Kentucky has five away games on the schedule this season; which qualifies as the best road trip? With a month until the season opener in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, odds are you may be asking yourself that same question. As someone who loves football road trips and this great region we call the South, I’m here to help. I ranked the five road games based on five factors on a scale of 1-5 (1 being worst, 5 being best):
- Proximity to Lexington
- Stadium/tailgating scene
- Food/drink scene
- Intangibles (the one thing that makes that place unique to any other)
Here are the candidates:
- Southern Miss (September 2, Hattiesburg, Mississippi)
- South Carolina (September 16, Columbia, South Carolina)
- Mississippi State (October 21, Starkville, Mississippi)
- Vanderbilt (November 11, Nashville, Tennessee)
- Georgia (November 18, Athens, Georgia)
Let’s break them down one by one.
Southern Miss (September 2, Hattiesburg, Mississippi)
Proximity to Lexington: 1
Hattiesburg is 634 miles from Lexington, which, according to Google Maps, is a 9 hour 38 minute drive through Nashville and Birmingham on I-65 S and I-59 S. That’s a LONG drive. Flights aren’t great either. As you might expect, there’s no nonstop from Bluegrass Airport to Hattieburg-Laurel Regional Airport, so the best you can do is a $400-$550 series of connecting flights with a minimum travel time of almost seven hours. Woof.
Of all five games, this is the most winnable, despite the fact that Southern Miss beat the Cats in Lexington last year. As Freddie Maggard has dutifully warned you, Southern Miss still has star RB Ito Smith, but after being humiliated in last season’s opener, I expect the Cats to go down to Hattiesburg and take care of business.
Stadium/tailgating scene: 2
M.M. Roberts Stadium, aka “The Rock,” seats 36,000 and was renovated in 2008 to enclose the south end zone and add luxury suites. I have never been, but it looks like a nice stadium for a school of Southern Miss’ size; in fact, from pictures, it looks way nicer than Vanderbilt Stadium. That being said, it’s nowhere near the three other stadiums on the list, so I’ll give it a 2.
Food/drink scene: 2
Again, haven’t been to Hattiesburg yet, but Google suggests it has some decent restaurants and watering holes. Crescent City Grill, Keg & Barrel, and Cotton Blues seem to be popular spots. Yet, other than Starkville, Hattiesburg pales in comparison to the rest of the towns on this list.
The one thing Hattiesburg has going for it? It’s less than two hours from New Orleans, an hour and a half from Gulfport/other Mississippi coastal towns, and three hours from Gulf Shores and Pensacola. Given that the game falls on Labor Day weekend, you can definitely make a trip out of it via one of those destinations. Personally, I would go for New Orleans, especially since the UK Alumni Association down there is chartering a bus to take fans to and from Hattiesburg the game. Yes, food and drinks are allowed.
Total score for Southern Miss: 13/25
South Carolina (September 2, Columbia, South Carolina)
Proximity to Lexington: 3
Columbia is 433 miles from Lexington, or a 6 hour 37 minute drive via Google Maps. That’s not bad, especially since that route takes you through Asheville, one of the coolest towns in the Southeast.
Kentucky has beaten South Carolina three years in a row, but the Gamecocks have some buzz thanks to sophomore quarterback Jake Bentley, who threw for 1,420 yards, nine touchdowns, and four interceptions in seven starts last year. While Vandy, South Carolina, and Mississippi State all feel like they’re on the same level to me, we know this game will take place under the lights, which means Williams-Brice Stadium will be at its loudest.
Stadium/tailgating scene: 4
As mentioned, the atmosphere at Williams-Brice Stadium will be at its best for a night game vs. a team that’s beaten the Gamecocks three years straight. Brace yourself. “Sandstorm” is coming.
Food/drink scene: 3
Columbia’s a fine town. It’s nowhere near as fun as Nashville or Athens, but it’s better than Hattiesburg and Starkville (anything is better than Starkville). Like all South Carolinians, people in Columbia love to eat and drink to excess, so if you go, good times will be had.
Columbia’s best asset? It’s two hours from Charleston, one of the best cities in the country. If you can, do yourself a favor and make it a long weekend, spending Sunday and Monday in the Holy City. Go one step further and enjoy a low country boil during sunset on one of the islands.
Total score for South Carolina: 14/25
Mississippi State (October 21, Starkville, Mississippi)
Proximity to Lexington: 2
Starkville is 497 miles, or 7 hours 55 minutes from Lexington. I am not exaggerating when I say it’s in the middle of nowhere.
