Mark Story: 125 days before its season opener, UK football gets a big win

Herald-Leader Sports Columnist,Mark StoryApril 28, 2014 

The announcement by the Southeastern Conference on Sunday that it will stay with an eight-game league football schedule was the optimal possible outcome for the Kentucky Wildcats.

News that the SEC will continue to have permanent cross-division opponents — for UK of the SEC East, that is Mississippi State of the West — is also good news for Kentucky.

Meanwhile, the SEC's mandate beginning in 2016 to play at least one team from one of the other "power conferences" — the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 or Pac-12 — would seem to end for the foreseeable future any speculation over the fate of the UK-Louisville rivalry. With U of L set to begin play in the ACC this fall, UK's intra-state grudge fest with the Cardinals will fill the new SEC requirement.

So exactly 125 days before UK kicks off the 2014 football season against Tennessee-Martin, you might say Kentucky has already gotten a big win.

From the time the SEC expanded to 14 schools with the additions of Texas A&M and Missouri for the 2012 football season, speculation had been rampant that the SEC would go to nine league contests each season. That talk only intensified after SEC announced it would join with ESPN to form the conference's own cable TV network. More league-on-league games, the thought went, would enhance the programming inventory available to the new SEC Network.

Finally, the creation of the four-team college football playoff, inclusion in which is expected to put a premium on strength of schedule, also created advocacy for the SEC to add another league game.

Alabama Coach Nick Saban has publicly pushed for nine SEC games each season plus a required non-conference game against a team from another of major leagues. That may have worked fine for Alabama, but at Kentucky — which has not had a winning SEC record since 1977 — another conference game each year would have turned an already steep mountain into an insurmountable climb.

Instead, SEC teams will continue to play six contests vs. the other teams in their division. Teams will also still play two games against foes from the opposite division, one team you will play every season and one that will rotate.

LSU had been agitating for replacing permanent inter-division rivals with two rotating teams from the other division. The LSU complaint is that Alabama's permanent rival from the opposite division, Tennessee, has not been as strong in recent seasons as LSU's annual East Division foe, Florida. The Tigers say that puts them at a competitive disadvantage in the SEC West vs. the Crimson Tide.

There is validity in that argument. Since 2008, Florida is 32-16 in SEC games, while Tennessee is 14-34. Nevertheless, Mike Slive and the SEC office correctly saw that there were more compelling reasons for staying with the permanent cross-division foes.

It is that policy that keeps two premier Southern football rivalries, Alabama (West Division) vs. Tennessee (East) and Auburn (West) vs. Georgia (East), as annual events.

LSU's griping aside, annual cross-division opponents allow the SEC to match programs of similar competitive profiles. That's why Kentucky and Mississippi State are paired (UK leads all-time series 21-20, though State has won the last five), as well as Mississippi and Vanderbilt.

Actually, LSU ought to be castigating Tennessee (seven straight losses to Alabama) for letting its program slip to such a degree. UT's decline is what has created the imbalance arising from the LSU-Florida and Alabama-Tennessee pairings.

For most SEC schools, the requirement to play a non-league foe from a major conference will not be much of a change. In the coming 2014 season, 10 of the 14 SEC teams — everybody but Mississippi, Mississippi State, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt — have at least one such game on their schedules.

Bottom line: The SEC may have made an epic mess of its men's basketball scheduling by going away from division play, meaning long-time foes such as Kentucky and Tennessee and UK and Vanderbilt are no longer certain to play home-and-home each year.

The football scheduling decision announced Sunday by the SEC, however, could not have been more dead on.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230.Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com.

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