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South Carolina has played a key part in Kentucky’s rise

South Carolina at Kentucky Mark Cornelison/Lexington Herald-Leader/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

When Mark Stoops took over the Kentucky Wildcats football team in 2013, they were mired in a deep rut to say the least. They’d just wrapped up an 0-8 SEC campaign and hadn’t beaten any southern squads consistently since the Rich Brooks days. Beating any SEC team was considered an upset, and no game was a guarantee.

Rebuilding from the ground up took time, but the most important factor by far with Stoops was his determination to build a winning culture. Kentucky needed to go into games expecting to win and their fans relying on them to win consistently against the lower tier and middle of the pack SEC teams. Vanderbilt wasn’t too difficult to master, and Missouri began struggling to find footing in the SEC, but one of the key cogs in the wheels of Kentucky’s annually sustained success has been South Carolina.

In 2014, the Wildcats knocked off the Gamecocks 45-38 thanks to a memorable pick-six by Bud Dupree late in the 4th quarter with the game tied, defeating Steve Spurrier in his final year at USC. While that Carolina team wasn’t as good as the #10 one in 2010 UK upset, the win had that kind of feel to it. It was certainly the win of the season in their 5-7 campaign.

A year later the ‘Cats did it again on the road with a 26-22 win they had to hold on for dear life for after racing out to a 24-7 1st half lead. A win over #25 Missouri also highlighted the season, but they still weren’t a bowl team yet.

In 2016, they eked out a 7-point home win, and in 2017, they did it again by 10 to help reach 7-5 both years. This came in the middle of consistent winning streaks against Vandy and Mizzou starting to accumulate, and by 2018 they had a road map to annual bowl eligibility: take care of business against the three cupcake nonconference teams, beat the Commodores, Tigers, and Gamecocks, and hope for some upsets here and there in case one of those doesn’t happen.

But by this point the winning culture had firmly set in, and not only were they winning those six games year after year, they were consistently taking down Mississippi State at home, added 2017 and 2020 Tennessee wins, 2019 and 2021 SEC West wins over Arkansas and LSU, annually pounding Louisville, and of course now they have three wins in five years over Florida.

Kentucky’s only lost one time to South Carolina since their 0-8 SEC campaign in 2013, and that was when they were plagued with quarterback injuries in 2019 before the Lynn Bowden show took off. Some games have been close, and some games have been complete blowouts like the 41-18 2020 home win, but year in and year out Kentucky takes care of business against the Gamecocks. 10-3 Citrus Bowl seasons don’t happen when games against middle of the pack teams like South Carolina and Missouri are considered “toss up” games—they have to be wins every time, and because they have been Kentucky has been able to enjoy top-15 AP poll rankings, 2nd place finishes in the SEC East, and avoid embarrassing losses that drain momentum that could defeat much stiffer opposition in future games.

Imagine if last year South Carolina had capitalized on one of UK’s many turnovers in the narrow 16-10 Wildcat win in Colombia. The ‘Cats only barely beat Florida the next week, so would one loss have turned into two, and possibly a third after that against LSU? Losses in college football can have a snowball effect if you’re not careful (just look at last year’s Florida), and some wins are only made possible by the ones that came before them.

UK’s got two big games ahead of them against Mississippi State and Tennessee this month, but their chances of winning them really depend on first continuing to “take care of business” tonight against the Gamecocks like they have since 2014. So if they are able to bounce back from the Ole Miss loss and face Georgia for the SEC East again at the end of the year, know that tonight’s game against South Carolina was one of the key pieces that got them there.

So thanks for playing, South Carolina. UK really appreciates it.