John Clay

Five suggestions for a meatier Kentucky football schedule

All the big boys are doing it. LSU is at Texas this college football season before the Longhorns come to Baton Rouge next year. Notre Dame is at Georgia this year after the Bulldogs visited South Bend in 2017. Florida and Colorado have scheduled a future home-and-home. So, too, have LSU and UCLA; Georgia and Florida State; Vanderbilt and Stanford; Georgia and Oklahoma. Just Monday, Alabama and Wisconsin announced a home-and-home for 2024 and 2025.

Kentucky has a future home-and-home scheduled with Akron.

For UK, it wasn’t always this way. In the 1970s and ‘80s, the Cats played home-and-homes with Penn State, Maryland, Baylor, Oklahoma, Kansas, Kansas State, Tulane, Rutgers, West Virginia, Clemson, Virginia Tech and North Carolina. The SEC expanded in 1992 and that was the end of that.

In fact, the last time Kentucky played a school from a power-five conference on the road that wasn’t named Indiana or Louisville was Sept. 22, 1990, at Chapel Hill, N.C.

Times change, however. Finding schools that will play at your place without a return game at their place has become more and more expensive. MAC, Sun Belt and C-USA schools have wised up. Plus, the College Football Playoff Committee says it pays attention to strength of schedule. And stadium attendance has slumped. Those factors have caused schools to put some meat in their non-conference schedules.

So why not Kentucky? We’re not saying the Cats have to schedule Oklahoma or Ohio State or Michigan on a regular basis, though we would certainly be the first to stand and applaud if they did. But there are some reasonable alternatives from power-five conferences that would make fan-friendly series.

For instance, these five:

Northwestern: The two schools staged an entertaining Music City Bowl in 2017, so why not make it a mini-rivalry? The programs are evenly matched, after all, with both Pat Fitzgerald’s Wildcats and Mark Stoops’ Wildcats reaching bowl games each of the past three seasons. Kentucky went 10-3 last year. Northwestern went 9-5. Big Blue Nation in the Windy City for football would be fun.

Miami: The Hurricanes aren’t what they used to be, but “The U” still has plenty of marquee value. A home-and-home with the Canes could aid UK’s recruiting efforts in south Florida, where Stoops and offensive coordinator Eddie Gran already own plenty of connections. (Stoops was once a Miami assistant coach.) Miami plays at Michigan State in 2020 and at Texas A&M in 2022. The Hurricanes play at Louisville’s Cardinal Stadium in the ACC. How about Kroger Field?

Oregon: Oregon AD Rob Mullens worked for Mitch Barnhart at UK before heading to Eugene. That’s a start. Both are Nike schools. That’s a plus. The Ducks are scheduled to visit Ohio State in 2021 and Georgia in 2022. There’s no reason they couldn’t bring those crazy uniform combinations to Kroger Field. And Kentucky football hasn’t played west of Waco, Texas, since, well, ever.

Baylor: A return trip to the home of Chip and Joanna Gaines wouldn’t be bad. The Cats have done it before. The 1977 team’s only loss came at Baylor before UK earned revenge on the visiting Bears the following season. Taking over a first-class mess, third-year coach Matt Ruhle has BU on the rise, improving from 1-11 in 2017 to 7-6 last season. Stoops: Been there, done that. And UK hasn’t played a Big 12 school since Kansas State in 1983. Ronald Reagan was president, for heaven’s sake.

Notre Dame: Don’t say it can’t be done. As previously mentioned, Georgia plays host to the Irish this year after beating Notre Dame in South Bend in 2017. Vanderbilt also played at Notre Dame last year though the Irish haven’t been to Nashville since 1996. Here’s the clincher: The Irish play host to Arkansas next season before visiting the Razorbacks in 2025. If the Golden Domers can find Fayetteville, surely they can make it to Lexington.

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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