We are on the cusp of Mark Stoops' all-important third season at Kentucky.
This is a season that held promise as early as December 2012 at Stoops' introductory press conference. Roster balance has been restored, and new talented has been injected. Some of that new talent has also had all-important game experience. Avoid key injuries, combine good leadership when the times get tough, and the outlook becomes even more positive.
Shamelessly stealing this idea from Rocky Top Talk, I'm going to rank UK's most important games in 2015 from least consequential to most consequential. My methodology will only be based on the symbolism in an individual victory, and the teams that if UK were to defeat them, would cement progress. Priority will be given to teams I judge UK can realistically beat, even if the 'Cats aren't necessarily the odds-on favorites.
12. November 21st vs Charlotte
Charlotte is terrible. No.
11. October 3rd vs Eastern Kentucky
I don't care about the fight that happened last spring between the two teams in a seedy Richmond bar that later continued in a seedy dorm. It means little in the grand scheme of things, and I don't buy into a possible revenge factor. EKU shouldn't pose a threat, and UK should take care of business.
10. September 5th vs Louisana Lafeyette
Regardless what you'll hear, UL-L shouldn't be a threat to UK. They have been good in recent years, but they've lost all of their defensive play-makers, their starting quarterback, and their best receivers. They do return a pretty good running back, but can a good running back keep up with UK's offense scoring 35 plus points? Probably not. Expect UK to pull away no later than the third quarter, and for the day-drinking to restart before the blood alcohol content barely dipped below legal levels for those not sneaking in flasks.
9. October 24th at Mississippi State
The Bulldogs will be good this year, and I don't see UK winning this road game. Symbolically, a win would certainly show progress, and be a great road win; however, this won't be the most symbolic win of all the choices if it were to happen.
8. November 7th at Georgia
See Mississippi State. The big difference being this is a divisional opponent.
7. October 31st vs Tennessee
Tennessee will be young, and thin at some positions, but this is another game UK probably won't win. It should make for a great atmosphere with The Breeder's Cup and Halloween also occurring on the same day as once foretold by Nostradamus. All we'll be missing is a Blood Moon, locust hordes, and raining frogs. This game is arguably the least interesting thing happening in Lexington this weekend.
6. October 15th vs Auburn
This game played in front of a national television audience gives it the edge over the Tennessee game, but I'm hard-pressed to see if UK can capitalize. The potential is so high, though, that it almost cracks the Top Five. If the game was against Georgia (divisional opponent, national audience, AND top ten team), it would move far higher.
5. November 14th at Vanderbilt
Many are penciling this in as a UK win, but that seems a bit premature. Vandy could very well have given up on its season by mid-November, and it's easy to envision a scenario where most of Vanderbilt stadium is dressed in blue and white, but this feels like a classic trap game. UK isn't yet at the level where it can afford to take this game for granted. A loss squeezes bowl hopes to the point of asphyxiation; hence, the high ranking.
4. September 26th vs Missouri
Mizzou constantly gets taken for granted, but this feels like the first time since 2012 UK has a realistic shot at getting a victory over the Tigers. That's more of a statement about UK's improvement than a Tiger decline. Mizzou will very likely be a bowl eligible team, is the two-time defending SEC East champs, and would make for an excellent scalp to hang from the new CWS. Divisional victory and symbolism.
3. November 28th vs Louisville
Rivalry games rightfully percolate to the top tier. I don't put UofL at the top spot because I'm not sure what a victory brings outside of bragging rights. Those are certainly important, no doubt, but UK and UofL largely don't seem to be recruiting the same players, and I'm not sure how much a victory would matter outside of the state lines. Rivalries serve as jet fuel to talk radio and social media. The commoditization of their histories and traditions should draw yawns instead of ratings, alas. In the actual world, practicality should trump pride. Although, all bets are off if UK is 5-6 heading into this game, and needing a win for a bowl. If that's the case, LAY WASTE TO THOSE DIRTY TEETH BIRDS!!!1!!11!!!
2. September 12th at South Carolina
This game is more winnable than has been given credit in some circles. The talent gap appears non-existent, and a South Carolina defense that gave up 450 yards last season will face an even better UK offense this season. How much could the Gamecocks' defense improved in the off-season? South Carolina also lost the left side of their offensive line, their quarterback, and their starting running back. A win here is symbolic (Mark Stoops' first road win), advances UK's cause to disrupt "the soft middle" of the SEC East, and would be an example of punching above its weight. In other words, a Hat-trick of undeniable progress.
1. September 19th vs Florida
UK's two biggest games fall back-to-back in the first three weeks of the season. UK could further display punching above its weight by defeating a Florida team that will probably be better in November than it will be in September. I can't think of anything more symbolic than ending The (Damn) Streak. Finally, if UK were to start at 2-0 in the SEC it will be the first time since 1964 which was 51 long years ago. That's making history. That can't be topped.