Sports

Mark Story: Not the time to toughen UK football schedule

Cupcake fatigue seems to be rising among the Kentucky Wildcats football constituencies.

With Mitch Barnhart and Co. having raised ticket prices amid a harsh economy, Kentucky fans seemed to signal some restiveness with UK's relatively meager non-conference schedule by not filling Commonwealth Stadium for last Saturday's home opener against Western Kentucky University.

In recent weeks, various members of the commonwealth's sports media have questioned whether the time has come for UK to strengthen its lightweight slate of non-league football foes.

For three prime reasons, the answer to that question is no.

Reason One. Bowl eligibility.

Those who want UK to add a West Virginia or a North Carolina or to bring back Indiana to its non-SEC schedule to go along with Louisville are getting ahead of themselves.

At historically football-challenged Kentucky, the first goal of every season is to get to the six wins needed to become bowl eligible. For the first time in its modern history, UK has done that four seasons in a row.

Barely.

In 2006, '07 and '09, the Cats won seven regular-season games. In 2008, UK went to the post-season as a six-victory team.

Even with its recent improvement, the Kentucky football program still does not have the margin of error necessary to add another "50-50 game" to the non-conference slate.

When and if the Cats get to the point where they are consistently winning eight or nine games a season, only then would it make sense to consider adding a Purdue or a Missouri.

Reason Two: Most other SEC schools schedule exactly like Kentucky does — for a reason.

The predominant Southeastern Conference non-conference scheduling paradigm seems to be this: three games against "should-wins" and one game against a program historically on your level.

Alabama's four non-conference opponents: San Jose State, Penn State, Duke and Georgia State.

Auburn's four non-conference opponents: Arkansas State, Clemson, Louisiana-Monroe and Chattanooga.

Tennessee's four non-conference opponents: Tennessee-Martin, Oregon, UAB and Memphis.

Kentucky's four non-conference opponents: Louisville, WKU, Akron and Charleston Southern.

It is true that some Southeastern Conference schools play two "testing" non-league games. LSU has North Carolina and West Virginia. Georgia has Colorado and Georgia Tech. Florida is facing South Florida and Florida State.

All credit to them. But they are the SEC exceptions.

(The most over-scheduled team in the conference is Vanderbilt, whose non-league slate includes three programs better than it is: Northwestern, Connecticut and Wake Forest).

In this week's AP Top 25, there are six Southeastern Conference schools in the top 16.

Kentucky will face No. 10 Florida, No. 13 South Carolina and No. 16 Auburn in coming weeks, not to mention a talented Georgia that fell out of the rankings after losing last Saturday to the Men of Spurrier.

That's plenty of opportunity for Joker Phillips and the Blue Crew to test themselves against college football's top level.

Reason Three: Louisville.

The marquee out-of-SEC matchup of each UK football season is the in-state Armageddon with Louisville. Like Florida-Florida State or Georgia-Georgia Tech, it is an emotional rivalry game with another school from an automatic qualifying BCS-bowl league.

Having seen its program take a Kragthorpian free fall, Louisville isn't anywhere close to the quality of foe it was under Bobby Petrino.

U of L may never get back to the level it was at in 2006, when the Cards were one bad half at Rutgers from making the BCS championship game.

Still, once Charlie Strong has some time to recruit, it figures that The Ville will make the competition for the Governor's Cup far more fierce.

Since the UK-U of L football series resumed in 1994, Kentucky has been bowl eligible only twice (1999 and 2006) in seasons in which it lost to Louisville.

In normal years in the future, UK is likely to again face a better U of L plus the traditionally rugged SEC slate.

Cupcake fatigue not withstanding, Kentucky football is going to have to take another significant step up the competitive ladder before calls for adding more teams from BCS conferences to the UK non-league schedule make sense.

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