In 2005, the Kentucky football team played 3 non-conference football games. Louisville, Indiana, and Idaho State. Remember, it was just an 11-game schedule back then. Since that year of football, Kentucky has played 14 football seasons under 3 head coaches (Brooks, Phillips, and Stoops). And in those 14 years of football, Kentucky football has played:
-Louisville 14 times
-FCS teams 14 times
-MAC teams 12 times
-Sun Belt teams 11 times
-Conference USA teams 4 times
-FBS Independent teams 1 time
-Pac-12, Big 12, Big 10, AAC, and ACC 0 times
And the non-conference schedules for 2020 through 2024 are already booked. And those games are:
-8 games against MAC schools
-5 games against Louisville
-5 games against FCS teams
-2 games against Sun Belt schools
-0 games against Pac-12, Big 12, Big 10, AAC, and ACC schools
Now, I understand the reasoning, especially when this really got going in 2005. The program was really in shambles, with Rich Brooks scratching and clawing for every win and bowl games almost impossible to come by. The idea was the SEC was such a grind, and Louisville was rolling and beating UK every year, that the Cats needed to try and schedule as many guarantee wins as possible in the non-conference and get the home game revenue every year. I get it. And it actually paid dividends. UK made bowl games in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2019 with losing SEC records. And that was because they got 3 or 4 wins in the non-conference season.
So again, I GET IT.
But now as we stand in 2020, I don’t get it anymore. Are we for real in football or not? Do we want to get respect or not? We want to go out there as a group of players, coaches, and fanbase and talk about how we have arrived, we are SEC contenders, nobody respects us, look at our talent, and all of that jazz. Yet we schedule like a program that feels like we can’t make a bowl without playing 3 cupcakes and Louisville every year.
And let’s be honest on this point. Most teams at our level are not doing this. Who are our equivalents? Look at what some teams in our very own division that are of similar level right now in college football as UK have scheduled in the non-conference in the last 5 years:
Missouri (SEC): BYU (2015), W.Virginia (2016), Purdue (2017), Purdue (2018), Memphis (2018), W.Virginia (2019)
Tennessee (SEC): Oklahoma (2015), Va Tech (2016), Ga Tech (2017), W.Virginia (2018), BYU (2019)
South Carolina (SEC): UNC (2015), NC State (2017), UNC (2019)
Are we a worse program than Missouri? If you feel like we are at the level of Missouri, which I do, then why is they can schedule a good non-conference game every year and we can’t? The reason some of you will give is because we have a rival like Louisville every year and they don’t. OK fine. I will accept that. Let’s move on South Carolina then. They have a key rival outside of the SEC (Clemson) that they play every year. And yet, in 3 of the last 5 years they have played an additional ACC team in their non-conference. Why is it they can schedule like this and we can’t?
I am not advocating for some murder’s row of non-conference games in football because I understand the budget concerns for the football program and the need for some gimme games leading into the SEC. But why can we not do what South Carolina does? Here is my proposal:
On years when Louisville comes to Lexington, schedule a non-conference game against a Power 5 school.
Now, focus in here. Did I say schedule Oklahoma or Ohio State or Clemson? I did not. But what about Cincinnati or Memphis or West Virginia or Virginia Tech or North Carolina or NC State or any number of other schools in our region that have shown they are willing to schedule SEC teams? Are we so SCARED of losing that we don’t want to take a “risk” every other year against a team of that caliber? And if we are that scared, what does that say about this administration. I would think Mark Stoops would say bring it on. I am sure the players would say bring it on. So it seems to me this is an administration decision.
As fans, it improves our experience as well. Do games against Kent State and Ohio sell out Kroger Field? Doubtful. Sparse crowds. But if West Virginia came to town, you better believe that atmosphere would be wild. And even if that game would have to be played at a neutral location, fans would travel like they would to a bowl game. It’s all positive.
Except we could lose. But if a key factor of our program is fear of losing, has the program really advanced that far?