Benny Snell fires up the crowd prior to kickoff vs. EKU ― Snell and the Wildcats focus their attention to South Carolina for a crucial SEC East matchup ― Photo by Keyli Chisesi (Go Big Blue Country)
Through the first two games of the season, Mark Stoops’ Wildcats wouldn’t take home any beauty pageant awards, but Stoop’s troops have flipped the script from last years 0-2 start. Kentucky pulled out a hard fought 24-17 road victory at Southern Miss and followed that with a 27-16 win vs. Eastern Kentucky, a game they trailed 13-3 just before halftime. On the other hand, the Wildcats next opponent, the South Carolina Gamecocks, have won vs. N.C. State (35-28) and Missouri (31-13).
Two sloppy and less than impressive victories have fans wondering if they fell into another Kentucky football off-season hype trap, or if drinking the big blue Kool-Aid was the correct choice. A win this week vs. South Carolina, a crucial road SEC game, would put an end to any doubt Wildcat fans are having about the boys in blue.
Kentucky currently owns a three game winning streak vs. the Gamecocks with the previous three matchups coming down to the final drive. Williams-Brice Stadium will be ready on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. eastern time, as South Carolina announced a black out game in early August.
Saturday’s game will be the first home game for South Carolina, who is looking to start SEC play 2-0 after winning the conference opener with Mizzou. It’s only week three of the college football season, but this matchup is critical to what the Wildcats want to achieve in 2017. Let’s take a look at why this game is the most important matchup on the Kentucky schedule.
Don’t take a step in the wrong direction
Kentucky’s ascent towards the top of the SEC East under Mark Stoops began with a victory vs. South Carolina in 2014. The Wildcats followed that with a road victory at Columbia in 2015 and a third straight win in 2016.
Although the Gamecocks are making strides under Will Muschamp after reaching a bowl game in 2016, a loss would be a step in the wrong direction for Stoops club. To continue climbing the ladder, Kentucky has to consistently defeat the teams they have had success against under Stoops. A loss would be a minor step back, while a win would be another step in the right direction.
Florida is on deck
The winner of this matchup will have a leg up in the SEC East race, while the loser will face an uphill climb. A loss would have the Wildcats staring down the barrel of a 0-2 start in SEC play with Florida traveling to Lexington the following week.
The Gators, who own a 30-game winning streak vs. Kentucky, is not the ideal opponent to get back on track against.
The momentum of a victory is needed
You get the feeling that Wildcat fans are hanging on by a thread, which is bizarre for a team with a 2-0 start. A loss to the Gamecocks would definitely extinguish any momentum going into a matchup with Florida in week four. Likewise, a victory would have the Wildcats playing with house money in a buzzing Kroger Field.
Kentucky needs all the momentum it can get to end the streak vs. the Gators and a fourth consecutive victory vs. South Carolina would be the perfect shot in the arm. A loss and Kroger Field would still be packed, but the buzz wouldn’t be as high leading up to the game.
A victory keeps you alive in the SEC East
I know, it’s crazy to say that one loss could cost you the unpredictable Eastern division, but a loss firmly places you behind the 8-ball. A loss would force Kentucky into a must win game vs. Florida, which is a matchup lacking history on the Wildcats side. However, a victory would put them in perfect position to make some noise.
Dropping a game to Florida isn’t detrimental, as long as Kentucky picks up a win in Columbia. The reason is following the Florida matchup; the Wildcats next home conference game is vs. Missouri, a team that looks to be among the worst in the division. The Wildcats follow that with a road game at Mississippi State and home matchups vs. Tennessee and Ole Miss, before road trips to Vanderbilt and Georgia, to conclude SEC play.
Looking at that schedule, a victory vs. South Carolina would give the Wildcats a great chance of at least a 2-1 start in league play, but a possible 3-0 start if they can find a way to upset the Gators at home. Finding a way to win in Columbia is crucial.