It’s still only August, and the first full slate of college football games is still a few days away, but that hasn’t stopped several national media outlets from offering up predictions on the postseason bowl schedule.
Kentucky is coming off back-to-back bowl seasons and 4-4 league records — no small feat in the Southeastern Conference — and returns most of its starters from last year’s squad, but the Cats aren’t getting a ton of respect in the preseason projections. Most analysts predict UK will return to the postseason for a third consecutive year, but none of those predictions include a step up to a higher-tier bowl game.
And there are those who think the Wildcats will miss out on the postseason altogether.
Starting with the more optimistic side of the projection spectrum:
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▪ Stewart Mandel of The Athletic, Bill Bender of the Sporting News, and Steven Lassan of Athlon Sports are all predicting the Cats will end up in the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, a New Year’s Eve game scheduled for 3:45 p.m. and a national audience on ESPN. Mandel has the Cats playing Texas; Bender pits them against Kansas State; and Lassan projects a UK-Oklahoma State matchup.
The Cats were last in the Liberty Bowl following the 2008 season, when Rich Brooks’ team defeated East Carolina, 25-19, which remains the program’s most recent postseason victory.
▪ Brad Crawford of 247Sports is predicting that Kentucky will end its season against Virginia Tech on Dec. 29 at the Belk Bowl in Charlotte, a game scheduled for noon on ABC. (That’s the same day as the UK-Louisville basketball game, by the way).
The Cats have never played in the Belk Bowl, which has been around since 2002.
▪ Jason Kirk of SB Nation and Brant Parsons of the Orlando Sentinel both have UK headed to the Birmingham Bowl on Dec. 22, a noon game on ESPN that pits the SEC against a team from the American Athletic Conference. Kirk has UK playing self-proclaimed defending national champion Central Florida, and Parsons pits the Cats against Memphis.
UK played in this bowl game following the 2010 campaign, losing to Pittsburgh, 27-10, in Joker Phillips’ only postseason appearance as the program’s head coach.
Now, for the bad news.
Phil Steele, whose season preview magazine is a perennial must-have for college football fans, does not have Kentucky listed on the page of 2018 bowl projections.
Steele includes a total of 10 SEC teams in those projections (with Alabama as the national champion), but he omits UK, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Mississippi, which is banned from bowl play in 2018, from his postseason predictions.
On UK’s team page in the magazine, Steele notes that the Cats’ path to postseason play is to win the games in which they’re favored and “pull a few upsets” along the way. He projects UK to finish fifth in the SEC East, ahead of Tennessee and Vanderbilt.
CBS Sports national analyst Jerry Palm also left UK out of his postseason predictions, and he echoed the notion that the Cats will need to pull off some upsets to get to another bowl game.
“In order to do bowl projections, I predict every game. Because otherwise you don’t know who’s going to be eligible,” Palm told the Herald-Leader over the weekend. “And Kentucky came up short. I usually pick who I perceive to be the favorite. And for Kentucky, you look at their home conference schedule, it’s (Georgia), South Carolina, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt. And, of those games, they’re probably only favored against Vanderbilt. And who are they favored against on the road? Maybe Tennessee, right?
“So the conference schedule isn’t doing them any favors. I think if you get the home and road switched, then maybe we have a different situation. Maybe at least one more win. Because you’re probably favored against Missouri and Tennessee at home. So, for me, with Kentucky, I think you’re going to have to pull a couple of upsets to find themselves in a bowl game this year.”
Palm told the Herald-Leader that he had UK winning three non-conference games and losing the regular-season finale to rival Louisville (another road game for the Cats). If that happens, UK would need three SEC wins for a 6-6 record. No easy task with this 2018 slate.
“I can’t find three games where I think, ‘Yeah, they’re favored,’” Palm said.
In fact, going by the pick-who’s-favored approach, Palm had Kentucky with a 4-8 record, with the Vandy game at home on Oct. 20 as the program’s only league victory.
Road games at Florida and Texas A&M will be tough, as will home games against defending SEC champ Georgia and nationally ranked Mississippi State.
The other three are closer to the toss-up category. UK has defeated South Carolina in each of the past four seasons, though there’s a good chance the Gamecocks will be favored at Kroger Field on Sept. 29.
Missouri gets UK at home this season and has consistently been ranked ahead of the Cats in SEC East projections this summer. Tennessee could be in for a rough season, but it’s been 34 years since the Volunteers lost to UK in Knoxville.
Could the Cats win all three of those games, or pick off a team like Louisville or one of their other top-tier opponents? Sure they could. But the 2018 slate won’t be an easy one.
“You never know what’s going to happen in college football,” Palm said. “It’s not like I think Kentucky’s terrible. I just think their schedule is a problem.”