I’ve known John Clay since he was just a mere beat writer like myself. I first got to know him within my SEC football notes exchange group when he covered Kentucky football back in the 1990s.
Now he’s a big-time columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. Has been for a while. But he doesn’t mind still fraternizing occasionally with us worker bees.
I asked this native Kentuckian and UK grad to fill us in on the Big Blue Nation and what they might be thinking about Saturday’s noon matchup with the heavily-favored but severely-wounded Georgia Bulldogs.
Here’s how he answered my five questions:
Q: Couldn’t help but notice that Mark Stoops got his second contract extension and raise in the last six months recently. What’s the story on that? Covering a team who’s fan base thinks Mark Richt needs to be fired despite averaging 9.7 wins per year, is there something beyond wins and losses that makes the Big Blue Nation want to reward Stoops so richly and lock him up for a while longer?
Clay: “A place called hope. Stoops’ early strength has been elevating recruiting, which in turn has injected hope for the future. And with such a long history of losing football, UK’s administration hopes it finally has located the right guy to lead the program, thus the (over)eagerness to keep him contractually satisfied. As is often the case, however, this year’s 5-1 start caused the fans and higher-ups to get a bit ahead of themselves and, the day after the contract extension, the Cats lost their balance and fell flat at Missouri. The script has been all too familiar around here.”
Q: Speaking of commitment to football, I remember hearing and reading about the “reinvention” of Commonwealth Stadium. What’s that mean and what is the status of all that? Will I recognize the place visiting for the first time in two years on Saturday?
Clay: “Considering the $110-million price tag, Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart hopes you do not. Construction crews are currently turning the old Commonwealth Stadium into the new Commonwealth Stadium, complete with (of course) new luxury boxes, a posh club level, a new-and-improved student section and a “recruiting room” where prospects can be entertained while watching the game. What it will not have more of is seats. Capacity is being reduced from about 68,000 to 62,000 in favor of a better fan experience. Less is more.”
Q: Obviously the Wildcats (5-4, 2-4 SEC) got off to a great start this year, winning five of the first six games and barely losing the one in overtime to Florida, in which it looked like they might’ve gotten jobbed. Has the current three-game losing streak dampened fans’ enthusiasm and made folks think, same ol’ Kentucky? Has the start of hoops stolen their attention?
Clay: “You could say that the start of hoops has stolen the Big Blue Nation’s attention except for the fact that hoops here never ends. John Calipari is a perpetual motion machine always thinking of ways to stay in the news, and interest in basketball recruiting runs 24/7/365. As for the grid Cats, the three-game losing streak has been something of a cold shower. Given the schedule, most fans expected it to come, but it still sends some shivers down the spine. The realists realize progress has been made, but realists don’t call in radio talk shows – or tweet.”
Q: Being well positioned to observe Georgia’s situation from afar, what is your opinion of the Bulldogs’ program under Richt and do you believe it to be underachieving under his direction? What would you say is the prevailing level of belief the Wildcats can win on Saturday?
Clay: “I’m a card-carrying member of the Mark Richt fan club. He’s a very good coach, a very good guy and runs a very good program. It’s hard to tattoo him as ‘great’ considering the Bulldogs seem to do something – yikes, Florida — every year to keep them from reaching the top of the ladder, be it conference or national. His clock management fiascos are hard to watch, but all in all I think the Dawgs are lucky to have him. And I think most Kentucky fans believe the Cats will have to get awfully lucky to win Saturday.”
Q: Patrick Towles is an impressive looking quarterback and athlete. What makes him special and what are his vulnerabilities? And what other UK players would you say Georgia fans should be aware of and some matchups that might favor the ‘Cats?
Clay: “Towles is the grandson of Hall of Fame pitcher/former U.S. Senator Jim Bunning and he has many of the gene pool’s characteristics. Towles is big and strong and confident in his abilities. His accuracy, especially on the shorter throws in Neal Brown’s offense, has been a sticking point, but he’s shown plenty of promise for a first-year starter. As for the rest of the roster, defensive end/outside linebacker Bud Dupree is by far the team’s best player. He’s a probable first-round draft pick who – thanks to all the losses – hasn’t received the credit he’s deserved. Stoops’ secondary is also much-improved this year. Kentucky is 13th nationally in pass efficiency defense. (Don’t tell Georgia, but the Cats have had trouble stopping the run.)”
And, finally, I asked Clay for a prediction for Saturday’s game?
“Mark Stoops has been hot under the collar all week about his team’s ‘untrained’ play at Missouri last week, so I expect a better effort from his club, especially in front of the home folks. That said, I witnessed Georgia’s 59-17 demolition of the Cats at Sanford Stadium last season, so I can’t see Kentucky closing such a wide gap so quickly. Make it Georgia 35, Kentucky 17.”