overall, 13-37 in the SEC. Retired.
1990-96 – Bill Curry, 26-52 overall, 14-40 in the SEC. Fired.
1997-2000 – Hal Mumme, 20-26 overall, 10-22 in the SEC. Fired
2001-02 – Guy Morriss, 9-14 overall, 4-12 in the SEC. Left to be head coach at Baylor.
2003-09 – Rich Brooks, 39-47 overall, 16-40 in the SEC. Retired.
2010-12 – Joker Phillips, currently 12-20 overall, 4-20 in the SEC.
Do you detect a pattern? I have personally know eight of the men listed above and I can’t believe nine straight coaches would have losing records in the SEC if there wasn’t something terribly amiss in Lexington beside Xs and Os. I also have a tough time believing anyone other than a fool would follow the embattled Phillips without some honest answers to deep questions and a lock-tight guarantee the university will alter its despicable football history.
That said, here is how I am picking tomorrow's Top Ten football games:
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No. 6 LSU (6-1, 2-1 SEC) at No. 20 TEXAS A&M (5-1, 2-1 SEC), 12 Noon (ESPN) – Here’s an early chance to watch A&M’s dazzling “Johnny Football, “ A.K.A. freshman Johnny Manziel, who is arguably the best QB in the country right now. LSU, rising from the ashes with last week’s 23-21 win over Florida, is back in the title hunt and the Tigers, a 3-point favorite, should win by more than that. LSU’s defense is just too stout for the Aggies and remember LSU was sixth in last week’s BCS standing while A&M was 18th. MY PICK? LSU, 31-17.
VIRGINIA TECH (4-3) at No. 14 CLEMSON (5-1), 12 Noon (ABC) – After a bye week, Clemson will come out fresh and the Tigers need a “must win” here to go after the second consecutive ACC title. VaTech, with three straight losses, is gasping for air – especially after the 41-20 whipping by Duke last week. Clemson has averaged 46 points in the two game since CU was throttled by FSU (49-37) so the thought is Dabo Sweeney will have the Tigers locked-and-loaded to cover the 8 ½ line. MY PICK? Clemson, 38-20.
No. 9 SOUTH CAROLINA (6-1, 4-1 SEC) at No. 3 FLORIDA (6-0, 5-0 SEC), 3:30 p.m. (CBS) – Here we have both teams in the Top 10 for the first time ever. Carolina has got to be banged up after back to back games against two other Top 10 teams – whipping UGa 35-7 before losing 23-21 at LSU, but Gamecock coach Steve Spurrier has more genius than youthful Gator Will Muschamp and I believe has more talent, too. Unbeaten UF is a 3 ½ point favorite but, my sakes, Carolina has such experience and skill. MY PICK? South Carolina, 27-21.
BRIGHAM YOUNG (4-3) at No. 5 NOTRE DAME (6-0), 3:30 p.m. (NBC) – The Irish have really got it going but take away the 41-3 win over Miami and ND hasn’t won by more than 7 points in three of the other four following the Dublin romp over Navy. Granted, BYU doesn’t exactly cause a leprechaun to quake in his boots, going 2-3 in the last five games. So the big test here is to keep ND focused instead of thinking about next week’s blockbuster against Oklahoma. ND coach Brian Kelly admits it, “We are over emphasizing the message!” MY PICK? Notre Dame, 1-15.
MICHIGAN STATE (4-3) at No. 23 MICHIGAN (4-2), 3:30 p.m. – (Big Ten Network) – Forget the record and the Big Ten’s down year – this is huge in “The Big House” after State has ruled the last four years. UM is favored by 10 after State has lost heartbreakers to Ohio State (17-16) and Iowa (19-16 OT) in two of the last three weeks but the bigger problem is that MSU can’t get the offense to work. Michigan, meanwhile, has scored 44 and 45 in the two games after a bye week. Do the math. MY PICK? Michigan, 31-14.
No. 18 TEXAS TECH (5-1) at No. TEXAS CHRISTIAN (5-1), 3:30 p.m. (ABC) – This is the story of the QB that wasn’t and the QB that was – last week TTU’s Seth Doege erupted for six TDs to shock Gino Smith and West Virginia, 49-14, while TCU, after sending the best QB in the Big 12 to a treatment center, overcame adversity just swell with a 49-21 whipping of Baylor. TTU is a scant 2-point favorite but the winner here will be in the thick of the conference race, especially if KSU takes it on the chin in Morgantown. Tommy Tuberville has got his kids ranked but Gary Patterson has the mojo in Fort Worth. MY PICK? Texas Christian, 31-27.
No. 1 ALABAMA (7-0, 3-0 SEC) at TENNESSEE (3-3, 0-3 SEC), 7:00 p.m. (ESPN) – Sure enough, it’s “The Third Saturday in October” but after Alabama has won the last five and is coming in a 20 ½ point favorite, it is more like a scary Halloween for the Orange. Face it, Alabama’s ferocious defense could compete with success in the NFL and, after the sputtering performance UT showed at Miss. State last week, losing 41-31, you have to think ‘Bama will make it six straight. The Tide’s smallest margin of victory all year has been 19 and with even the coach hobbled, the Vols should worry most about injuries in this one. MY PICK? Alabama, 42-13.
