So what's Kentucky's reward after three straight games against top-20 opponents?
Not a bye week or an open date.
Not a cupcake.
Nope, UK's cherry on top of a difficult stretch of games is a date with top-ranked, defending national champion Alabama on Saturday.
Without a hint of sarcasm on Monday at his weekly news conference, Coach Mark Stoops said of facing the No. 1 Crimson Tide: "Looking forward to this week again. Another very tough task playing Alabama, extremely well– coached team, very physical, and everything they are built up to be."
This stretch of games, No. 8 Louisville, No. 17 Florida and then at No. 14 South Carolina on Saturday in a game where the Cats came back from a 21-0 deficit to pull within a touchdown in the fourth quarter, is the first time in school history UK has faced four straight top-20 opponents.
UK has played three consecutive ranked opponents in nine seasons previously (1958, 1968, 1970, 1976, 1988, 2007, 2009, 2011 and 2012) but this is the first time to play four in a row.
Did Stoops know about this nightmarish schedule before he agreed to take the Kentucky job in December?
"I didn't," he said with a laugh. "I didn't. I really didn't, because we were in the middle — we were in– season there at Florida State so I was pretty consumed with what I was doing. So, no."
Then Stoops added: "Wouldn't have deterred me, though."
Kentucky's average margin of defeat in those three games was 12.7 points and Stoops is hoping they helped prepare the Cats (1-4, 0-2 SEC) for what they're getting ready to face on Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium.
"Obviously we know how talented this (Alabama) team is and how well coached they are," he said. "It's going to be a real tough challenge, but again, we'll measure that by how we play, how we compete and go from there."
After the narrow loss in Columbia, S.C., this weekend, offensive coordinator Neal Brown hoped to see some confidence carry over into this week's preparation.
"We learned what we can do, the potential," Brown said. "We just got to keep chipping at it, keep getting better. It only gets tougher from here with Alabama next week. Everybody knows about Alabama. Just keep getting better."
Several UK players said they were looking forward to the challenge, even though the Cats have fallen to 13 straight ranked opponents, dating back to 2010 when UK topped No. 10 South Carolina.
"I'm excited for it," senior linebacker Avery Williamson said. "I'm going to approach it like any other game. Study film hard, practice hard this week and get ready to take on this opponent. I'll be ready, trust me. I'll be ready on Saturday and I know my defense will be ready, too."
It likely will be a sold out crowd, which would be UK's first official sell-out since it played Georgia in 2010, with officials reporting there are fewer than 100 public tickets remaining.
The Cats' last win over a top-ranked team came in 2007 when they toppled top-ranked Louisiana State 43-37 in triple overtime at Commonwealth Stadium. All-time, UK is 3-10 against opponents rated No. 1, with the wins coming against Mississippi in 1964 and Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl in 1950.
Calls don't go Cats' way
Directly after the loss at South Carolina, Stoops questioned the officials' penalty against UK for having 12 men on the field. After watching the film, he had more questions, so he made not one, but two calls to Steve Shaw, the SEC director of officials.
Shaw's message to Stoops: "They made a mistake," the head coach relayed from his discussion.
UK also was flagged for a penalty on third-and-one for having an incorrect formation.
"Steve (Shaw) admitted that that was a mistake as well and that set us back early in the game," Stoops said.
Lost in the discussion about the two missed calls by the officials was that without those errant flags, UK played without a penalty for the first time this season.
Freshman Jason Hatcher broke his hand in two places during the South Carolina game, but continued to play anyway, Stoops said on Monday. The defensive end will play with a cast on.
"It tells me that his toughness is there and his heart is in the right place," Stoops said of Hatcher, who had three sacks in the loss, including his first career sack. "Like I said, he didn't flinch."
■ Starting defensive end Alvin "Bud" Dupree missed much of the game against the Gamecocks with a strained pectoral muscle, which swelled after the game.
"I really don't know to be honest with you," Stoops said of the junior's status for the Alabama game. "He'll probably be day– to– day most of this week."
UK great to be honored
Steve Meilinger, a versatile standout for Kentucky in the early 1950s, will be honored on Saturday during the Alabama game for his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame.
The Cats' first three-time All-American who played at end, halfback and quarterback on offense while seeing action at end, linebacker and safety on defense as well as punting, and returning punts and kickoffs, met with the media on Monday after Stoops.
The funny, outspoken 82-year-old said he sees big success in UK's future under Stoops.
"I tell you what. I think this is one of the better coaching staffs we've had here in a long time," said Meilinger, who played at UK under Paul "Bear" Bryant. "This is going to be the future of UK football, with Stoops and his staff coaching. Each game, they're getting a little better. ... They're going to be a hell of a team in the future. I'm looking forward to it."
Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukfootball.bloginky.com.