OK, UK: It's time to toughen up

Cats need meatier non-conference fare

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistAugust 2, 2009 

John Clay

That four-year football friendship pledge UK and Western Kentucky announced in Nashville last week was the subject of a lot of congratulatory back-slapping from both sides.

By scheduling the Hilltoppers, Kentucky receives home games in 2010 and 2012 plus considerable ticket-sale potential in 2011 and 2013 at "neutral" LP Field in Nashville.

Meanwhile, Western Kentucky receives four games against a BCS foe at venues easily drivable from its Bowling Green campus.

But what do Kentucky football fans get compared to their SEC counterparts?

Consider:

■ After playing UCLA this year, Tennessee faces Oregon in 2010, North Carolina in 2011, North Carolina State in 2012 and Oklahoma in 2014.

■ After facing Virginia Tech this season, Alabama starts a home-and-home series with Penn State next year.

■ Georgia plays Oklahoma State (in Stillwater) and Arizona State this season, Colorado in 2010, Louisville in 2011 and 2012 and Clemson in 2013.

■ Vanderbilt plays Northwestern, Wake Forest and Connecticut next season.

■ LSU has a home-and-home series with West Virginia in 2010 and '11.

■ Mississippi has upcoming home-and-home series with Fresno State (2010 and '11) and Texas (2012-13).

■ Arkansas has signed a long-term contract to play Texas A&M on an annual basis at the Dallas Cowboys' new stadium in Arlington.

Somehow, a UK-WKU series lacks identical punch.

I have no problem with the Cats helping Western Kentucky's adjustment to the FBS. But a four-year agreement is a couple of years too long.

Are UK fans that pumped about starting the '11 and '13 seasons with a trek to Nashville for another game against the Toppers?

And with Louisville and Western locked in for the next four years, do we really think Kentucky will fill either of its remaining two dates with a BCS team from another conference, one that would demand a return game?

I know, I know, the Cats already have arch-rival Louisville built into the yearly schedule. Louisville is a BCS school. When Bobby Petrino had the Cardinals cruising, the 'Ville routinely roughed up the struggling Blue.

But Georgia plays arch-rival Georgia Tech yearly, yet finds spots for an Oklahoma State and an Arizona State. South Carolina plays arch-rival Clemson yearly, yet the Gamecocks open with North Carolina State this season and own a future deal with North Carolina.

True, Kentucky isn't Georgia, and it hasn't beaten South Carolina since Steve Spurrier moved to Columbia. True, the Cats already reside in the nation's toughest football conference and the scariest grid division this side of the NFC East.

And yes, in previously explaining his scheduling philosophy, UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart said he wanted to help a building program learn how to win, an agenda that has served its purpose well with UK winning 14 straight non-conference games.

Last year, the existence of four non-conference marshmallows — Louisville, Norfolk State, WKU and Middle Tennessee — was the sole reason a 2-6 SEC team scrabbled together enough victories to qualify for its third consecutive bowl berth and ultimately its third straight bowl triumph.

But when do you put a little more meat in the non-conference diet? When do you take a chance on scheduling a Big Ten team or a Big 12 team or an ACC team for the sake of variety and national publicity?

When do you venture out of the non-conference home game rotation for something other than a "neutral" game (wink-wink) against an opponent sure to be a considerable underdog?

I'm not saying Kentucky's series with Western Kentucky is a bad thing.

I'm just saying that it will be bad if it's the best thing about UK's future non-conference schedules.

Reach John Clay at 859-231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.

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