Mississippi State was picked to finish second to last in the SEC West ahead of Ole Miss, which has flown off the rails. The Bulldogs aren’t great, but they’ve got cowbell and the chance to catch Kentucky looking ahead to Tennessee the next week.
Stadium/tailgating scene: 3
By far the nicest thing in Starkville is Davis Wade Stadium, which seats 61,000 and is coming off a $75 million expansion/renovation in 2014. There’s nothing else to do in Starkville than go to the game, so it will be packed, and almost every fan will have a cowbell. As Nick Roush learned the hard way back in 2015, the worst thing you can do is forget earplugs.
Food/drink scene: 1
I went to Starkville for UK’s basketball game back in 2015 and wanted to give the much-maligned city a fair shake, but was disappointed to see it’s just as lame as everyone says it is. A few buildings have nice wrought-iron balconies to make you think it’s like New Orleans or Oxford, but then you look around and realize it couldn’t be more different.
You can drive an hour south and tour Scooba, the location of Last Chance U‘s East Mississippi Community College? I got nothing.
Total score for Starkville: 10/25
Vanderbilt (November 11, Nashville, Tennessee)
Proximity to Lexington: 5
As I know all too well, Nashville is an easy three hour drive (215 miles) from Lexington, just enough time to catch up on the radio show and one of KSR’s many fine podcasts.
Vandy has quietly built itself back up under Derek Mason, and may be the second best of Kentucky’s five road opponents, but their game atmosphere sucks. Add in the 20,000+ Kentucky fans that will take over crumbling Vanderbilt Stadium and you’ve got the recipe for a road win.
Stadium/tailgating scene: 1
Vanderbilt Stadium needs to be torn down. I’m not being a hater here; Vanderbilt athletic director David Williams said the same thing last year. The 40,000-seat stadium is so bad the school is contemplating building a new stadium off campus to share with a potential Major League Soccer team. That’s a horrible idea on Vandy’s part, but the situation is so dire they’re considering it. Regardless, Kentucky fans will pack the concrete horseshoe of sadness on November 11, if for no other reason than Nashville.
Food/drink scene: 5
You don’t come to Nashville to watch the Vandy game, you come to Nashville to watch the Vandy game and party. For more, consult my flowcharts from March, which are already out of date, a testament to the ridiculous rate at which this city is growing. It really is hard to keep up.
That being said, it was a tough call between Music City and Athens for this category. Nashville is the best party town in the South, but Athens might be the best college town in the South. I couldn’t decide, so I let hot chicken be the tiebreaker because it is that good.
Kentucky plays Vandy on Saturday and the Bengals play the Titans at Nissan Stadium on Sunday. Other than SEC Tournament, you couldn’t script a better weekend for a Bluegrass invasion.
Total score for Nashville: 20/25
Georgia (November 18, Athens, Georgia)
Proximity to Lexington: 4
There are two routes to Athens from Lexington; I suggest taking the one that goes through the western tip of North Carolina so you can avoid Atlanta traffic. Thank me later.
Georgia is really, really good; according to the SEC media, they’re Kentucky’s toughest opponent this season. The Cats played the Dawgs close in Lexington last year, but coming off a road trip to Nashville in a rowdy environment, they may be due for a hangover.
Stadium/tailgating scene: 5
Georgia does everything well when it comes to atmosphere. With a capacity of 92,746, Sanford Stadium is big and beautiful, and the grounds surrounding it are packed with fun-loving, friendly fans who won’t hesitate to invite you to their tailgate. Seeing a game between the hedges is an SEC bucket list trip.
Food/drink scene: 4
I went back and forth on whether or not to put Nashville or Athens at the top in this category. Nashville won because of hot chicken, but it was a tough call. Some of my favorite bars and restaurants are in Athens: Trappeze Pub, Last Resort, The National. I hear amazing things about 5 & 10 as well, and can’t wait to try it. Athens is right there with Oxford in my pantheon of favorite college towns in the SEC, which is why both Roush and I will be making the trip in November.
Atlanta is an hour and a half away (although on game day, double that), but Athens is so cool I wouldn’t bother.
Total score for Athens: 18/25
The best UK Football road trip to make this fall, per my calculations…
1. at Vanderbilt (November 11, Nashville, Tennessee) 20/25
2. at Georgia (November 18, Athens, Georgia) 18/25
3. at South Carolina (September 16, Columbia, South Carolina) 14/25
4. at Southern Miss (September 2, Hattiesburg, Mississippi) 13/25
5. at Mississippi State (October 21, Starkville, Mississippi) 10/25
If you start saving now, you might be able to afford a hotel downtown!