Nearly 1,500 days ago, Kentucky fell to Northwestern in the 2017 Music City Bowl after a failed two-point conversion.
Four years and 16 straight non-SEC victories later, the Kentucky Wildcats are in sole possession of the nation’s longest active non-conference winning streak.
In that time frame, Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia, and all the other big heavyweights have come short outside their leagues at least once, mostly due to playing each other in the College Football Playoff.
Going into the 2022 Citrus Bowl, Kentucky’s 15 straight non-con victories were matched by only one other team—the Iowa Hawkeyes, who UK was conveniently scheduled to play.
How did the Wildcats get this achievement? Two main reasons:
1. By, in a stroke of genius, scheduling absolute cake
Mark Stoops is one of the best schedulers UK could ever ask for, and here’s why. Given three games a year (except 2020) where he can schedule whoever he wants that’s willing to come, he’s only scheduled MAC, Sun Belt, C-USA, FCS, etc. He hasn’t scheduled a single Power 5 non-con game because he doesn’t need to—they play Louisville every year and the SEC’s Power 5 minimum is one.
In those games, regardless of whether the team was bad or good, UK got W’s. They’ve gone 22-2 in those games, with only one loss at home. Because the SEC is so absurdly difficult, scheduling Power 5 non-conference games would probably hurt UK more than it would help them. They don’t need to schedule like Cincinnati and Notre Dame do because the SEC will provide a bunch of tough matchups each year naturally.
Remember, in college football, there is one thing that will always make your team and its fans better, happier, and more amped up for the next game.
It’s called winning. There’s no cure for a dysfunctional or struggling team like W’s in the win column.
2. Capitalizing on some down seasons in Louisville
South Carolina has to play Clemson in their season finale every single year, which means that they have to be 6-5 up till that point to go bowling since Clemson is always an absolute buzzsaw. Kentucky has benefitted tremendously from the Governor’s Cup rivalry in recent years, because while UK’s been getting better and better, the Cards haven’t really packed much of a punch since Lamar Jackson went pro (and the Cats beat them once then too). Of their 16 straight non-con wins, three have come in the Governor’s Cup.
3. Taking their bowl games very seriously
One of the reasons I enjoy these Mark Stoops teams so much is that every year they go bowling for a win. There’s no point in playing bowls if you don’t care about winning them, and UK’s left everything on the field trying to end the season on a high note and with a trophy, even if the bowl isn’t in the playoff or New Year’s Six.
Highly-touted NFL prospects don’t abandon their team when UK needs them. Without Josh Allen, Benny Snell, Lynn Bowden, Wan’Dale Robinson, and all the now-pro or soon-to-be-pro o-linemen and d-linemen wearing Kentucky blue, they’d likely not have won any of their past four bowls.
Nobody outside of the SEC has been able to beat Kentucky in the past four years—even top-15 teams like Penn State and Iowa. That’s the mark of a winning program whose opponents better watch out for.