Looking ahead at Kentucky's chances to reach a bowl game in 2014
The Kentucky Wildcats reached their first bye week of 2014 with a 2-1 record, exceeding most people’s expectations in doing so.
The Cats need to win just one more game to pass their win total from each of the last two years, and need to win just four of their final nine games to reach a bowl game for the first time since 2010.
Kentucky’s remaining games against Vanderbilt (Sept. 27) and Louisiana Monroe (Oct. 11) should earn it two of those four wins, as the Commodores have had a woeful start to the year and ULM was barely able to squeak past a mediocre Wake Forrest team by seven points in Week 1.
Taking those two potential wins into account, the Wildcats would need only two of their other seven games to reach a bowl game this December. Granted, four of those seven games are against ranked SEC opponents, and two more are against two of UK’s arch-rivals in Tennessee and Louisville, but the Cats finally have something meaningful to play for, giving them a puncher’s chance in each remaining game.
Saturday Down South was kind enough to rank those seven games from most-winnable to least-winnable for purposes of projecting whether Kentucky can reach the six-win plateau this season.
- Louisville Cardinals (Nov. 29): The Wildcats will have two weeks to prepare for this year’s Governor’s Cup, which falls at the end of the year for the first time in history. That extra week of preparation should do wonders for a young team hoping to end a recent losing streak to the Cards dating back to 2010. Furthermore, Louisville has appeared inconsistent at times already this season, dropping a game to unranked Virginia last week in its first ACC game as a member of the conference. The Cardinals are vulnerable as they search for a new identity under coach Bobby Petrino and for a new quarterback following the departure of Teddy Bridgewater. Kentucky is improving every week, and by season’s end could very well have the upper-hand in this matchup.
- Tennessee Volunteers (Nov. 15): Kentucky has only beaten Tennessee once since the mid-1980’s, but the Volunteers are no longer the traditional power they once were, and the Cats are no longer the SEC basement-dwellers they used to be. Both teams are in their second seasons under new head coaches Mark Stoops and Butch Jones, and both teams rely heavily on talented underclassmen still learning their way at the collegiate level. The annual showdown between UK and UT has been much more even in recent years than in decades past, and if Kentucky hopes to reach a bowl game this season it would be huge to score a win over the Vols. Tennessee will have an advantage playing in Neyland Stadium, but if the Cats performance last week in the Swamp taught us anything, it’s that this team’s talent travels well. It seems surreal to admit, but Tennessee is far and way Kentucky’s most-winnable SEC contest, aside from Vandy of course.
- Mississippi State Bulldogs (Oct. 25): For whatever reason, Kentucky always plays its permanent cross-division rival tough in this annual East-West showdown. The Wildcats only lost to Mississippi State by six points last year in their closest SEC showdown of the season. Two years ago, Kentucky fell to the Bulldogs by 13 points, marking its second-closest SEC game of the year. This year’s Bulldogs sit just outside the top 25 and are led by dynamic dual-threat quarterback Dak Prescott, who has starred so far this season. However, MSU also plays in the grueling SEC West, and will have already faced No. 8 LSU, No. 6 Texas A&M and No. 5 Auburn before squaring-off with the Cats in Lexington. If the Bulldogs are worn down enough by the time they arrive in the Bluegrass, they could fall victim to a Kentucky team gaining confidence every week.
- No. 18 Missouri Tigers (Nov. 1): It is unsettling for a top 20 team to show up this high on the list, indicating UK has only a few remaining opponents less challenging than one of the best teams in the nation. However, while the Tigers’ offense has looked sharp this season, especially quarterback Maty Mauk, the defense has looked suspect at best, leaving a chance for the Cats to outscore Mizzou in Columbia. Kentucky is averaging more than 34 points per game on offense this season, and could have a chance at an upset if the offense comes ready to play. It’d have to be a shootout, but the Cats will not be completely hopeless in this game the way they would have the last few years.
- No. 14 South Carolina (Oct. 4): Although South Carolina just won a huge game over No. 13 Georgia and is considered a contender for the SEC East crown, it still must be weary of the upset-minded Wildcats when the two teams face-off in Lexington. South Carolina has struggled defensively this season, allowing 52 points at home in its season opener before almost dropping its Week 2 contest to pass-happy East Carolina. The Gamecocks rank dead-last in the SEC in scoring defense, even worse than Vanderbilt. Kentucky, meanwhile, establishes more playmakers on the offensive side of the ball every week, and if the Cats defense can force a turnover or two when SC has the ball, they could out-pace the Cocks in a high-scoring game.
- No. 13 Georgia (Nov. 8): We’ve now progressed through the “very winnable” games and the “UK has a chance” games, and now arrive at the “it’d take a miracle” portion of these rankings. Even at home, Kentucky’s chances to upset the Bulldogs are slim. The Wildcats just do not match up well with Georgia, which boasts a strong running game led by one of the nation’s best players in Todd Gurley. Georgia is not as dynamic through the air with quarterback Hutson Mason as it was with Aaron Murray leading the offense, but it will be a struggle for the Cats to slow down Gurley and keep Georgia from controlling time of possession. The Bulldogs’ sorry numbers defensively are a reflection of playing two ranked opponents in their only two games this year, but make no mistake, this Georgia defense is still very scary. Kentucky will have to play mistake-free football in this showdown, and even that might not be enough to take down the ‘Dawgs.
- No. 8 LSU (Oct. 18): The Wildcats are absolutely moving in the right direction, but they’ll have virtually no chance at beating LSU in Death Valley next month. The last time Kentucky made the trip to Baton Rouge was in 2011, when it fell 35-7 to the Tigers (and, frankly, the game wasn’t even as close as the score indicates). It’s hard to believe this game will be played at night, as Kentucky is not a sexy enough opponent to earn this game a primetime slot, but even in the mid-afternoon the Cats’ youth and inexperience will be exposed by a talented Tigers team. The LSU defense is among the best in the country, and UK quarterback Patrick Towles has never faced a challenge as daunting as a road visit to play a top 10 LSU team. The Wildcats will play better in this game than they would have the last few years, and they may even keep the score respectable, but they’re not winning this game.