Sometimes playing in the SEC every year isn’t very fun. Being squashed by every opponent and trying to squeak out a 6-6 record with non-conference MAC and FCS pushovers is tiring and makes it look like your team isn’t accomplishing anything.
But the country’s hardest schedules come with the country’s greatest wins if they can be pulled off. These days, Kentucky is pulling off more SEC wins than they have in a long time, even going 5-3 against the league in 2018.
Which wins would be the ultimate prize, though? Which wins would change and define a season completely, and which would be merely “better not lose or else” games? Here are all 13 of Kentucky’s conference foes, ranked by how big a win against that team would be for the ‘Cats, updated for the results of the 2020 season.
This is the one opponent Kentucky doesn’t have an excuse for losing to. As putrid as Kentucky’s SEC football history is, they (thankfully) have never been king of the basement. That title belongs to Vanderbilt. While Kentucky holds an all-time winning record against the Commodores at 47-42-4, a loss in any season sets off alarm bells and whistles that tell fans not to expect much. Vandy is not quite like the Big 10’s Rutgers, a perennial 0-9 conference record-poster, but still an embarrassment in the loss column and just a number in the win column.
12: South Carolina
Aside from Vanderbilt and Missouri, South Carolina is the only other opponent the ‘Cats routinely find a way to beat these days in the East. Although their five-game winning streak against the Gamecocks was snapped in 2019, South Carolina is struggling and should be readily beatable in the next few seasons, especially at home. Thus, wins against them will not be very boosting for the ‘Cats, but it is still the SEC and the Gamecocks are a storied program. Plus, this year they will face them on the road. At least Steve Spurrier isn’t coaching them anymore.
Arkansas is not usually as bad as they are now, but if Kentucky hadn’t defeated them last October with Lynn Bowden Jr., the entire 2019 season might’ve been lost. Later that season Arkansas would go on to lose to Western Kentucky by 26 at home! If scheduling realignments put the Razorbacks on Kentucky’s schedule anytime soon, the pressure will be on for the ‘Cats to pick up a win, home or away (though in 2020’s 10 game SEC slate they did not draw the Hogs).
Missouri joined the SEC East in 2012 and have recently found themselves in a bit of a rut against the Wildcats, losing the last five contests until breaking through in 2020. That streak was very precious to UK fans, as decades-long losing streaks of their own to SEC foes has made consistent winning all the sweeter. Usually not a Top-25 team, wins against Mizzou will not likely move Kentucky’s prestige up in the upcoming seasons, but the wins are important to keep them ahead of the Tigers in the SEC East pecking order. Plus, UK’s second game of the 2021 season is against the Tigers at home.
Somehow the Cats have held their own against the Bulldogs in the all-time series, going 24-24-0. Several times the ‘Cats have faced a ranked Bulldogs team in their matchups, leading to big opportunities they have sometimes seized, such as in 2018 when they blew them out 28-7 in Lexington and last year when they won 24-2. That first win catapulted the ‘Cats into the AP Top 25, where they stayed all year long. The other win kept them from falling to an 0-3 start. They play the Bulldogs every year, however. Far juicer victories are at stake in matchups against SEC West foes played once a decade, like….
8: Ole Miss
….the Ole Miss Rebels. Not a perennial Top-25 powerhouse, the Rebels are still a team Mark Stoops has yet to defeat and can easily do so if given the opportunity. The ‘Cats came tantalizingly close in 2017 but fell just short in the final minute to the disappointment of a raucous Kroger Field crowd. Same thing happened last year in overtime with a missed PAT. A win against the Rebels, especially on the road, would be remembered very fondly for several seasons even if the opposition is mediocre.
Ah, yes, the Auburn Tigers: the only team not named Clemson who knows how to topple Alabama. While a very strong power school with a deep history, they are not the tallest giants in the SEC and are not quite out of Kentucky’s reach. Recent games against the Tigers have been close, such as the Thursday night 30-27 loss in 2015, the 37-34 loss in 2010, the 21-14 win way back in 2009, and last year’s loss that saw Kentucky still fighting in the 4th quarter. Yet a win against Auburn would not quite be as huge as a win against….
6: Texas A&M
….the team paying their coach a 90-gazillion dollar contract. Defeating Texas A&M would be huge for the Wildcats, especially after taking them to overtime in College Station two years ago. That game was not a super-lucky, almost-did-it miracle performance, that was the ‘Cats showing how far they had come under Mark Stoops by coming into a historic stadium that seats over 100,000 with a 5-0 record and not folding until extra periods. They played like they were the team with the star-studded history and gigantic stadium. It was just a shame things didn’t go their way that night, but they shook it off and continued winning. I’d be thrilled to see the teams rematch; for UK fans the glory of the win would be quite juicy.
Of course, defeating the defending national champions would be fantastic as well. LSU will have a target on their backs for quite a while now, and in any road loss will see the field stormed at the final horn. What Kentucky fan can ever forget the triple-overtime triumph of 2007? A repeat of that victory would likely have the same effect in the 2021 matchup, if not a bigger one, for the ‘Cats, regardless of LSU’s status going in.
They can lose to Missouri. They can lose to Vanderbilt, but any season where the Wildcats defeat Tennessee is automatically a wonderful season. Just ask 2011, 2017, and 2020. Those wins defined the entire year. Every single loss to the Vols reminds me how badly I want the ‘Cats to defeat them the next time around. Even if the ‘Cats stink one year, as long as Tennessee remains to be played there is still hope.
All roads to the SEC Championship literally run through Georgia, being played in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. When the two teams squared off in 2018 it was winner-take-all. The next few seasons could be exactly the same. For most UK football fans, the ultimate dream season prize would be playing in that Superdome against Alabama with the whole world watching, even if they lost by 40. First, however, the Bulldogs must be toppled. Someday it will happen, though. They keep getting closer every year.
September 8, 2018. That was the greatest night in Kentucky football history since before most people reading this were born, including myself. It wasn’t defeating a Number 1 ranked team. It wasn’t breaking an all-time record.
It was the night Kentucky finally, finally, FINALLY, defeated the Florida Gators for the first time in 31 years.
Oh, and it was on the road.
Oh, and Florida would finish the season at 10-3 inside the AP Top 10.
Yeah. It was big.
What win could possibly be bigger than that, you might ask? Well, for starters, doing it again. Or beating this team from down South that starts with an ‘A’....
The great-granddaddy of all football wins for just about any team, let alone Kentucky, would be against the Alabama Crimson Tide. Even perennial Top-10 programs such as Ohio State and Oklahoma water at the mouth when imagining a win against Alabama. I said earlier that if Kentucky went 1-11 but defeated Tennessee fans would still be happy. It would be the same with Florida, and with Alabama fans would be fine with 1-49 if it meant watching their ‘Cats beat the Crimson. Of course, to beat Alabama you probably need to be able to defeat 49 other teams, if not every other team in the country, but the value of such a win cannot be understated. Kentucky defeating Alabama literally happens once in a lifetime. They beat them once in 1922, and once in 1997. They have lost the other 38 times and tied once (storm the field, we tied Alabama!).
We know Coach Stoops has built a winner, but how high can this team go in the next ten years?
Very high, my friends. Very, very high.