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Mission Impossible: Growing a football program in the SEC

With all the pixels that have been darkened and unusual amount of deserved expectations received this year by the Kentucky Wildcat football team, there still remains one fundamental ... well, I hesitate to call it fact, so let's call it informed perception ... that is is impossible to grow a football team from the cellar to the top in the Southeastern Conference.

I use the word "impossible" advisedly.   Just down Interstate 64 from Lexington lies a school who grew their program from a non-entity to a consistent contender for BCS bowls, so a reasonable question would be "why can't Kentucky?"  That is a good question, and one I am prepared to attempt to answer.

Louisville grew up by taking advantage of what is universally thought of as a weak conference.  Conference USA was (and to some extent, still is) little more than a loose confederation of good-sized schools who have nowhere else to affiliate.  Louisville took a decision to grow their football team in that fertile soil, and they have -- spectacularly so.  When the opportunity came for them to affiliate with the Big East, Louisville's football fortunes were greatly enhanced (arguably at the expense of basketball) by the additional exposure, and by clever marketing by their athletic staff (playing ESPN games at odd times, and so forth).  The result is a nationally ranked team and an annual contender for the top of a middle of the road football conference.

The results of that effort are clear for everyone to see.  So it would be reasonable to ask, "Why can't Kentucky duplicate that effort?"  Kentucky receives more in funding from the state, has a much larger fan and alumni base, is a bigger school, and probably has more football fans.  Why cannot Kentucky, with a commitment from the athletic department and determined efforts by the school, duplicate Louisville's success?

The answer, in this fan's mind, is simple.  The Southeastern Conference.

Unlike conference USA, the Big East or even the Big Ten, there are not two or three dominant teams in the SEC.  In a given year, there are no less than six or seven teams capable of winning the conference.  The difference between the top four or five traditions in the SEC are not measured in bowl appearances, BCS or otherwise -- they are measured in the number of national and league championships in their trophy cases.

This creates a stratification in the SEC different from any other conference -- a huge, thick layer of "haves" at the top and a comparatively thin layer of "have nots" at the bottom, of which Kentucky is unfortunately one.  No matter how good we are this year, even if we managed what every respectable football pundit considers impossible and win our division, it would be just as it was when we did it last time -- a flash in the pan.

For more proof, just examine this article by Stewart Mandel.  He divides the BCS programs into Kings, Barons, Knights and Peasants.  Notice that no less than six SEC programs are either Kings or Barons.  They are not one step above Kentucky's Peasant program, but two.  Heck, three more of the SEC programs are considered Knights.  That leaves very few Peasants in the SEC.

Kentucky fans who know how to flip up their Big Blue shades occasionally know all this deep down.  We refuse to give in to that reality because that's what fans do, and let's face it -- compared to many other teams outside the SEC, we have a very decent team, and a reasonably competitive program.  If Kentucky were to join the Big East, or even the Big 10, we could instantly become at least a middle of the pack team almost every year.  Obviously, in the Big 10 with it's two great powers it would be hard to win league championships, but Kentucky's odds would be infinitely greater even there than trying to fight through Georgia, Auburn, Alabama, LSU, Tennessee, and Florida every year, not to mention rising Arkansas and South Carolina.

The soil of the SEC is about as fertile and friendly for growing a team as the Empty Quarter of the Arabian Desert -- those who wander in, never come out.  So it is with the Kentucky football program.  Why would highly-touted recruits prefer Kentucky over ... well, any of the top SEC programs?  They don't, which is why we only have one 5-star player out of high school on our entire roster.  But wait -- those ratings don't matter, you say.  Outside the Sidelines has done a statistical study on just that fact, and believe me -- they do matter.

So why am I pouring cold water all over our suddenly trendy team?  Sometimes we have to face the facts, and look at reality.  Rich Brooks is proving to be a fine coach, but he is no Steve Spurrier, or Nick Saban, or Mark Richt.  Kentucky has a fine team, but in a conference like the SEC, we still, with all our great players, have the potential to be a conference doormat -- and the odds are way better for our season to suck than for us to win even a division title.  It isn't rah-rah, and it isn't happy, but it is reality.  The players at virtually every top SEC school are better, top to bottom, than ours are.  And when you say "top school" in the SEC, you mean at least five programs.

Does that mean we won't someday win a division, or even a league crown?  No, of course not.  We have done it before.  I think we will go to our second bowl in a row this year, and we may upset one or two of the Great Powers getting there.  But inevitably after a hot year or two, we sink back to a lower middle team, where we wander for years in the wilderness of mediocrity.  Suppose we upgrade to where South Carolina is now -- mid-mediocrity.  It is still mediocrity.

Can it end?  Not in the SEC.  Rich Brooks can upgrade our program only so much, just as you can grow things in the desert, but only with lots of water and care.  But will we ever grow from a sapling to a mighty oak in football?  Not in my lifetime.  Not in this conference.