Photo by Keyli Chisesi, Go Big Blue Country
The SEC is known for some of the biggest, loudest, and most hostile environments in the country. Every season when a schedule is released, the traditional approach is to take care of business at home and steal a couple on the road. Teams like Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, and LSU are near the top of the standings consistently, because they defeat quality SEC teams on the road. The same cannot be said about Kentucky, who has not finished on the .500 side since Randall Cobb carried them to a 3-1-road record in 2009. However, the 2017 season could bring change to a program on the verge of contending with the best in the SEC.
One could look at the Wildcats 2017 schedule and notice that it sets up better than it has in years past. Wildcat fans see home dates with the big three of Florida, Tennessee, and Louisville; three games Kentucky will most likely enter as underdogs when the spread is released. Facing those opponents at home is a plus, along with drawing both Mississippi schools in the east/west crossover matchups, however, the biggest factor in a potential breakout season is a road schedule chalked full of winnable games.
The road schedule for the Wildcats includes trips to Southern Mississippi, South Carolina, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, and Georgia. Kentucky defeated three of those teams last season and arguably should have won all five. Southern Miss embarrassed Kentucky 44-35 in the season opener after the Wildcats blew a large lead and Georgia topped Kentucky 27-24 on a last second field goal in early November.
@ Southern Miss
The Wildcats open the season in a true road game for the first time since 2012. Even more surprising, Kentucky plays a non-power five conference team on the road. A game that is impossible to predict, because who would’ve guessed the Golden Eagles would travel to Commonwealth Stadium and knock off the Wildcats a year ago. Mark Stoops will have his teams’ full attention entering this matchup, but a close game is not out of the question. Kentucky needs a win and the road environment will prepare them for a week three matchup with South Carolina.
@ South Carolina
If you understand anything about football, you will scan the schedule a dozen times and find yourself pointing to this early game as a momentum shifting matchup. UK has won three straight games vs. the Gamecocks, each coming down to the final drive of the 4th quarter. Expect this matchup of hopeful SEC East contenders to deliver the same thing in mid-September.
A win vs. the Gamecocks could mean a 3-0 start and momentum heading into a week four matchup with Florida. A loss and you’re staring down the barrel of a possible 0-2 SEC start, something the Wildcats want to avoid this season. A 7:30 kick in Columbia will be difficult, but this matchup will impact the East race early.
@ Mississippi State
Don’t be shocked if Kentucky is leading the SEC East when it enters this road matchup on October 21st. The Wildcats finally put an end to the losing streak last season when Austin MacGinnis’ 51-yard field goal sailed through the October night, before landing beyond the crossbar for a 40-38 victory. Kentucky hasn’t left Starkville victorious since 2008 and this is a matchup that always impacts bowl eligibility, however, this season it could affect the SEC race. The Wildcats will have their hands full with Bulldog QB Nick Fitzgerald, who had success vs. Kentucky last season. This is a game Kentucky must win if they want to make a jump in the East division.
There is one thing you can depend on every season and that is a must win matchup vs. Vanderbilt. Almost every year, this matchup impacts bowl eligibility for both teams, and if Kentucky wants to climb the SEC leader board, they must knock off teams they are better than.
Two seasons ago, the Wildcats traveled to Nashville needing a win to help reach bowl eligibility, but a lack of focus and desire resulted in a loss. Kentucky will hopefully have a bowl berth clinched by November 11th, but the Commodores may be playing for one.
The final road matchup of the season will be the toughest. By the time November 18th rolls around, Kentucky should be tested and ready to enter a matchup with the Bulldogs. This game is perfectly placed in the schedule and Kentucky has the talent to not only compete, but knock off Georgia. The Bulldogs will be coming off a three game stretch vs. Florida, South Carolina, and Auburn, before playing Kentucky the week before their annual date with rival Georgia Tech. A brutal schedule could force the Bulldogs to limp into this late season matchup. Florida will wrap up SEC play the week before, so the East pecking order should be clear prior to kickoff.
Fans have every reason to be excited and optimistic that Kentucky can turn the corner in the SEC this season. Last season, Wildcat fans would’ve been content with six wins, however, this year fans are talking 8+ victories prior to a bowl game, something Kentucky hasn’t done since 1984. If Kentucky can come away with 4 wins on the road, we could witness the best season in over 30 years.