Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer, Give ’em Hell Alabama! Like the Christians being fed to the lions, I’m headed on assignment this weekend down to Tuscaloosa, where our sacrificial Wildcats will take on the Crimson Tide in what could be a butt ugly encounter. Hide the women and children—this is big boy football at its best (and maybe worst). Nick Saban, Lane Kiffin and their minions are loaded, undefeated and ranked #1 in the latest polls. On this particular occasion, a win by the Big Blue would undoubtedly qualify as one of the biggest upsets in the history of college football. That’s probably a bit too much to ask so I’ll settle for a moral victory on this one. Let’s cover the point spread, avoid injuries or humiliation, sample some Dreamland Bar-B-que and get the heck out of Dodge.
This must be how Alcorn State feels when they come into Rupp Arena to take on the Basketball Cats. For just as I cross the Alabama state line, I immediately feel the crushing grip of the program’s tradition and history bearing down on me. Flags, bumper stickers, “Roll Tide” signs everywhere, all paying homage to the individuals responsible for making Bama arguably the best football program ever. Bear Bryant, Joe Namath, Ozzie Newsome, 16 national championships, 25 SEC championships, over 850 wins and Forrest Gump are all testaments to the storied tradition that is Alabama Football. OK, there was that little thing with Coach Mark Price and the strip club, but we all have our Billy Gillispie moments, right?
Approaching from Interstate 20, Bryant Denny Stadium emerges suddenly from the Alabama campus, rising majestically and confidently like a modern-day Roman Coliseum. Bama fans appear equally self-assured, dismissing UK as practice fodder and chalking up another “W” on their scorched earth march toward Atlanta. Tailgating is ubiquitous on this warm autumn evening. As I stroll past the party tents and food spreads full of beer, barbecue and botox, I’m greeted with a strange mix of congeniality and pity. I’m cheering for the enemy for sure—but in their eyes, it’s a harmless enemy–just a minor league adversary to pad the stats with no chance of ruining their perfect homecoming celebration.
The mood around the stadium is more serene than festive, not totally unlike Commonwealth. But there is a distinct difference, a confidence bordering on arrogance as a result of actually having a good football team. Bama fans are friendly and cordial, graciously inviting me to partake in their tailgating goodies, eager to dispense some genuine southern hospitality before a good old-fashioned whoopin’. I ask some random folk what comes to mind when I say “Kentucky Football.” I get a few “Bear” and “Basketball” references but mostly I’m met with blank stares, befuddlement and silence as if our beloved UK team was totally irrelevant to their football fortunes.
Shortly before kickoff, I make my way up to the press box and somehow end up behind the Alabama governor in the media buffet line. I wish more than ever that our Wildcats could somehow shock the world, knocking him and his elitist Alabama royalty off their aristocratic thrones by pulling the ultimate upset. (OK, maybe I do have a bit of an inferiority complex.) Unfortunately, my wishes and dreams were unceremoniously smashed to smithereens to the tune of a 34-6 Bama victory. Give them credit, the Cats hung tough for a quarter but just couldn’t stem the Tide for the remainder of the contest. Ball security issues and turnovers reared its ugly head and Bama took full advantage for a 17-3 halftime lead. It could have been worse—much worse, as Alabama completely dominated the second half. The overall game stats reflected the predicted mismatch with Bama outgaining UK 488-161 in total yardage and more than doubling them in first downs.
In his post-game press conference, Alabama’s head coach was gracious in victory–saying that “Kentucky has a much better team than what everybody gives them credit for.” I summon up the courage to ask “Nicky Satan” if anything Kentucky did surprised him. After an awkward moment of silence, he answers with surprisingly candid detail. I thought he was going to bite my head off so I’m sorry I don’t really remember his response. Something about four wide-outs, nickel protection, the wildcat formation and a couple of other things I forgot to jot down. I guess you’ll have to go to the video for the exact quote.
On the six-and-a-half-hour drive back to Lexington, I’m left to ponder what the Cats can learn from this humbling “Sweet Home Alabama” experience. The game served basically as a three hour measuring stick for how good a football team they really are and UK subsequently discovered that they still aren’t good enough. Vanderbilt, their upcoming opponent may also be better than what everyone thought. So let’s just dismiss this game as the mulligan it was—a temporary blip on our road to bowl eligibility. More importantly, Kentucky faces another “must-win” next week in a string of upcoming “must-wins”. As has too often been the case, the fate of a regime hinges once again on beating the Commodores. The score should be closer, but the game may be just as butt-ugly. UK 14, Vanderbilt 6.
This blog posting was originally submitted as a UK Football Column for Nolan Group Media publications.