LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky's seniors aren't ending their careers the way they had imagined.
Instead of bowing out with a bowl game, the Wildcats (1-7, 0-5 Southeastern Conference) will be postseason spectators after last week's loss to Georgia officially eliminated them from contention. Their immediate goal now is ending a six-game losing streak in Saturday's conference game at Missouri (3-4, 0-4).
That hasn't been easy for injury-riddled Kentucky, which has been forced to play a significant number of freshmen and sophomores as a result. Despite these challenges, defensive end Taylor Wyndham, center Matt Smith and 13 other seniors have vowed to keep their younger teammates focused through turmoil including speculation over coach Joker Phillips' future.
If it translates into victories, they believe that might define their legacy in a way that postseason won't.
"It makes it tough on you but you can't ever show it," Wyndham said. "You've got to be inspirational and show them fire and (you) can't have an off day. I may be on my way out, but I want to do something for the future and set an example to work hard and keep getting better regardless of how things are going. You can't look at the past, you just have to have your eyes forward.
"It's tough, but like they say, tough times don't last, but tough people do. It just makes you stronger, maybe not on the field but it might be something that happens off the field or later in life."
Certainly, Kentucky's seniors have seen plenty of tough times the past two seasons.
After going 5-7 and missing a bowl game last year for the first time since 2005, the Wildcats believed a new pass-happy offensive scheme with sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith would help guide them back to the postseason.
Instead, injuries to Smith, top backup Patrick Towles and no fewer than a dozen others have left Kentucky with 27 freshmen and sophomores on the two-deep depth chart. The Wildcats have played 14 true freshmen and currently have a secondary with five true freshmen playing a significant number of snaps.
"Being plagued with all these injuries hasn't been easy," Matt Smith said. "It's something I've said from the beginning of the summer, we have a lot of young guys who could play and contribute, and unfortunately because of circumstances they're getting their chance (too early) though. I still have a lot of confidence in what we can do. We just have to keep pushing forward."
This season has been notable even for someone who has seen it all such as Wyndham.
He achieved a measure of national notoriety in 2009 when he sent Florida quarterback Tim Tebow to the hospital with a devastating hit, has been part of three bowl teams and saw the end of a 26-game losing streak to rival Tennessee.
But even Wyndham had to pause to take inventory of the scene around him recently when he realized just how young and inexperienced his defensive teammates were.
"I looked around and was like, 'man, I'm the oldest one here by two or three years,' " Wyndham said.
The experience Kentucky's underclassmen are gaining this season could pay dividends in 2013 and beyond, but the seniors won't be around to see them. Instead of allowing the losing to affect the locker-room mood, they have made it a point to do the opposite.
"We really have to set a good example for the young guys on how to prepare, how to have an attitude when things are not so great because that will be really important for them moving forward," senior quarterback Morgan Newton said. "If there is a single thing that's important, (setting an example) is. You all know there is life after football and the way you handle adversity is really important."
That example won't include a bowl game in 2012 but that doesn't mean there is nothing left to play for the final four games.
"The rest of the season is going to be for the pride of Kentucky," Matt Smith said.