UK owes UT its thanks

If Kentucky's football team enjoys a big season in 2007, it will have the Tennessee Vols to thank for it.

The first 11 games of 2006 suggested the Wildcats were capable of scoring on anybody and stopping nobody. That perception changed in the regular-season finale against the Vols. The Big Blue limited Tennessee to 96 rushing yards, 336 total yards and two touchdowns.

Although the Cats lost 17-12, that gritty performance gave their much-maligned defense a shot of confidence. That confidence proved critical as Kentucky dumped Clemson 28-20 in the Music City Bowl a month later.

The Cats have all of last fall's offensive weapons back this season. So, if the defenders can pick up in 2007 where they left off at the end of 2006, this could be a big year for the Big Blue.

"Starting with the Tennessee game we stopped the run more effectively," safety Marcus McClinton recalled at the recent SEC Media Days. "That helped us a lot because at times the offense needed us to be there for them, just like they're there for us all the time. It was a necessity for what we've accomplished."

Thanks to those strong late-season showings against Tennessee and Clemson, Wildcat defenders have a level of confidence heading into this fall that was missing last fall. Knowing they shut down the Vols and Tigers is a real comfort.

"It's definitely a confidence booster and a reassurance," McClinton said. "It lets you know you can play with these top teams, regardless of who they are. As long as you come out and give it your all and execute the plays, you have a great chance of winning the ball game."

While the defensive performance against Tennessee represented something of a moral victory for the Cats, they scored a real victory against Georgia weeks earlier that proved even more memorable. Upsetting the Dawgs 24-20 in Lexington turned a lot of heads.

"It established some type of credibility for us by letting people know we can beat a quality team," McClinton said. "We can beat a big name in the SEC. We can compete in the SEC. I believe that's what it did. It established some type of credibility."

In addition to showing the college football world that Kentucky could compete, that win showed the Wildcats they could compete.

"Just like it did for others, I believe it did that for us, as well," McClinton said. "We've always been believers that we could do it; we just didn't know how to do it. By beating a Georgia, that showed we could do it. We took what we did in that game and now we know how to win. That gives us that confidence, that assurance."

By beating Georgia and putting a scare into Tennessee, the Big Blue also gave its fans reason for optimism. That optimism prompted a horde of UK fans to travel to Nashville for the Cats' bowl game.

"We set a record with 50,000 in attendance, biggest crowd in Music City Bowl history," McClinton recalled, grinning broadly. "It was like playing at home. That shows we have dedicated fans and our fans want to see us succeed.

"Now we know our fans are behind us 100 percent."

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