MEMPHIS, Tenn. - Bear Bryant’s brief and successful tenure as Kentucky football coach hasn’t been matched since his departure 55 years ago.
The Wildcats have occasionally reached a bowl or two in the decades since, but never three straight. That was territory only Bear’s boys reached.
Wildcats coach Rich Brooks has already matched Bryant by leading Kentucky (6-6) to three straight postseason games. With a victory against East Carolina (9-4) in the Liberty Bowl on Friday, Kentucky will have three consecutive bowl victories for the first time.
Fittingly, the Wildcats will take a stab at program history in the Liberty Bowl, where Bryant coached Alabama four times — including the bowl’s inaugural game 50 years ago and the final game of his great career in 1982.
In each of the last two years, a Southeastern Conference also-ran defeated the Conference USA champion in Memphis, but Brooks is the first to acknowledge that his Wildcats are the underdogs in this one.
East Carolina, appearing in its third consecutive bowl and its fifth since 2000, is hardly intimidated by major conference foes after knocking off Virginia Tech and West Virginia and losing narrowly to North Carolina State.
Both programs thrive on defense and rely on strong defensive lines to pressure the opposing quarterback.
Junior C.J. Wilson, East Carolina’s all-conference defensive end, ranks 12th in the country among active players in sacks per game and has racked up nearly half (10 1/2) of his 21 1/2 career sacks this season.
If the matchup is defense against defense, Kentucky defensive end Jeremy Jarmon — a Memphis native — doesn’t seem inclined to want to lose that battle. Jarmon lobbied hard to play in the Liberty Bowl and hurried back from arthroscopic knee surgery to make sure he could suit up.
“I knew that I would play in this game,” he said. “My surgery wasn’t very serious. It has been just a matter of being patient, waiting for my body to heal itself.”