For all the negativity that currently engulfs Kentucky Wildcats football, the past six seasons have — by the historically pigskin-challenged standards of UK — been pretty darned OK.
Since 2006, UK has five bowl games, four winning seasons, three upsets of Top 10 foes, two road wins over traditional SEC titans (Auburn and Georgia) and a long-coveted victory over Tennessee.
Yet if you want to know why, in a period of relative Wildcats football strength, Kentucky has yet to break through for the genuinely special season, you need only look at the Cats' performance against the schools I call UK's "Benchmark Four."
To generate sustained football upward mobility at Kentucky, there are four schools that UK plays every year that the Cats have to get the upper hand on:
1.) Louisville, Kentucky's annual intrastate non-conference rival.
2.) Mississippi State. Kentucky's permanent Southeastern Conference cross-divisional opponent (for now) from the West.
3.) South Carolina. The school that, since the SEC split into football divisions in 1992, has historically been one rung above UK in the East.
4.) Vanderbilt. The school that, since the SEC split into football divisions in 1992, has historically been one rung below UK in the East.
For Kentucky football to take a lasting step forward, it has to get to the point where it is going at least 3-1 most years against the Benchmark Four.
So far, UK football has never come close to sustaining that level of success against them.
Since Louisville became a permanent Kentucky football opponent in 1994, UK has won as many as three times in a season against the Benchmark Four only three times (1998, 2002 and 2010). Only once, in '98, when Tim Couch and Craig Yeast led the Wildcats to the Outback Bowl, has Kentucky gone 4-0 in the same season against Louisville, Mississippi State, South Carolina and Vanderbilt.
Want to know why UK's five-year bowl streak ended in 2011?
It was the 0-4 record Kentucky turned in against the Benchmark Four last year.
Want to know why Rich Brooks never got to eight wins in a regular season as UK head coach?
It was the fact that from 2006-09, he never did better than 2-2 against the Benchmark Four.
Want to know why there seems to be an overwhelming pessimism among many Kentucky fans for the 2012 football season?
In part, it is because the entire Benchmark Four enter the year with more positive football momentum than UK.
1.) Louisville. Charlie Strong has 15 starters back from a young team that won five of its final six Big East games (including a road win at West Virginia) to share the league championship in 2011.
2.) Mississippi State. Coach Dan Mullen has 12 starters back from the team that beat Kentucky in Lexington a year ago (SEC expansion produced a scheduling quirk that brings the Bulldogs back to Commonwealth Stadium again this year). UK has yet to solve the puzzle that is Mullen, with the MSU head man currently standing 3-0 against Kentucky.
3.) South Carolina. The laser strong enough to remove the 54-3 beating Steve Spurrier and Carolina tattooed onto Kentucky a year ago may not exist. Spurrier has homebred stars Marcus Lattimore and Jadeveon Clowney back from a team that won 11 games a year ago. The Gamecocks are expected to challenge for the SEC East crown in 2012.
4.) Vanderbilt. James Franklin led the Commodores to the Liberty Bowl as a rookie head coach in 2011 and has 15 starters returning from the team that humiliated Kentucky 38-8 at Nashville. Franklin also adds a ballyhooed (by Vandy standards) incoming recruiting class.
Bottom line: If the games were to be played this Saturday, all of the Benchmark Four teams would be favored to beat Kentucky.
For Phillips to have the type of season that removes the heat beneath his coaching seat, it almost certainly will require at least two wins against the Benchmark Four.
From the long view, SEC newcomer Missouri may become another UK football bench mark.
Of the original Benchmark Four, Kentucky has a winning record against only one (Vanderbilt) in the 2000s. Even since 2006, UK is only 11-13 combined against U of L,MSU, USC and Vandy.
For Kentucky to ever climb the football ladder and stay there, it has to do better against the Benchmark Four.
|How Kentucky coaches have fared against the Benchmark Four|
|Coach (Years)||U of L||Miss. St||S.C.||Vandy||Total|
|Bill Curry (1990-96)||1-2||3-4||3-2||2-5||9-13|
|Hal Mumme (1997-2000)||2-2||1-3||2-2||3-1||8-8|
|Guy Morriss (2001-02)||1-1||1-1||0-2||2-0||4-4|
|Rich Brooks (2003-09)||3-4||4-3||0-7||5-2||12-16|
|Joker Phillips (2010-present)||1-1||0-2||1-1||1-1||3-5|