In snapping Kentucky’s five-year bowl drought in 2016, Mark Stoops and his troops scored two crucial road victories.
The Wildcats won a Southeastern Conference game away from Lexington for only the second time since 2009, scoring a 35-21 victory at Missouri.
UK also recorded one of its sweetest victories in decades when quarterback Stephen Johnson outdueled Louisville’s soon-to-be Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson and Kentucky beat 27-point favorite U of L 41-38 before a stunned crowd in Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium.
It was the first time Kentucky (7-6 a season ago) had won multiple games outside Commonwealth Stadium since 2009.
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If UK and Stoops are to build on last season’s success, the confidence gained from winning those two road games could be vital. The fate of the 2017 season could easily come down to how Kentucky fares in four road games — the season opener at Southern Mississippi (Sept. 2) and SEC contests at South Carolina (Sept. 16), Mississippi State (Oct. 21) and Vanderbilt (Nov. 11).
UK will be going for its third straight victory over Mizzou. The Cats will be seeking their third consecutive home win over Ole Miss.
A revenge-minded U of L — presumably with a highly motivated Jackson at QB — will visit Lexington (Nov. 25). Based on how close the games between the Cats and Cards have been the past three seasons, that one can go either way.
On paper, UK should have at least some chance against Florida and Tennessee at home and even at Georgia.
However, Kentucky has lost 30 straight games to Florida (Sept. 23); is 1-31 against Tennessee (Oct. 28) in the last 32; and is 5-34 vs. Georgia (Nov. 18) in the past 39. That makes it hard to justify ever picking the Cats against that trio.
So Kentucky’s 2017 season could come down to road games with:
2016 record: 7-6
Recent history with UK: In last season’s opener, Coach Jay Hopson’s Golden Eagles rallied from 35-10 down to stun UK 44-35 in Lexington. In doing so, USM earned satisfaction for offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson, who had been fired from the same job at Kentucky after the 2015 season.
The skinny: Given that USM star quarterback Nick Mullens has graduated, Kentucky should be well-positioned to get revenge for Dawson’s revenge.
2016 record: 6-7
Recent history with UK: After the Cats pulled out a 17-10 win in Commonwealth last year, the Wildcats have beaten the Gamecocks three seasons in a row.
The skinny: UK bested South Carolina last season before Will Muschamp installed true freshman Jake Bentley as the starting quarterback. With Bentley at QB, the Gamecocks finished last season 4-3. Kentucky has not beaten a non-Vanderbilt SEC foe in four consecutive seasons since defeating Florida in 1948, ’49, ’50 and ’51.
2016 record: 6-7
The skinny: Kentucky has not been victorious in Starkville since 2008 — the only game Randall Cobb won at UK as a starting quarterback.
2016 record: 6-7
Recent history vs. UK: After James Franklin went 3-0 against Kentucky as Vandy’s coach (2011-13), the Cats have gone 2-1 versus the Commodores since Derek Mason was hired in 2014, including last season’s 20-13 win.
The skinny: Kentucky has not won in Nashville since 2009. Last year, Vandy went 4-2 in Vanderbilt Stadium with wins over Tennessee and Mississippi.
For Stoops and the Cats, at least breaking even in these four road games could be the key to keeping UK football’s good vibrations going.