So This Is What Optimism Feels Like
By nature, I’m not prone to fits of optimism. If you’ve spent more than three minutes listening to First State Financial Sunday Morning Sports Talk (9 am-Noon on NewsRadio 630 WLAP in Lexington) or spent more than 10 seconds around me, this will come as no surprise to you. So you can imagine my surprise when I woke up this past Sunday feeling good about three of my favorite — and largely downtrodden — teams.
Maybe it’s been spurred by this year’s resurgence of my first true love – the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds are having their best season since 1999. Since a knee injury sidelined All-Star first baseman Joey Votto threatened to derail the season, the Reds are 27-11, have the best record since the break and are a game and a half from having best record in the majors.
My euphoria at seeing my long-struggling Reds make a run at the World Series seems to have spilled over into my football fandom, as I head toward the first week of September with more hope than I would have imagined for both the Cincinnati Bengals and the Kentucky Wildcats.
The Bengals are coming off a rare playoff appearance (still without a playoff win in the Mike Brown era) and return a solid defense along with quarterback Andy Dalton who only made the Pro Bowl (even if it is a joke) as a rookie. He can only get better, right? I’d love to have had a little more stability on offense between last year and this year, but it didn’t happen and the Bengals will have to make the best of it.
Regardless, there are legitimate reasons for hope among Bengals fans, no matter how many times we’ve been tricked by hope in the past. I mean, we’re almost like that old Sam Kinison routine where love knocks on the door and says “I wouldn’t lie to you eight times in a row” (at the 3:24 mark) only to turn into a raging monster when the door is opened. I mean, it could happen again I guess. The Bengals could follow a playoff year with a 4-12 season (again), but here we are, expecting the best yet again and hoping that the team’s overwhelming Bengalness isn’t at the door when the team knocks on September 10.
It’s the budding optimism for the Wildcats that took me most by surprise. The Cats come off their worst season in the last seven, and they probably looked worse last year than their 5-7 record would indicate. And while that particular optimism may seem misguided, there are a couple of reasons that I feel better than I thought I would about the Cats as we head into 2012.
1) Max Smith: Did he struggle at times last year? Of course he did. He was a freshman. That’s sort of what they do. Struggles or no, he was more accurate than Morgan Newton last year, threw for more yards last year and had more yards per completion and attempt. And whether it’s true or not, it sure seemed like fewer of his passes hit the ground after they hit a receiver’s hands. Some of that is on the receivers, but (as Anthony White has mentioned on the show) some of it had to do with how easy the throws were to catch.
I feel like we had seen the top of the Morgan Newton arc. Smith was better with less time in the program. With another full year in the Kentucky system he will only get better. Plus I believe he will have more help around him, which brings us to…
2) The receivers: There are a few of the same faces back from a receiving corps that didn’t distinguish itself last year until one of them played quarterback against Tennessee, but there are enough additions — as well as the possible reemergence of a key position — that I think there are reasons to be hopeful that the offense operates more smoothly this year. A more consistent Demarco Robinson, a healthy Daryl Collins and the reported emergence of freshman DeMarcus Sweat (and goodness knows this city loves its DeMarcuses) give the Wildcats playmakers they clearly lacked on the outside last year. Plus they may have pushed veterans E.J. Fields and LaRod King to step up their games.
I also liked what I saw from the tight ends during the Blue-White game this past spring. Tyler Robinson was probably the second most impressive player at the scrimmage (behind Demarco Robinson) in April and after putting a couple on the ground Ronnie Shields was also impressive. Robinson became my new favorite Wildcat between his work in the Spring Game and his post game interviews, and Shields is a freakishly gifted athlete who has the ability to pressure the defense deep from the tight end slot. Everybody that follows the Cats remembers what the offense looked like when tight end was a focus of the passing game here. It could be again this season.
3) The Schedule: No seriously. Are there games I would be drop-dead stunned if UK won? Of course. It’s still the SEC. A win over Florida would be a shocker (although this isn’t Steve Spurrier’s Florida) and a win over Steve Spurrier’s South Carolina Gamecocks would be an upset. But there are reasons for hope elsewhere. First, you are never going to convince me that a Louisville team that lost to Florida International a year ago and that struggled mightily against Kentucky last season before they were forced to bring in a quarterback and run an offense Kentucky had never seen has cruised past the Wildcats by as far as people seem to think they have. Kentucky was a fumble from tying that game. I’m supposed to believe that over the course of one offseason Louisville is suddenly light years ahead? Sorry, no sale. Arkansas should be good, but could be a mess. Kentucky should have beaten Mississippi State here last year. The Wildcats almost always play Georgia tough at Commonwealth. And James Franklin or no, I’m also just not buying that Vanderbilt should just roll out and beat Kentucky here.
Could Kentucky go 3-9? Maybe, and part of me wouldn’t be surprised. But part of me also wouldn’t be surprised if they finished 7-5. I’m not sure what you’re used to, but around here that counts as a rosy outlook.
4) I bought season tickets again: I get regular e-mails on the show telling me that in just my second year as a season ticket holder that I have contract Season Ticketitis – a type of delusion that forces me to believe that Kentucky will be better than conventional wisdom allows. It’s apparently a defense mechanism to keep me from feeling like I had just lit a half of a trip to the beach on fire and watched it burn. Honestly, there may be something to that.
Sure there are questions about the defense (especially the secondary) and about the team’s youth, but until I see the team on the field – or at least until this next Sunday — I’m going to hold out hope.