Mark Story

Lights, camera, ‘MAC-tion:’ Future UK football schedules are loaded with MAC foes

Kentucky cornerback Lonnie Johnson defended a pass in UK’s 24-20 victory over Eastern Michigan last season at Kroger Field. Starting with UK’s 2018 opener against Central Michigan, the Wildcats are scheduled to play 11 games against Mid-American Conference teams over the next seven seasons.
Kentucky cornerback Lonnie Johnson defended a pass in UK’s 24-20 victory over Eastern Michigan last season at Kroger Field. Starting with UK’s 2018 opener against Central Michigan, the Wildcats are scheduled to play 11 games against Mid-American Conference teams over the next seven seasons.

The news broke last week that the 2019 Kentucky-Eastern Michigan football game — originally scheduled to be played in Ypsilanti, Mich. — will instead take place at Kroger Field.

For the first time since 2015, it means UK in 2019 will have eight home games. For the first time since 1991, it means the Wildcats will play two games in a season against Mid-American Conference teams.

Next year, Kentucky will open against Toledo on Aug. 31, followed a week later by the visit from financially-strapped EMU.

UK backers will want to get used to following the “MAC-tion.”

Starting with the 2018 season opener against Central Michigan, Kentucky is slated to play 11 games against Mid-American Conference teams through the 2024 season.

In addition to 2019, UK is also scheduled to face two MAC teams in 2020 (Eastern Michigan and Kent State); 2022 (Miami, Ohio, and Northern Illinois); and 2023 (Ball State and Akron).

Kentucky athletics director Mitch Barnhart addresses concerns about sales of season football tickets declining to press during football media day on Friday morning.

Kentucky will also play Akron in 2021 in Lexington and in 2024 in Ohio.

It represents a substantial growth in the presence of MAC teams on the UK football schedule.

From 2006 through last season, Kentucky played only nine times against Mid-American Conference foes. Over the past three seasons, the Wildcats had faced only one MAC team, last year’s 24-20 victory over Eastern Michigan.

What gives?

Guy Ramsey, director of strategic communications for UK Athletics, said the expansion in MAC teams on future UK schedules owes largely to two factors.

The 12-team MAC features six schools from Ohio, three from Michigan and one each from Indiana, Illinois and New York. Because most of those schools are relatively close to Lexington, “it costs them less to travel (to UK), and that means it costs us less in guarantee money,” Ramsey said.

Also, scheduling games within a particular conference tends to beget more such games “because of the relationships built,” Ramsey said.

There are good football programs in the MAC. Toledo was 11-3 last year and has had eight straight winning seasons. Northern Illinois (8-5 a season ago) played in the Orange Bowl after the 2012 season. Central Michigan (8-5) has beaten a Power Five conference foe the past two seasons.

However, I cannot help but wonder how the ticket-buying public is going to feel about UK bringing so many MAC teams to Lexington.

Mark Stoops vs. Miami (Ohio)
Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops was high-fived as he left the field after the Cats defeated Miami (Ohio) 41-7 in 2013 for Stoops’ first win as UK head coach. Jonathan Palmer

Since college football schedules permanently expanded to 12 games in 2006, Kentucky has, as a rule, used its four non-SEC games each season to play archrival Louisville, two FBS teams from non-Power Five conferences (usually from the Sun Belt, Conference USA or the MAC) and an FCS foe.

On the 2018 UK schedule, U of L and Central Michigan are joined by Murray State (FCS) and Middle Tennessee State (C-USA).

For a Kentucky program that has not won more than seven games in a regular season since 1984, it has long been a hard truth that a soft non-conference slate is a necessity.

It’s understandable why UK isn’t playing Oklahoma and Penn State anymore.

Yet, in an era when Kentucky can no longer merely throw open the gates at Kroger Field and count on the stands being filled regardless of opponent, couldn’t UK do a little more to make its non-league schedule interesting?

Now that Louisville is the annual regular-season finale, perhaps Kentucky could add an early-season home-and-home against a Power Five foe of similar football profile to UK, such as Indiana, Purdue, Illinois, West Virginia or North Carolina.

Rather than doubling up on MAC teams in the same season, there would be more interest if UK scheduled games with near-by Conference USA foes such as Western Kentucky or Marshall.

Then again, in its nine meetings against MAC foes since 2006, Kentucky has won them all and by an average of 25.2 points per game.

Maxwell Smith vs. Kent.JPG
Kentucky Wildcats quarterback Maxwell Smith scrambled out of the pocket during UK’s 47-14 win over Kent State of the Mid-American Conference in 2012. Jonathan Palmer

Conversely, WKU stunned UK in both 2012 and 2013 before Western left the Sun Belt for Conference USA. Southern Mississippi of C-USA upset Kentucky in the 2016 season opener.

Louisiana of the Sun Belt gave the Cats a scare in 2015’s first game before falling 40-33; Southern Miss took the Cats to the final minute before losing 24-17 in last year’s opener.

Upgrading its non-league schedule even slightly would likely make it more difficult for Kentucky to attain bowl eligibility, of course.

Nevertheless, the UK football program is at the point where it would benefit by shaking up its non-league scheduling strategy in a way that makes the seasons more compelling.

Kentucky doubling down on so much additional “MAC-tion” coming to Lexington is not doing that.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230; Twitter: @markcstory

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