By Ethan Levine
The Cats, coming off a historic win over Tennessee to conclude last season, hoped to ride that wave of momentum into a new season nine months later. But UK’s other arch-enemy, the Louisville Cardinals, made sure that wouldn’t happen, thumping UK 32-14 in Louisville.
Two weeks later, the Cats were walking off their own home field in shock as the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, in just their third year in the highest level of Division I football, celebrated a remarkable 32-31 victory on a razzle-dazzle two-point conversion in overtime.
Following the loss, the Cats’ record dropped to 1-2, falling below .500 before even beginning their conference schedule. And to add, the two losses came to the other two Division I teams from the commonwealth, placing UK firmly at the bottom of Kentucky’s football totem pole.
In just 10 months, Phillips went from the high of his coaching career in beating Tennessee to his lowest point, a home loss to Western Kentucky, whom UK paid $500,000 to come to take on the Cats in Lexington.
Yet the team remains optimistic about the final nine games of the season, beginning with Saturday’s SEC opener in Gainesville against the Florida Gators.
“Those were non-conference games,” senior defensive end Collins Ukwu said. “This is really like a clean slate for us. It’s basically like a new game, a new schedule, zero-zero, and these are the games that truly matter, the SEC conference games.”
Perhaps Ukwu forgot that the Gators have bested UK 25 years in a row, the longest active losing streak by one opponent to another in the nation. But Ukwu said the seniors are rallying around each other and encouraging the younger guys to not lose sight of what the team’s goals were before the season began.
“We still have more games to play,” Ukwu said. “I think we’re going to get better and we just got to believe and start pushing.”
As if the task at hand wasn’t already difficult enough for the Cats, rumors of Phillips losing his job have swirled to the front page of every media outlet in the commonwealth. For a coach three games into his third season, his seat at the helm of the program has never been hotter.
But like his team, Phillips remains focused on the task at hand, defeating Florida and getting back to what the team set out to accomplish following the victory over Tennessee last season.
“My job is to make sure we win football games, continue to do the things we need to do to win football games,” Phillips said. “The first order of business is focusing on Florida.”
Should the Cats shock the Gators the way Western Kentucky shocked them, UK football would be making headlines for the right reasons once again.
But should UK fall flat against Florida the way it has for the last quarter-century, the noise will only get noisier and the seat will only get hotter.
“I told our staff yesterday the players will hear it,” Phillips said.
“We won’t hear it. We’ll be buried in the office. We sense it, but we don’t get a chance to hear it because we’re buried in there trying to get ready for the next opponent, and our next opponent is Florida.”