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Kentucky’s 9-3 after another rout of U of L. How does this season stack up in UK history?

·5 min read

Excitement over this Kentucky football season peaked before the Georgia game. It cratered after the loss to Tennessee.

Now on a three-game win streak after winning its third straight over in-state rival Louisville, it’ll be fascinating to see how fans reflect on the entirety of the Wildcats’ 2021 campaign. Its not over just yet — a postseason bowl, likely in a desirable location, is still to be played — but the team that’ll take the field then won’t be exactly the same as the one that finished with a 9-3 record after a 52-21 rout at Cardinal Stadium. That group will have had a month to heal up and get ready for its next opponent, which like the Cats could be without some of its players if they opt out to prepare for the NFL Draft.

A 9-3 record, by any measure, is a great one at the University of Kentucky, which has had exactly eight teams before this year’s finish with that many wins. Only five have done it since the SEC was formed in 1933, and only four of those got to nine without winning a bowl game. Should Kentucky topple whatever opponent that ESPN and its conference allies pair with it, it’d become only the fourth team in school history to end its season with double-digit victories. If 9-3 is great, then 10-3 is extraordinary.

A 9-3 record after starting 6-0, though, carries with it some baggage that’ll weigh on fans who lived through it. All three losses came in a row, the first to an otherworldly Georgia team on the road, the second to a Mississippi State team hitting its stride, cowbells behind it all night, and the third — and least defensible — at home to a Tennessee squad that UK couldn’t defend for most of the 13:52 that it possessed the ball.

As for the wins? Its latest, arguably, is its best. Louisville fell to 6-6, which doesn’t really distinguish it from any of the other Power Five teams that Kentucky conquered this year, but was playing its best football coming into the annual rivalry bout. Most of its losses were by narrow margins, too, for what that’s worth. If not Louisville, then Kentucky’s best victory was against ... Missouri (6-6) in week two?

Decades from now, though, the picking apart of the schedule won’t happen. People will simply say that Kentucky finished 9-3 in the regular season and leave it at that.

Bowl outlook

Besides lifting the mood of Wildcats fans, the biggest impact of UK’s win was how it affected the bowl picture.

Georgia will be in the College Football Playoff and one of either Alabama or Ole Miss will play in the Sugar Bowl. Alabama might make the CFP, too, which would be ideal if you’re Kentucky. Even if that doesn’t happen, though, Ole Miss could end up getting an at-large bid to another New Year’s Six bowl. If it doesn’t work out that way, Ole Miss would definitely be the Citrus Bowl selection.

If the Citrus Bowl is off the table, UK will likely find find itself in the mix with Arkansas and Texas A&M for the SEC’s berth to the Outback Bowl, which is part of the “Pool of Six” but historically is considered the best destination of that lot. Arkansas finished with one less win at 8-4 but arguably has a better overall résumé. Texas A&M had a chance to improve to 9-3 after traveling to LSU on Saturday night; it lost, 27-24. Kentucky’s win over the Tigers got stronger as the season progressed, and as the only nine-win team in that lot, it might be the favorite to end up in Tampa.

If Kentucky finds itself not in the Outback Bowl, the Music City Bowl stands out as the most likely assignment. It won’t go back to the Gator Bowl after playing in it last year, and it played in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl (then called the Belk Bowl) in 2019, so that seems unlikely as well.

UK, which has played in the Music City Bowl more than any other team, hasn’t been to it since 2017. Kentucky fans famously travel well to Nashville — they accounted for about half the crowd when Vanderbilt hosted the Wildcats earlier this month — and the Music City Bowl will be itching to sell tickets after not hosting a game last year. Its best bet would be Kentucky or Tennessee, which hasn’t played in the game since 2016.

U of L series

Earlier in the week, both coaches were asked about whether or not the UK-U of L series would continue if the SEC were to expand its conference schedules to nine games when Oklahoma and Texas officially join the league. The line of thinking goes that some SEC teams might want to schedule one fewer Power Five team under those circumstances.

The way the series is going, though, why would Kentucky want to stop playing the Cardinals? After Saturday’s showdown, it’s now outscored U of L 153-44 in its last three meetings, all Kentucky victories. In the last two games a Kentucky quarterback — Lynn Bowden in 2019 and Will Levis on Saturday — matched school records by rushing for four touchdowns against the Cardinals, as strong an indicator as any of the physical advantage that the Wildcats have accumulated in the trenches.

Of course, the tide will turn, as it often does in this rivalry. U of L won five straight from 2011 to 2015, following a four-win streak by the Wildcats. Maybe by the time Oklahoma and Texas come into the SEC, UK will want nothing to do with the Cardinals or any other Power Five team outside of the “It Just Means More” club.

As of now, though? Kentucky’s having a tougher time with the Chattanoogas of the world than its in-state rival.

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