Mark Story

Gamecocks' grip on Cats most puzzling

Twenty-three losses in a row to the former border rival known as Tennessee is a blot on Kentucky's state psyche.

Twenty-one losses in a row to Florida is just plain embarrassing.

Standing zero-for-all-eternity (and 0-15 overall) against Steve Spurrier is grating.

But of all the negative losing streaks associated with University of Kentucky football, the most perplexing is that the Wildcats are oh-for-the-21st Century against South Carolina.

When the Head Ball Coach and his Gamecocks hit Commonwealth Stadium Saturday afternoon, Carolina will bring an eight-game winning streak against the Cats.

UK hasn't beaten South Carolina since Lou Holtz was enduring a dismal 0-11 season in his first year in Columbia way back in 1999.

Even allowing for the Hal Mumme-era NCAA probation that weakened Kentucky during the early part of the 2000s, there is no reason South Carolina should be dominating UK in football to this degree.

"Based on where the overall records have been the last several years, I'd say it probably shouldn't be that way," Rich Brooks said Monday. "But it has been. We, obviously, need to do something about it."

After South Carolina came into the SEC starting in 1992, UK went 5-3 vs. the Gamecocks in the 1990s.

Of course, after a decade of Sparky Woods and Brad Scott types, Carolina invested in genuine coaching star power.

Holtz and Spurrier are a combined 8-1 against Kentucky.

Yet, from the long view, South Carolina does not have better football tradition than Kentucky.

The Gamecocks have never played in a major bowl and didn't even win a bowl game until 1995.

UK has appearances in the Orange, Sugar and Cotton bowls and wins in the latter two — though those Bear Bryant-era achievements are ancient history.

There is no significant population difference between the states of South Carolina (some 4.3 million people) and Kentucky (4.2 million).

However, the state of South Carolina regards itself as a football state. It has a warm-weather climate.

Both of those give USC football a built-in recruiting advantage over UK.

Which should not reach the magnitude of a win-the-game-every-year advantage.

During Carolina's eight-game win streak, "there have been close games," Brooks noted.

Five of USC's victories over UK since 1999 have come by seven points or less.

Last season's loss in Columbia came by 15, yet it may have been the most difficult to stomach for Kentucky fans.

UK entered the game undefeated (5-0) and ranked No. 8 in the country. Kentucky's high-octane offense had put 40 or more points on the scoreboard in its first five games.

The consensus in the Kingdom of the Blue was that this was the team to finally give "Steve Superior" his comeuppance.

Yet with a national audience looking in via ESPN's Thursday night college football broadcast, the Cats laid a dinosaur egg.

Kentucky turned the ball over four times — Carolina's Eric Norwood returned two fumbles for touchdowns — and fell 38-23.

Afterward, Spurrier said, "I thought we were better than Kentucky."

Outcome notwithstanding, I didn't.

Subsequent events proved the HBC wrong. Carolina lost its last five games and stayed home for the holidays.

UK went on to upset eventual national champion LSU and, though the Cats sagged late in the year, too, beat Florida State in the Music City Bowl to finish with eight wins.

This year, South Carolina looks like the pivotal game of the Kentucky season.

If the Cats win, they become highly likely to earn a third straight winning regular season for the first time since 1954-56.

It would also be an important step toward sustaining football success at UK.

My long-held contention is that to build a consistent winning program at Kentucky, the Wildcats have to do well against four teams they play every year — Louisville, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and South Carolina.

Brooks is 4-1 vs. Vandy; 3-2 against Mississippi State; and he has beaten U of L two in a row since dropping his first four.

"I know I haven't beaten (Carolina) in five years," Brooks said Monday.

Starting Saturday, for a whole lot of reasons, that needs to change.