Louisville might stand as Kentucky's archrival and Tennessee may be the SEC school UK football fans most yearn to beat, but for my money the most crucial Wildcats football foe over the next five years is Missouri.
SEC East-leading and No. 8 Mizzou (8-1, 4-1 SEC) will make its first visit as a league rival to Lexington on Saturday to face UK. Suffice to say, it's not the same Missouri that limped though its initial season as an SEC member last fall by going 5-7, 2-6 in the league.
Gary Pinkel has gone from SEC head man listed on the most pre-season "hot seat" lists to a leading contender for league coach of the year. These numbers explain how: The Tigers are leading the SEC in sacks (27), interceptions (17) and turnover margin (plus-15), and Missouri is averaging 40.6 points while giving up 20.6.
"They are strong up front," Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops said of Mizzou at his weekly news conference Monday. "I think that's probably a big difference between this year's team and last year's team, from what I can notice."
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Already this season, the Tigers have beaten Georgia, Florida and Tennessee. The last time Kentucky beat the Bulldogs, Gators and Volunteers in the same year (1977), Jimmy Carter lived in the White House.
To understand why success against Missouri is so vital to the future of UK football, one need first examine the recent record of Kentucky against the eight teams — the other six SEC East programs; UK's permanent league interdivision foe Mississippi State; and annual intrastate rival Louisville — the Cats play every year.
If you have any emotional investment in Kentucky football, these numbers are a knife twisted into the heart.
Florida. UK has lost 27 in a row.
Tennessee. UK has lost 27 of the last 28 going into this year's season finale (Nov. 30).
South Carolina. UK has lost 13 of its last 14.
Georgia. UK has lost 14 of the prior 16 going into this year's (Nov. 23) matchup in Athens.
Mississippi State. UK has lost five in a row.
Louisville. UK has dropped three straight.
Vanderbilt. UK has lost the last two (by a combined 78-8) pending its visit to Nashville (Nov. 16).
Missouri. UK lost 33-10 last season in Columbia.
Simply put, if Kentucky football is ever going to rise out of the SEC's bottom tier, the Cats have to start performing better against the teams they play each season.
The familiar litany of reasons that explain the historic plight of UK football — lack of an in-state recruiting base, insufficient resources in comparison to traditional SEC football powers etc. — only partially explains the dismal recent results the Wildcats have produced against so many of their annual opponents.
There is also a psychological component, a barrier that develops when a program has so much sustained futility against the same teams over and over.
In Rich Brooks' final four seasons (2006-09) as UK head man, Kentucky went 30-22. Against SEC West teams in that span, the Wildcats went 7-5. Remember, other than Mississippi State, those are teams UK does not play annually. However, even in a stretch of four-straight UK winning seasons, the Cats went 5-15 against the SEC East.
Moral: Even in years in which UK has viable chances to take down a Florida or Tennessee, it seems harder for the Wildcats to break through because of the accumulated psychic toll from year-after-year of losing to those teams.
That's why it would behoove Stoops and the Wildcats not to allow another streak of futility to develop against Missouri.
In the pre-season, I was one of many who tabbed Missouri in Commonwealth Stadium as likely to yield Stoops' first SEC victory as top Cat. Now, it will be a heavy lift for Kentucky (2-6, 0-4 SEC) to throw a wrench into what has been, other than a fourth-quarter meltdown against South Carolina, a joy ride of a Mizzou season.
"We've got a great team coming in here," Stoops said Monday. "It's definitely a great opportunity for us."
Whatever happens Saturday, it should be clear that for Stoops to elevate UK football, Missouri is a team the Cats need to start beating soon and with some frequency.