John Clay

A basket of make-or-breaks still ahead for Kentucky football

South Carolina Coach Will Muschamp, right, talked with starting quarterback Brandon McIlwain (11) during the first half against East Carolina on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2016, in Columbia, S.C. South Carolina defeated East Carolina 20-15.
South Carolina Coach Will Muschamp, right, talked with starting quarterback Brandon McIlwain (11) during the first half against East Carolina on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2016, in Columbia, S.C. South Carolina defeated East Carolina 20-15. AP

Now that Kentucky football has finally cleared that hurdle and picked up its first win, time to look ahead. And to borrow a phrase that figured prominently in the news recently, the remainder of the Cats’ grid calendar can be separated into three different baskets.

There’s the basket of games that Mark Stoops’ team will be expected to win. Oops, make that game. Singular. With nine outings left on the schedule, UK figures to be a heavy favorite just once, Nov. 19 at home against FCS Ohio Valley Conference foe Austin Peay.

Then there’s the basket of games in which only the most blue of the Big Blue Nation would pick Kentucky to come out on top. Four fit into that category. There’s UK’s trip to No. 1-ranked Alabama on Oct. 1. There is the Nov. 5 home game with Georgia and the Nov. 12 home game with Tennessee. And then there’s that season finale, Nov. 26 at archrival Louisville, the same team that stamped itself a College Football Playoff contender by rocking Florida State’s world 63-20 on Saturday.

Given UK already has two losses, those four games — where Kentucky victories are possible, not probable — would put the Cats at six defeats. Given UK has one win, a victory over Austin Peay would double the win total to two.

That leaves the basket of the make-or-breaks, the four opponents on the schedule Kentucky has a realistic chance of beating. To be sure, depending on how events play out, the Cats may not be favored in any of the four. And yet, right here, right now, you can say Stoops’ troops are not without opportunity, starting Saturday night.

Let’s break them down:

South Carolina (Sept. 24 at Commonwealth Stadium): Will Muschamp’s Gamecocks are now 2-1 after holding off East Carolina 20-15 last week. ECU outgained the Gamecocks 519-312, however. And freshman quarterback Brandon McIlwain will be making the first road start of his college career when South Carolina visits on Saturday in hopes of snapping a two-game losing streak to UK.

Vanderbilt (Oct. 8 at Commonwealth Stadium): Saturday’s 38-7 loss at Georgia Tech dropped the Commodores to 1-2 overall and a 1-10 road record for the Derek Mason Era. Vandy gave up an 81-yard touchdown on the first play and were outgained 511-275 by the Rambling Wreck. Their lone win was over Middle Tennessee. And, in its heart of hearts, Kentucky knows it should have beaten Vandy last season in Nashville.

Mississippi State (Oct. 22 at Commonwealth Stadium): We know, we know, MSU’s Dan Mullen has never lost to Kentucky as a head coach. Without Dak Prescott, this is a rebuilding year for the Bulldogs. Mullen hasn’t been able to make up his mind between quarterbacks Nick Fitzgerald and Damian Williams. And a team that could lose at home to South Alabama in its opener is capable of losing to any team anywhere.

Missouri (Oct. 29 at Columbia): The Tigers lost a heartbreaker on Saturday when Georgia’s freshman sensation, quarterback Jacob Eason, found Isaiah McKenzie in the end zone for a 20-yard touchdown on a fourth-and-10 play for a 28-27 win. That dropped new coach Barry Odom to 1-2. And, remember, Kentucky beat Mizzou last year in Lexington.

Does this mean Kentucky will sweep the entire basket of four? Of course not. It does mean, however, the Cats might have to do just that to have a shot at their first bowl trip since 2010. A loss to South Carolina or Vanderbilt or Mississippi State or Missouri — just one of the four — more than likely means UK would have to pull off an upset to pick up that coveted sixth win.

And to do that, surely the Cats have to shore up a defense that ranks 122nd nationally in average years allowed after three games, while hoping it gets repeat performances from an offense that gained 692 yards on Saturday, the most since 1998.

That combination might not be the basket of probables, but it’s not impossible.

Next game

South Carolina at Kentucky

7:30 p.m. Saturday (SEC)

SEC football standings

East

SEC

Overall

Florida

1-0

3-0

Georgia

1-0

3-0

Tennessee

0-0

3-0

South Carolina

1-1

2-1

Kentucky

0-1

1-2

Vanderbilt

0-1

1-2

Missouri

0-1

1-2

West

SEC

Overall

Alabama

1-0

3-0

Texas A&M

1-0

3-0

LSU

1-0

2-1

Arkansas

0-0

3-0

Mississippi State

1-1

1-2

Mississippi

0-1

1-2

Auburn

0-1

1-2

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