Stop us if you’ve heard this story. Kentucky, winner of 18 games in the past 2 seasons, found itself once again disrespected — outside of the preseason AP Top 25 rankings for the 42nd consecutive season. Several close to the program, including assistant coach Vince Marrow, didn’t hesitate to share their feedback on the rankings …

Given that this is not your father’s Kentucky program — or even your grandfather’s, unless he goes back to the Bear Bryant era in Lexington — could Kentucky contend in the East in 2020? Before you say “no,” think it over.

Keep winning the games it should win

Winning the SEC East isn’t some unreachable quest — consider Missouri’s 2013 and 2014 division titles, or South Carolina’s 2010 trip to Atlanta for the SEC title game. That said, Kentucky’s 5-3 SEC mark in 2018 was the first time the Wildcats had posted a winning record in conference play in 40+ years.

In recent seasons under Mark Stoops, Kentucky has shown an uptick in taking care of business against some of the middle and bottom of the pack squads of the SEC. It’s a trend UK has to continue to be a factor in the East race in 2020.

Kentucky had won 5 in a row over South Carolina before laying an egg at Carolina last year (albeit an egg that forced a rejuvenation of the team with Lynn Bowden at QB in their next game). The Wildcats have won 5 in a row over Missouri and 4 in a row over Vanderbilt. Winning those games and holding serve against beatable foes like Mississippi State (won 2 of past 4 in that series) gives UK an opportunity to move up. Combine that with a commitment to a bruising ground attack and a physical defense and you’ve got an intriguing recipe.

Shaking up the Big 3

But any trip into the upper echelon of the SEC East has to go through the division’s Big 3 — Georgia, Florida and Tennessee. Tennessee has particularly been UK’s nemesis — the Vols have won the past 2 games, arguably with an inferior team in each case. Tennessee is no longer a conference power — witness the Vols’ 62-62 overall mark in the 2010s. But UT went 8-2 against UK during the same era, and if Kentucky wants to feast with the big dogs, it has to do better against the Vols.

Florida, meanwhile, won 31 games in a row over the Wildcats before a 2018 loss to UK in Gainesville. Now that Kentucky has beaten the Gators, the Wildcats need to take advantage of a Dan Mullen team still building up before another 3 decades zoom by without a win. Florida doesn’t have the kind of depth and continuity in their program that they hope to build, and Kentucky figures to have a puncher’s chance in this game, as they have several times in the past few meetings of these schools. Florida won by 1 when the Cats forgot to cover a Gators receiver in 2017 and by 8 last year.

That leaves Georgia, which UK last beat in Athens in 2009 (when a guy who happens to share my name was Georgia’s QB). Knocking off Georgia is daunting — even if the Bulldogs don’t seem quite as fearsome this year as the past couple of seasons. Still, as in 2018, getting to the place where the East comes down to UGA vs. UK would be another step forward.

Upset magic

With the new 10-game schedule, Kentucky has to pull off a significant upset against Auburn to have a chance to make things interesting in the East. Partially, the Auburn game matters because it’s Week 1. Partially, it matters because Alabama lurks deeper in Kentucky’s schedule, and given UK’s 2 all-time wins against the Tide, it takes a major optimist to see victory lurking in that spot on the schedule.

No. 11 Auburn looks like a formidable foe, but Kentucky has built its progress on road upsets, like a 4-touchdown upset of Louisville in 2016 and that win at Florida in 2018. They also have Auburn transfer Joey Gatewood (whose status is still unknown, but who gives an obvious counter-intelligence edge to the ‘Cats). Given the massive uncertainties of college football in 2020, Kentucky knocking off Auburn doesn’t seem too much to fathom.

Keeping the chip on the shoulder

Finally, Kentucky will need to master the attitude that Stoops and Co. have willingly grabbed in recent seasons to be a factor in the East. With guys like Benny Snell, Josh Allen and Lynn Bowden, Kentucky feels like a program that keeps an eagle eye out for public slights and disrespect — and then attacks. Stoops has had a squad that almost welcomed the doubters and haters, and used that emotion as fuel for another upset.

If Kentucky can take care of business against weaker foes, keep chipping away at the Big 3, and pull an upset over Auburn, don’t bet against the Wildcats at least making it interesting in the SEC East. They did it 2 years ago, and if they can master the motivational aspect of slights (I see you there, Coach Marrow), they could do it again.