Last season, Kentucky made some noise with an upset over No. 11 Louisville and its first bowl game since 2010. This season, a favorable schedule gives the Cats a chance to take the next step; however, that all hinges on the September 16 showdown with South Carolina in Columbia.
The Cats have beaten the Gamecocks three years in a row, but with one of the most promising quarterbacks in the league in Jake Bentley, Will Muschamp has started to turn things around in his second season. Every game on the schedule is important, but here’s why Kentucky’s trip to Columbia could make or break a breakthrough season for Mark Stoops.
A win would further establish Kentucky’s position in the East
Not only has Kentucky beaten South Carolina three years straight, they’ve finished ahead of them in the SEC East standings two years in a row. The end of the Steve Spurrier era and start of the Will Muschamp era made for rocky times in Columbia, which Kentucky was able to capitalize on to get its first taste of SEC success. The Cats’ win over the Gamecocks in 2014 was the first defining victory of the Mark Stoops era, and the win in Columbia in 2015 was Stoops’ first on the road. Last year’s seven-point win in Commonwealth Stadium had some scary moments, but the Cats survived thanks to a crucial tackle by Denzil Ware on 4th down of the Gamecocks’ last drive. After a disastrous season-opening loss to Southern Miss, the win over South Carolina helped Kentucky steady the ship.
Conditions won’t be as favorable this go around. Not only will the game take place under the lights at a blacked-out Williams-Brice Stadium, the Gamecocks have sophomore quarterback Jake Bentley, considered one of the best young quarterbacks in the conference. Bentley didn’t play vs. Kentucky last year, but after winning the starting job midseason, he helped the Gamecocks finish strong and go to a bowl. Did I mention the part about South Carolina fans losing their minds to “Sandstorm”?
The last time UK beat an SEC opponent four years in a row other than Vandy? Florida back in 1948, 49, 50, and 51. For the Cats to continue to push forward in the SEC East, they need to continue their dominance of the Gamecocks.
A win could mean a 3-0 record heading into the Florida game
Say Kentucky wins its first two games over Southern Miss and Eastern Kentucky. A win over South Carolina would not only get them halfway to bowl eligibility, it would give them a serious boost of momentum heading into a home game vs. Florida. I don’t need to remind you that the Gators’ winning streak over the Cats now sits at 30. Kentucky has come close to knocking off Florida in recent years (damn you, 2014 play clock!), but last year’s blowout in Gainesville proves that the streak is definitely in Kentucky’s head. Beat South Carolina and you roll into the game on a freight train of momentum; lose to South Carolina, and any fear or doubts are that much easier to reach for.
A win could be the secret to 8-4
When looking at the schedule, I break it down into “Should win,” “Should lose,” and “Toss Up” games:
|September 2||at Southern Miss||Should win|
|September 9||EASTERN KENTUCKY||Should win|
|September 16||at South Carolina||Toss Up|
|September 23||FLORIDA||Should lose|
|September 30||EASTERN MICHIGAN||Should win|
|October 7||MISSOURI||Should win|
|October 21||at Mississippi State||Should lose|
|October 28||TENNESSEE||Toss Up|
|November 4||MISSISSIPPI||Should win|
|November 11||at Vanderbilt||Should win|
|November 18||at Georgia||Should lose|
|November 25||LOUISVILLE||Toss Up|
Per that line of thinking, Kentucky has three “Toss Up” games this season: at South Carolina, vs. Tennessee, and vs. Louisville. (Louisville’s probably more of a “Should Lose” game, but after last season, I couldn’t help but put it into the “Toss Up” category, especially since it’s at home.) Win at South Carolina and you allow yourself a slip up in the other Toss Up games to get to 8-4. Lose and you have to beat both Tennessee and Louisville (or one of the two and Florida), which seems like a daunting task.
It can be a scary thought as a Kentucky fan, but the Cats have a chance to do something really special this season. In order for that to happen, they have to beat South Carolina in Columbia on September 16.