After participating in the 18th bowl game in program history—a 27-24 Citrus Bowl victory over Penn State—and landing just the second five-star recruit since 2002 (when Rivals.com began ranking recruits) in Justin Rogers, Kentucky football is riding high. While the recent success is cause for celebration, the program cannot rest on its laurels. This is a pivotal point for the football program, one where they can take the next step and gain recognition as a legitimate national competitor. The key to achieving this is for the program to schedule tougher non-conference opponents.
Being a member of the Southeastern Conference means Kentucky has an inherently difficult schedule, and with eight SEC opponents every year and a home-and-home series with Louisville, UK’s non-conference flexibility is limited to three games. Also, the Wildcats prefer to play two out-of-conference games at home, and they are not yet to the level where premier opponents would be willing to travel to Lexington. Essentially, this means that there is only one game available per year, and that Kentucky would have to make the trip.
Still, were the Cats to volunteer to travel to tough road venues, it would show a willingness to seek out the best competition, which would help improve their national reputation and give the Big Blue Nation a chance to visit some historic stadiums. Also, a tough out-of-conference game would help prepare the Cats for when they travel to hostile environments within the SEC.
So, if Kentucky is willing to take the next step by scheduling better, here are five theoretical opponents the program should consider adding to its schedule to increase its national profile:
5. Any decent Pac-12 team
A prerequisite for being a national program is putting together a national schedule. Washington and Oregon have each made the College Football Playoff, Washington State is a consistently solid program and USC, while in the midst of a rebuild, has one of the richest histories of any football program.
The Pac-12 has been down in recent years, but the conference should be looking to reinvigorate their own national reputation by getting opponents from other Power 5 conferences, particularly the SEC, to compete with their teams. The Cats would have a good chance of winning against any opponent, despite the trek from Lexington to the west coast. Recording a marquee win over a big-name school could open up a new area of recruiting for the program and finally allow UK to travel west of the Rockies.
4. Ohio State
It would be a long shot not only for the Wildcats to win this game, but also for them to simply schedule it. Ohio State is in the upper echelon of programs and already look to schedule a tough Power-5 opponent every year, so they may not be inclined to add an on-the-rise Kentucky team to their non-conference schedule.
If the matchup does occur, the fact that Kentucky and OSU constantly vie for Ohio prospects would provide plenty of intrigue for the matchup in terms of future recruiting battles. Also, should the Cats actually prevail in Columbus, it would not only aid in terms of recruiting but be one of the greatest moments in the history of Kentucky football. It’s just a shame that Ohio native Benny Snell wouldn’t be on the UK roster to add to the hype.
3. Notre Dame
Notre Dame is arguably the most historic program in the history of college football. They have recently scheduled an SEC opponent annually, facing Vanderbilt in 2018 and Georgia in 2017, with a rematch scheduled this season in Athens. If the Wildcats want to throw their hat in the ring, the Irish could be a willing participant.
What’s more, playing in Notre Dame stadium could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for UK fans, coaches and players. Notre Dame is a brand that Kentucky should strive to match, and scheduling this game would improve UK’s profile among even casual college football fans.
2. Penn State
Kentucky’s victory over Penn State in the Citrus Bowl proved they could compete with top-tier programs. That victory may have left enough of a sour taste in the Nittany Lions’ mouths for them to want some revenge.
Happy Valley, much like Columbus (Ohio State) and South Bend (Notre Dame), is a premier environment for players and fans to experience. Also, the Nittany Lions are another program that consistently competes with the Cats for Ohio recruits. Another victory would give Kentucky some extra cachet when recruiting against Penn State, and give the Cats experience with a tough road test. Plus, Mark Stoops handing James Franklin another loss, this time on his turf, would be a nice bonus.
1. West Virginia
This is the top choice on this list because it is probably the most realistic to achieve and would arguably be the most intriguing matchup on paper. The relative proximity of the two schools would make it a convenient trip for the fans, while Mountaineer’s head coach and Boyle County native Neal Brown’s stint as a wide receiver and offensive coordinator for the Cats already provides an interesting link for both programs.
Brown has put together a high-powered offense, as is typical of Big 12 teams, while Mark Stoops is a defensive-minded coach who has molded the Wildcats into a stout test for any offense. This game could provide the college football equivalent of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge, but most importantly, WVU might be the most willing program on this list to arrange a home-and-home series, allowing the Big Blue Nation to see a Big 12 opponent come to town.
College football schedules are set years in advance, so it could take several years before any of these matchups becomes available. However, that means that the athletic department must act swiftly to ensure they can schedule a difficult non-conference opponent. Doing so would pay dividends for the program on the recruiting trail and help develop the Cats’ national profile—and possibly give basketball a run for its money in the Bluegrass.