To understand how Kentucky football has risen from SEC East bottom feeder at the start of this decade to league respectability the past three seasons, one need look at only one factor:
The dramatic role reversals Mark Stoops has engineered against three Southeastern Conference East Division rivals.
UK will enter 2019 having beaten South Carolina five games in a row, Missouri four straight times and Vanderbilt four out of five.
Those positive streaks have been the foundation of Stoops’ elevation process that has taken Kentucky from 2-10 in 2013 to 10-3 last season.
Let’s examine Kentucky’s “state of the series” with South Carolina, Mizzou and Vandy:
The role reversal: In the first decade of the 21st century, South Carolina went 10-0 against Kentucky. However, in the “teens,” UK leads the series with the Gamecocks 6-3, including 5-1 under Stoops.
The 2019 meeting: Sept. 28 at South Carolina. The game “sets up” in a difficult schedule slot for each team.
Kentucky will travel to Williams-Brice Stadium after facing Florida at home (Sept. 14) and a road game at Mississippi State (Sept. 21).
It will also be the third SEC game in three weeks for South Carolina, following a home game with Alabama (Sept. 14) and a road trip to Missouri (Sept. 21).
What to know: For South Carolina (7-6, 4-4 SEC in 2018), its 2019 schedule is beyond brutal. In addition to Alabama, Coach Will Muschamp’s team will also face national championship aspirants Georgia and Clemson. The Gamecocks will play potential top 10 foes in Florida and Texas A&M, too.
The rugged schedule figures to leave almost no margin of error for South Carolina in its remaining games. That raises the urgency for the Gamecocks to finally break through against UK.
Key factoid: South Carolina senior quarterback Jake Bentley is back for one more season running the Gamecocks offense. Kentucky has intercepted Bentley five times in the past two years.
The role reversal: After Missouri joined the SEC in 2012, the Tigers whipped Kentucky in the first three meetings by double-digit margins. Starting in 2015, however, Kentucky has won the past four.
The 2019 meeting: Oct. 26 at Kroger Field. For Kentucky, the game comes the week after a road contest at Georgia (Oct. 19). Under Stoops, UK is 0-6 in games the week after playing the Bulldogs.
For Missouri, the UK game will be its fourth game in four weeks and second straight SEC road contest following a trip to Vanderbilt (Oct. 19).
What to know: Missouri (8-5, 4-4 SEC in 2018) feels it has been on the short end of the officiating in the last seconds of its past two defeats against Kentucky.
With the clock running in the final seconds of UK’s 40-34 win in Lexington in 2017, Mizzou wideout J’Mon Moore was trying to return the ball to the officials after a short reception. Kentucky’s Josh Allen knocked the ball free from Moore and the clock ticked down from 16 seconds to four seconds before the ball was again spotted.
Last year, a controversial pass interference call on Mizzou’s DeMarkus Acy against UK wideout Ahmad Wagner on the final play of regulation in the end zone gave Kentucky an untimed down. That allowed Terry Wilson’s game-winning touchdown pass to C.J. Conrad for what became a 15-14 Kentucky victory.
Key factoid: Pending a reversal by the NCAA Infractions Appeal Committee, Missouri is ineligible for postseason play in 2019 due to sanctions from an academic fraud case. The bowl ban means any senior on the Tigers roster can transfer to another school this summer and play immediately without penalty in the coming season.
So far, no Tigers senior, including quarterback Kelly Bryant, the graduate transfer from Clemson, has opted to bail on Coach Barry Odom.
The role reversal: Under James Franklin, Vanderbilt went 3-0 against Kentucky (2011-13). Under current Commodores head man Derek Mason, however, the Commodores are 1-4 vs. UK.
The 2019 meeting: Nov. 16 at Vanderbilt. Kentucky will enter the game off a home contest with Tennessee (Nov. 9).
Vandy will come to the UK game off back-to-back road contests at South Carolina (Nov. 2) and at Florida (Nov. 9).
What to know: In 2019, Vanderbilt (6-7, 3-5 SEC in 2018) loses four-year starting quarterback Kyle Shurmur. However, Vandy returns one of the most dynamic offensive “big threes” in the SEC in running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn (1,244 rushing yards in 2018), wide receiver Kalijah Lipscomb (87 catches, 916 yards) and tight end Jared Pinkney (50 catches, 774 yards).
Key factoid: Vanderbilt has added at least nine transfers to its roster since last season. Graduate transfer quarterback Riley Neal was a three-year starter at Ball State (7,393 career passing yards). Grad transfer cornerback Cameron Watkins was a starter at Illinois; cornerback Dontye Carriere-Williams was a part-time starter at Wisconsin.
For South Carolina, Missouri and Vanderbilt, the quest to beat Kentucky in 2019 figures to be an all-out holy war.