Mark Story

Is Kentucky football’s mastery of South Carolina really ‘unfathomable’?

On Saturday night at Williams-Brice Stadium, Kentucky (2-2, 0-2 SEC) will seek its sixth straight victory over South Carolina (1-3, 0-2 SEC).

Over the summer, it felt like I never looked in on the SEC Network’s Paul Finebaum Show when I didn’t hear a media person from South Carolina proclaiming it “unfathomable” that the Gamecocks have lost to Kentucky in five straight football seasons.

Is it?

In the epitome of a hot take, the answer is yes and no.

An original member of the Southeastern Conference, the University of Kentucky has been playing SEC football since 1933.

Before the current win streak over South Carolina, UK had only beaten one other league foe in five straight seasons. From 1976-81, Fran Curci’s final six years as UK coach, Kentucky defeated Vanderbilt in each of those seasons.

(Counting a Mississippi State forfeit in 1976 of a game Kentucky lost on the field, UK beat MSU eight straight times from 1958 through 1990. Those wins, obviously, did not all come in consecutive seasons, however).

So from the long view, it is unquestionably unusual for Kentucky to have sustained five straight seasons of football mastery over an SEC rival.

On the other hand, Kentucky’s five-game win streak vs. South Carolina has not happened in a vacuum. Entering 2019, UK also had beaten SEC East rival Missouri four straight and had won four of five from Vandy.

Earlier this decade, Kentucky pumped in excess of $165 million into an upgrade of its football facilities.

With Mark Stoops, UK has a head coach with deep ties to the prospect-rich neighboring state of Ohio. That has allowed Kentucky to expand its recruiting “base.”

It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that when a football program has consistent access to more good players, that will eventually yield more team success.

Since 2016, that precept has been reaffirmed at Kentucky to the tune of four victories over ranked teams and three straight bowl trips.

Now that Josh Allen, Benny Snell and Co. have moved on, what we will find out over the remainder of this season and in 2020 is whether Stoops can defy Wildcats football history and sustain success.

Since South Carolina played its first SEC season in 1992, we have almost three full decades of data on the natural state of the football series between UK and the Gamecocks.

In the 1990s, Kentucky “won the decade” head-to-head vs. South Carolina 5-3.

Whatever happens Saturday night, UK has also already “won” the current decade, having gone 6-3 against South Carolina since 2010.

The first decade of the 21st century, conversely, was literally all Gamecocks. South Carolina went a gaudy 10-0 vs. UK from 2000-2009.

Yet seven of those 10 games were decided by one score or less.

What might be the most unfathomable thing about the Kentucky-South Carolina series is that you could have a full decade with so many close games all won by the same team.

(In UK’s current five-game win streak vs. South Carolina, three of the five contests have been decided by one score. The past two games have seen Kentucky win by double-digits).

The stakes for South Carolina on Saturday night seem as high as it gets.

Sitting at 1-3 and with a brutal remaining schedule that includes games with No. 1 Clemson, No. 3 Georgia, No. 9 Florida and No. 23 Texas A&M, South Carolina could be headed for a train derailment of a season if it doesn’t beat Kentucky.

It is being speculated this week in the Palmetto State that Gamecocks head man Will Muschamp might be coaching for his job against UK.

This in spite of the fact that Muschamp, the former Eastern Kentucky assistant and Florida head coach, has a massive contract buyout. Muschamp would be owed $22 million if fired during this season, or $18.6 million if fired after Dec. 31.

Ryan Hilinski passing vs. Missouri
South Carolina true freshman quarterback Ryan Hilinski will be looking to bounce back against Kentucky after completing only 13 of 30 passes in a 34-14 loss at Missouri last week. L.G. Patterson AP

Kentucky has its own issues. UK came from ahead in the fourth quarter to lose two weeks ago against Florida in agonizing fashion. The flat Cats turned in a full-on clunker last Saturday in a defeat at Mississippi State.

However, the remaining UK schedule looks far more forgiving than what faces South Carolina. Even if Kentucky loses Saturday night, there would remain five, even six, potentially winnable games on the Wildcats’ slate.

So a fourth straight winning season would still be viable for Kentucky.

Yet to have any hope of backing up last season’s 10-3 breakthrough with a similarly successful record in 2019, Kentucky has to win at South Carolina.

The Gamecocks will presumably be fueled by desperation Saturday night.

It will be interesting to see if UK plays with a similar level of zeal after the Wildcats failed to match Mississippi State’s ardor a week ago.

If it seems unfathomable in South Carolina to have lost five football games in a row to Kentucky, imagine the heads-exploding consternation a sixth straight UK victory over the Gamecocks would create.

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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.
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