It is way too strong to say that Kentucky's high noon matchup with Vanderbilt Saturday in Commonwealth Stadium is a "must win" for Mark Stoops.
The only "must win" contests for head men are those where, if the game is lost, there's subsequently no hope for the coach to succeed. Preparing to coach his 16th game as top Cat, Stoops is nowhere close to that point.
Vanderbilt will be, however, the most important game Stoops has yet coached at Kentucky. Let us examine the reasons why:
1.) To succeed in football at Kentucky, Vanderbilt is a team you have to consistently beat.
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During UK's five-year bowl streak (2006-10), the Wildcats went 4-1 against the Commodores.
However, starting with Vandy's 38-8 pounding of UK in Nashville in 2011, the worm has turned dramatically.
Over the last three seasons, the Commodores have gone 3-0 vs. the Cats and outscored Kentucky by an embarrassing 100-14.
Vanderbilt gained the upper hand on UK as part of a three-year stretch in which the Commodores won 24 games (24-15) and played in three-straight bowls.
Meanwhile, Kentucky went 9-27 over the same time frame and the Cats have had holidays free.
2.) On paper, the pendulum should be ready to swing back toward the Blue.
James Franklin, the coach who engineered the best three-year stretch in Vandy's modern history, has parlayed his Music City success into the Penn State job.
Jordan Matthews, the Vanderbilt wide receiver who all but single-handedly did in UK last season with 12 catches for 141 yards, is now catching touchdowns (he had two Sunday) with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Coming into the season, Kentucky returned 15 starters to Vanderbilt's 10.
Stoops and his staff are in year two of program development; new Vandy coach Derek Mason, the former Stanford defensive coordinator, has had four games.
So it should not be a surprise that, in the opening weeks of the 2014 season, Kentucky (2-1) has appeared to be a more advanced team than Vandy.
The Commodores got smoked in Nashville by Temple (37-7) and Mississippi (41-3); they rallied furiously to escape mediocre Massachusetts (34-31); and VU then played its best game of the season last Saturday while falling to South Carolina 48-34.
While Vandy was engaged in an emotional battle with the Head Ball Coach's troops, Kentucky had an open date — with extra time to prepare for the Commodores.
When asked at his weekly news conference Monday about the advantage of a week off, Stoops said "It always helps with injuries alone. ... (And) we used that time to improve in certain areas."
3.) A Kentucky victory Saturday builds on the positive impression UK made with the way it played at Florida. Conversely, a UK loss negates it.
The outcome of Kentucky's 36-30, three-overtime defeat to Florida yielded sheer frustration.
Yet the sight of Wildcats' true freshmen Garrett Johnson and Stanley "Boom" Williams putting a jolt into The Swamp with electric plays created a positive stir in college football circles.
So did some of the big-time throws made in Gainesville by Kentucky sophomore quarterback Patrick Towles.
Beating Vandy would allow the Wildcats to "back up" those good vibrations.
Not besting Vanderbilt, though, could make it immediately more challenging for Stoops & Co. to sustain recruiting momentum.
At some point, UK's on-the-field performance, good or bad, will start having impact on Stoops' recruiting.
"I do think it is important for us to show progress," Stoops said. "I've never hid from that. I don't define that all the time with wins and losses. (But) we know how important wins are."
4.) Kentucky has a nasty SEC losing skid that needs to end.
As of Tuesday, it has been 1,032 days since Kentucky won a Southeastern Conference football game.
The Cats have not claimed a league victory since Matt Roark silenced Rocky Top in UK's 10-7 victory over Tennessee on Nov. 26, 2011.
Since then, Kentucky is 0-for-17 in intra-conference matchups.
Stoops did not back away from the need to end the league losing streak.
"It's important, it sure is," the UK coach said. "We'd sure like to get one."
For so many reasons, Kentucky and its head coach really need to get the one this Saturday.