The year is 2016, and the Kentucky Wildcats are making their first bowl appearance under head coach Mark Stoops. After repeating the leisure in 2017, despite losing veteran quarterback Stephen Johnson, fans were expecting even more from a highly-talented roster in 2018.
Instead, Big Blue Nation received more than they could dream of. The Wildcats answered the bell with a convincing win over Central Michigan, then followed up the win with a historical, streak-ending defeat of the Florida Gators in Gainesville.
With everyone hooked on the idea that the win was a fluke, Stoops & co. then blew the doors off Murray State just before blowing out the Mississippi St. Bulldogs and South Carolina Gamecocks.
The Wildcats were inches away from pulling out another stunner, this time at Texas A&M, before entering their bye week at 5-1. Now, as they begin the second half of their season, they’ll be ranked 14th in the country with what most fans never even dreamed of: a shot at the College Football Playoff.
Kentucky now controls it’s own fate to arrive in the SEC Championship game, of which they’d most likely face the Alabama Crimson Tide. To do so, though, they’ll likely need to either run the table or take one loss at the most with some help from the Georgia Bulldogs.
Their schedule isn’t as grueling as the first half, with a road test at a 3-3 Missouri team and a home matchup with the Bulldogs themselves. Take care of business in those two, as well as the other four games, and Big Blue Nation will fill “Catlanta” this winter.
While winning the SEC East would be quite an accolade, it won’t be enough to assert Kentucky into the CFP. Not only will they need to at least be competitive with the Crimson Tide for 60 minutes, but they’ll also need one or two teams to help them out record-wise as well.
If Kentucky manages to win out to finish the regular season, teams such as Florida, Georgia, LSU, Michigan and Ohio State shouldn’t stand in their way. The Wildcats would boast wins over both Florida and Georgia, while Michigan would either post two losses or hand Ohio State a loss before the Big-Ten Championship game.
The same goes for LSU, who would have two losses or hand Alabama a loss before Kentucky faced either team in the SEC Championship game.
While not having those teams to worry about, Clemson, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Texas and West Virginia all present their case to keep Kentucky outside the Final Four.
Clemson boasts a win at Texas A&M, something Kentucky failed to do. However, they also have a tough home game against ACC-Atlantic foe NC State before a regular season finale with a dangerous South Carolina team. If the Tigers manage to find a loss before their conference championship, the Wildcats would present the much more impressive resume.
Notre Dame has recently entered the current Final Four rankings, but not playing a conference championship game will do nothing but wound their chances at the CFP. They do boast wins at Michigan and at home vs. Stanford but shouldn’t play another ranked opponent the rest of the season. While a one-loss Kentucky team would face a much more difficult schedule, Notre Dame going undefeated could present issues for the Wildcats’ playoff hopes.
The Big-Ten champion will boast quality victories late in the season and certainly be ranked well inside the Top-10. Oklahoma (9th), Texas (7th) & West Virginia (13th) are all considered a threat to take the trophy. While West Virginia’s resume is weaker & Oklahoma’s recent loss to Texas bruises their Big-Ten title hopes, Texas lost early in the year and could finish strong to assert themselves as potentially a better one-loss team than the Wildcats.
Teams such as Oregon and UCF are currently ranked ahead of the Wildcats but, assuming Kentucky wins-out, a more difficult schedule should assert Kentucky ahead of both teams despite even sharing the same (or worse) record than either of the two.
Kentucky’s trip to the CFP is indeed an uphill climb with obstacles they’ll need help passing. However, Stoops and his team have taken one game at a time and that’s the only way to approach achieving a task as great as a chance to play for the National Title.