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Mark Coomes’ Sports Insider: Everybody loves Teddy, and UK’s loss to WKU foreshadows some nuclear beatdowns

by Mark Coomes

Teddy-Bridgewater

Teddy Bridgewater in action.

A long lost, dearly missed friend returned over the weekend: America’s favorite inflatable bladder, the oblate spheroid in the pebbled, porcine wrap.

All hail football.

Every Monday for the next five months, this space will review the weekend’s action and reactions. If you’re into that sort of thing.

Most sports fans are, particularly in autumn, when three-hour football games provide a week’s worth of cud to chew. Let the regurgitation begin.

The bona fide professionals were off last weekend and conceded the stage to their unpaid understudies, who toil for the multibillion dollar conglomerate called intercollegiate football.

In light of the massive settlement reached last week between the NFL and 18,000 concussed, depressed and potentially suicidal ex-players, it’s harder than ever to watch with a clear conscience as young men play a violent game for rooms, book, board and tuition.

sports_moneyCynics and neurosurgeons might say that college football resembles nothing so much as a 50 Cent flick – “Get Rich or Die Tryin’.”

But this is the business we have chosen.

Mark Stoops chose to take over the perennially overmatched Kentucky Wildcats, and we saw Saturday night that there will be no quick turnaround in Lexington.

UK was outmuscled, outhustled and outsmarted by Western Kentucky, 35-26. It was Stoops’ first game as a head coach, and he drew a short straw having to face veteran strategist Bobby Petrino, scorned, spurned and eager to show College Football Inc. that he’s still among the best in the biz.

Petrino had better players, a credit to his predecessor, Willie Taggart. The gap wasn’t overwhelming, but after the Hilltoppers scored three times on their first four possessions, an old quote sprang to mind:

“He can beat your’n with his’n and turn right around and beat his’n with your’n.”

That was Bum Phillips praising Bear Bryant. Those words apply to Stoops and Petrino, too – for now, anyway.

This doesn’t mean UK erred in failing to hire Petrino when it had the chance. Athletics director Mitch Barnhart sought a long-term solution, and loyalty and constancy have never been Petrino’s strong suit. Hiring Stoops might prove a stroke of genius, but a steep growth curve lies between here and there.

The Wildcats were roundly disappointing Saturday night. The latter-day Air Raid offense never achieved liftoff, prompting to Stoops to switch quarterbacks after three quarters. Maxwell Smith, a superior passer and more experienced leader, will replace Jalen Whitlow in UK’s home opener against Miami of Ohio this Saturday.

There are no easy fixes on the other side of the ball.

Stoops made his bones as a defensive specialist, but his expertise was lost on the Cats down in Nashville. Western runners routinely crashed through UK’s Gumby-limbed arm tackles. It was the most alarming facet of Stoops’ debut, one that foreshadows some nuclear beatdowns against Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Louisville.

UK’s best defender, end Bud Dupree, offered an explanation for his mates’ flaccid play.
“We were too overconfident,” Dupree told longtime Kentucky beat writer Larry Vaught.

That quote is the biggest head-scratcher since dandruff. Overconfident?

UK lost to Western last year in Commonwealth Stadium en route to a hapless 2-10 record that kicked coach Joker Phillips into the unemployment line. Changing coaches always lifts a team’s spirits, and the new staff always aims to boost the boys’ sagging self-esteem. Maybe Stoops & Co. laid on the varnish a little too thick, and the Cats got high off the fumes.

Soon they were sniffing ammonia capsules instead.

“We’re just going to hit ‘em in the mouth and get it over with,” WKU linebacker Andrew Jackson said last week, then backed it up with a slobber-knocking wallop of a blue ballcarrier that recalled Jadaveon Clowney’s legendary hit.

For the second straight year, Western Kentucky distinguished itself as the second-best football program in the Commonwealth. I suspect it will hang on to that ranking for at least another year. Stoops has been a miraculous recruiter for UK so far, but the Wildcats must import at least two classes of top talent to start closing the gap behind Petrino and Louisville’s Charlie Strong.

Big Brother’s bad weekend got worse on Sunday when Strong’s Cardinals proved that the Sugar Bowl was no fluke. The Cards shocked even their blindest fans last January with 60 minutes of fast, fierce, whip-smart football in the Mercedes Benz Superdome. Nobody saw it coming, least of all third-ranked Florida.

It was fair to wonder if U of L had turned an important corner or simply caught lightning in a bottle for a game. Sunday’s crisp dismantling of a decent squad from Ohio University put those doubts to rest.

The Bobcats were touted as one of the best teams on U of L’s famously soft 2013 schedule, and it will take a few weeks to determine if Ohio was overrated or simply ill-fated. Either way, no one will relish facing Louisville in football this year. The Cards have no glaring weaknesses.

But it would be silly to wax too poetic over horse-whipping Ohio. Top 10 teams are expected to handle their inferiors with brutal aplomb. U of L’s biggest challenge this fall will be to stay sharp and motivated against a run of opponents whose defeat will be taken for granted.

Opening weekend featured losses by every potentially respectable team on the schedule – except for Cincinnati, which punked Purdue 42-7.  The Cards and Bearcats don’t square off until Dec. 5. Until then, Strong faces three long months of inventing ways to keep his team focused and fired up.

More blowouts will be required for Louisville to hang on to its top 10 ranking, but it’s in no danger of slipping off the national radar so long as Teddy Bridgewater is playing quarterback.

Everybody loves Teddy.

ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit says he’ll win the Heisman Trophy. NFL scouts say he’ll be the first or second pick in next year’s draft. Media types contrast Bridgewater’s humble, team-first persona with the prima donna antics of last year’s Heisman winner, Johnny Manziel.

Bridgewater shredded Ohio’s pass defense Sunday with elegant efficiency. His pinpoint throws racked up 355 yards and five touchdowns. Only five attempts fell incomplete, and the lone interception was not Bridgewater’s fault. His receiver ran the wrong route.

Of course he did. Bridgewater walks on water and is incapable of making banal mistakes. Or so it seems. The junior from Miami is such a joy to watch that even some Kentucky fans were compelled to tweet their appreciation. Can you blame them?

Bridgewater is the most thoroughly likeable athlete in U of L history. He has yet to make a wrong move or say the wrong thing, yet nothing about him seems overly polished, contrived or too good to be true.

It’s kind of weird. But in a good way.

As long as he’s healthy, Bridgewater can be expected to shred every defense he faces – even the big-time defense he will finally face in a BCS bowl next year. But I doubt he can win the Heisman. U of L’s schedule will make it too easy for voters to take Bridgewater’s accomplishments for granted.

I suspect that when ballots are submitted in December, Bridgewater will have distinguished himself as the best player in college football without having enjoyed the best season. There’s a difference.

There’s only so much credit a player can get for laying waste to a schedule that features Kentucky, Eastern Kentucky, Florida International, Temple, Connecticut and a pair of directional Florida teams. Bridgewater was superb on Sunday, but it’s impossible to rank his performance ahead of the one turned in by Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd against Georgia.

Boyd threw for three TDs and ran for two more. He did it against a national powerhouse, on national TV, in prime time, in a game with national title implications.

Boyd came through big time on a big stage, and has two more dates on the national marquee against Florida State and South Carolina. Bridgewater has no showcase games whatsoever. It will cost him the Heisman when all is said and done.

So what?

More great players have lost the Heisman than have won it.

Here’s to watching Teddy Bridgewater spend the next four months joining that gilded club.

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