A lot of speculation this year with the Cats is that they should be playing a tougher schedule of out of conference opponents. There are several theories behind this, as well as several theories against it. We can look at those theories in just a bit, but first, let's take a long hard look at UK's options and how they can play out, as well as what they Cats could be staring at this week, instead of the opportunity to start the season 3-0.
First and foremost, I think we will all agree that we get no particular pleasure as a fan from watching the Cats pummel a non-BCS opponent, but those games are as we call them a necessary evil. Not just from the standpoint that all of our other SEC teams do the same thing, but those schools benefit monetarily in ways that they could only imagine playing teams solely in the FCS Division. Second, and on this point I think we also agree, we want to see our Cats in a Bowl Game each year. Yes, they are a dime a dozen anymore, but for those kids to not get to participate in a Bowl when others around them are using the same strategies to go, and for us as fans not to get to watch them play in a Bowl is unacceptable. And third and lastly, there is a big financial gain from traveling to a Bowl for the Wildcats. These Bowls write some pretty hefty checks, and those come in handy when it is time to pay the bills.
Now comes the hard part, how to get there. There are 2 basic trains of thought here, both of which will work if you are a top flight SEC Powerhouse. You can use the "cupcake" theory to schedule, and essentially buy your way into a Bowl, or you can take your chances, roll the dice, and pray for the best. Mitch Barnhart and company have chosen a variation on the first approach, and I say variation because part of their scheduling is out of their hands.
Kentucky's chances of an undefeated season and a trip to a National Championship game are somewhere between slim and none as it stands right now. That is not a knock on Kentucky, that is a fact of life. And it doesn't have to fall back on the old excuse of we cannot recruit with the big boys, therefore we cannot compete with them. What does have to happen is that we need a year, very much like this year, where our talent level and schedule fit directly with the talent levels and schedules of the other SEC East teams. This year is what some would call a "down" year for Florida, coming off of Tim Tebow's graduation, so it essentially leaves the SEC East somewhat up for grabs. Florida may very well still win the East, but it will not be as easy as it has been in year's past.
Kentucky, Georgia, Tennessee, and South Carolina are as close to being equals this year as they have been in my lifetime. Every school has weaknesses and every school has strengths that play against the other schools' weaknesses. Is Kentucky really as good as those teams? Well, at this point it is simply speculation, but looking up and down the rosters of all 4 schools, one could say at this point when you factor in all of the other things such as coaching, stability of the program, and time spent as a unit that Kentucky holds their own. So we roll the dice. Can the Cats run the table in a down year in the SEC East? Probably not. But they do stand a chance of coming out of SEC play with only 1-2 losses, something they haven't done in a very, very long time.
So let's say the Cats do that very thing, and we are looking at that mystical double digit win season, what does it get us? Well, to be completely honest, not a whole lot. Yes, it would be great to go back to the Outback Bowl, or even the Sugar Bowl, but that is it. 10-2 doesn't get you a ticket to the big dance, unless you have a stellar OOC schedule and everyone else loses 2 as well. The thing is, that is never going to happen. There are too many factors out there against us.Here is the list.
OOC scheduling has to include Louisville. That, in past year's was a boon, now it has been a burden. Until Louisville is back at the top of their game, and we can still defeat them, it kills us.
Do I like playing Akron, Charleston Southern, and the like? No. But these are good games to teach the kids what they need for SEC play without getting manhandled to learn.
In-State schools need Kentucky to give them a payday. Is this a good reason, well, no, but it is a reason.
Playing the next level of BCS talent does not get us anything but harder games to win. It does not guarantee us anything come Bowl time, other than a lesser Bowl if we do not win all of those OOC games.
Kentucky is not yet ready to play the likes of Georgia, Florida, Tennessee and such, and win regularly. And by that I mean posting a winning SEC record every year. Very few teams, short of Bama and Florida are dong that. In fact, not one other SEC team has posted a winning record against all other SEC teams in the last 5 years.
Lastly, the BCS Championship Bowl Series is a farce. Not because we need a playoff, because that is a separate issue. But because the games are already spelled out for every conference. We know going into the year which Bowl game we get based upon where we finish in the conference. Unless we win the SEC East, our best placement is 3rd in the SEC. That gets us a second tier bowl game at best. Is that better than the third or fourth tier we are getting now? Yes, but not much to show for what is a tremendous hill to climb. So we play the waiting game. We schedule 4 teams a year we know we can beat, then we go roll the dice in the SEC and hope for at least a .500 record, but know that we may end up 2-6, but that 2-6 gets us our Bowl.
The moral of the story here folks is that we can play tougher opponents, and we may feel a lot better about ourselves if we win, but we in truth gain nothing. In the past I have always been a proponent of a tougher OOC schedule because I thought it gave us credibility. Truth is it gives us nothing but more work with very little to show for it. I don't like the hand we were dealt here, but I know how to play it.
Do not get me wrong, I am not saying that Kentucky cannot play with better teams. But what I am saying is that we are getting the maximum gain out of the situation we are in. It is not pretty, but it is a fact of life. Mitch, Joker and Co. are trying to make lemonade out of lemons, and sometimes that leaves some with a sour taste. For those of you bearing that burden, you have my sympathies. I have chosen to focus on having a little fun with what we can do, and not focus on what we cannot.
We can schedule big name opponents, maybe get a few more ESPN games on Saturday, and maybe win those games, I am not sure. But what I am sure of is that the formula that Kentucky is using has worked for the last 4-5 years. Maybe we don't need to be tinkering just yet.