No. 4 KANSAS STATE (6-0) AT No. 17 WEST VIRGINIA (5-1), 7:00 p.m. (Fox) – The top two linebackers at KSU are a converted quarterback and tailback, which explains why the Wildcats popped Oklahoma (24-19) in what has been a golden year. Gino Smith, UWV’s brilliant QB, got gobbled up by Texas Tech and the 49-14 loss dropped his Heisman stock perilously low. That said, the Mountaineers are a 2 ½ favorite to burn a couch or set a car ablaze or whatever the crazies do after this slugfest. The thinking here is KSU is fourth in the BCS and UWV is 13th – the home field advantage can’t be that strong with the hosts coming off the 49-14 embarrassment at Texas Tech. MY PICK? Kansas State, 35-24.
NORTH CAROLINA (5-2) at DUKE (5-2), 7:00 p.m. (ESPNU) – Somebody will become bowl eligible and vault into the Top 25 here. Carolina has squeaked past Va. Tech (48-34) and Miami (18-14) in the last two weeks but the reason David Cutcliffe’s Devils are a 10-point underdog is because the same VT stuffed Duke by 21 points last Saturday. Yes, Devil QB Sean Renfree is a probable starter but UNC has won this intense rivalry 22 out of 24 times. So while this is the earliest in the year since World War II these two have played for the state’s Victory Bell, you’ve got to feel Tar Heel RB Giovani Bernard is the chalk; he’s gained 439 rushing yards in the last two weeks and is averaging 130.4 rushing yards per game, which ranks seventh in the country. MY PICK? North Carolina, 27-14.
No. 12 FLORIDA STATE (6-1) at MIAMI (4-3), 8:00 p.m. (ABC) – With Miami’s sensational QB Stephen Morris still day-to-day with an ankle injury, FSU’s EJ Manuel is healthy as a horse so no wonder the ‘Noles are a 20 point pick. FSU needs to score big to get in the upper tier of the BCS scramble and Miami has lost the last two – making momentum a factor. The other thing is that most of the players on both teams have known each other since high school so there are a lot of “bragging rights” that are included in the game package. MY PICK? Florida State, 34-21.
IN OTHER SEC GAMES
AUBURN (1-5, 0-4 SEC) at VANDERBILT (2-4, 1-3 SEC), 12:21 p.m. (SEC Network) – Geez, Louise … when was the last time Vandy was favored over Auburn, a team that has crashed and burned since winning the national title with Cam Newton? VU coach James Franklin has his guys playing hard, the losses to Top 10 teams Georgia (48-3) and Florida (31-17) understandable, but the biggest factor the Commodores have going is the fact that Auburn players have been told for weeks how awful they are – by Auburn people. “We have no quarterback!” former coach Pat Dye said on the radio and longtime backers are gathering a posse to root out coach Gene Chizik. With Vandy favored by 7 and playing at home, the lone recourse is for the Tiger players to first block out the negativity and play the way they showed in the 12-10 loss to LSU. MY PICK? Auburn, 21-17.
MIDDLE TENNESSEE (4-2) at No. 15 MISSISSIPPI STATE (6-0, 3-0 SEC), 7:00 p.m. (ESPN2) – This game would have been great fun if MTSU’s dazzling runner, Benny Cunningham (11 TDs) hadn’t blown out his knee is last week’s 34-30 win over Florida International. You see, MSU’s three conference victories are over teams that have a combined 0-11 SEC record right now and for Middle, especially after that 49-28 win over Ga. Tech, this is the Super Bowl. All that aside, the Bullies are still undefeated. "This is a lot of what they expected coming into the season," Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. "To be in this situation as a program, this is what we drill in our guys to expect. And, you know - it's fantastic." MY PICK?? Miss. State, 35-21.
No. 13 GEORGIA (5-1, 3-1 SEC) at KENTUCKY (1-6, 0-4 SEC), 7:00 P.M. (FSN) – With a bye week last Saturday, Georgia is eager to get the taste of the 35-7 South Carolina shellacking behind what remains as a very good team. Kentucky is not a good team – not at all – and the fact the Bulldogs are favored by a whopping 28 points is a sterling indicator. Look for Georgia to play hard and score often in what will be a tune up for next week’s “Cocktail Party” in Jacksonville. MY PICK? Georgia, 45-10.
SEC TEAMS IDLE THIS SATURDAY
Arkansas (3-4, 2-2 SEC) will host Ole Miss at 12:21 p.m. on Oct. 27.
Ole Miss (4-3, 1-2 SEC) will play at Arkansas at 12:21 p.m. Oct. 27.
Missouri (3-4, 0-4 SEC) will host Kentucky at 12 Noon on Oct. 27.
Note: In other SEC games on Oct. 27, Tennessee will play at South Carolina at 12 Noon, Florida will play Georgia in Jacksonville, Fla., at 3:30 p.m., Texas A&M will play at Auburn at 7 p.m., UMass will play at Vanderbilt at 7 p.m. and Miss. State will play at Alabama at 8:30 p.m.
AND ONE MORE …
SAMFORD (5-2, 3-2 SouCon) at CHATTANOOGA (3-3, 2-1 SouCon), 6:00 p.m. – Pat Sullivan, who won the Heisman Trophy at Auburn and had Samford on a tear this fall before losing a 28-25 heartbreaker to ranked Appy State last week, had this to say: “Chattanooga right now is playing as well as anybody in the conference.” Sullivan said, “The games they lost were earlier in the year, but the last couple of weeks they've played lights out. They have both of their quarterbacks (Terrell Robinson and Jacob Huesman) playing at the same time, which makes it difficult to prepare for them on defense. They have five pre-season All-Conference guys and a couple of pre-season All-Americans coming back on defense, and they are outstanding. Their punter is very good and that makes it a long field. We are going to have to play our best ball game if we are going to have a chance to win.” Hint: This will be a great game to watch. MY PICK? Chattanooga, 31-21