Playing in the SEC has been unkind to the Kentucky Wildcats in recent years. The Cats failed to win a conference game each of the last two seasons, and are just 1-23 overall in SEC play since the start of 2011.

UK’s non-conference schedule hasn’t treated it any better, as the team was swept by Louisville and Western Kentucky – the Commonwealth’s only other FBS programs – each of the last two seasons. But the team’s non-conference slate was also the source of its only four wins over the last two seasons, coming against the likes of Kent State, Samford, Miami (Ohio) and Alabama State.

The Cats will once again rely on games against teams from outside the power conferences to get their win total up in 2014. Western Kentucky is off the schedule, and the annual Governor’s Cup game against Louisville will be played at the end of the season for the first time.

Here’s a rundown of Kentucky’s all-important non-conference schedule in 2014:

  • UT-Martin, home, Aug. 30: Kentucky’s recent football history has been far from promising, but even during the ugliest of times under Joker Phillips the Cats never had problems taking care of FCS opponents. Most SEC teams stick an FCS opponent somewhere on their schedules, but having the opportunity to open the season against one, at home no less, could be the lift Kentucky and its fan base needs to start 2014. The Wildcats will certainly win this game, but unlike other SEC teams which usually look to simply avoid injuries against an FCS foe, look for Kentucky to put up points in bunches.
  • Ohio, home Sept. 6: Last season Frank Solich’s Ohio squad was a middle-of-the-pack team in a middle-of-the-pack conference (the MAC). That’s why this is the perfect game to assess how far Kentucky has progressed under Stoops. Between UK’s many ranked conference foes and the cupcake it opens the season with, there are few opponents on the schedule who can act as a measuring stick the way Ohio can. The Bobcats lost their leading passer, rusher and receiver from last year’s team, but Solich has proven he can replace departing talent quickly by leading OU to five straight bowl appearances. For a program like Kentucky truly building from the ground-up, a win over Ohio would be proof the team is still heading in the right direction.
  • Louisiana-Monroe, home, Oct. 11: Ohio may be Kentucky’s first measuring stick game, but this mid-October showdown with ULM could be an even better indicator of where ‘Stoops Troops’ are at in their rebuilding process. Like Ohio, the Warhawks are a middle-of-the-pack team from a mid-major conference who have strung together a few consecutive bowl appearances. But while the OU game precedes the beginning of conference play, the ULM game falls after Kentucky faces three straight SEC East opponents in Florida, Vanderbilt and South Carolina. How Kentucky looks coming out of that three-game stretch when it takes on ULM could indicate how physically prepared Stoops’ new recruits are to compete in the nation’s most competitive conference. Furthermore, the Warhawks return their top passer, top rusher and top-two receivers from 2013, meaning this game should be no cake-walk for UK. Kentucky will be favored, but it’s not if it wins this game that’s important, but how it looks against ULM.
  • Louisville, away, Nov. 29: A lot of changes have been made surrounding Kentucky’s only consistent non-conference game. For the first time since the rivalry was renewed in 1994, the annual Governor’s Cup game between UK and Louisville will be played on the final weekend of the regular season rather than in September. It’s also Louisville’s first season as a member of the ACC, meaning the Cardinals will also have to adjust to a tougher schedule before taking on their arch-rivals from Lexington to end the year. The Cardinals have followed four straight Kentucky wins in this series (beginning with “Stevie Got Loose” in 2007 and culminating with a 23-16 win in 2010) with three straight wins of their own. But the balance of power between these two programs may be swinging back in Kentucky’s favor. The Cards must replace coach Charlie Strong and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater this season, while UK will continue to build on the consistency Mark Stoops has brought to Lexington. If Louisville suffers growing pains in its first run through an ACC schedule, and if Kentucky can find some rhythm under Stoops by the end of the season, this game could end up closer than most expect.

In four games outside of the daunting SEC, Kentucky should be favored in three of them. For a program whose only successes in the last two seasons have come out-of-conference, winning all three games will be critical in continuing to sell recruits on the direction of this program. A win, or even a competitive loss, against Louisville would help that cause tremendously as well.

Either way, UK must capitalize on its opportunities in its non-conference schedule, beginning with the Skyhawks at the end of the month.