Whether Mark Stoops' third Kentucky team will end the Wildcats' four-year bowl drought is uncertain — but I can tell you which three games are apt to decide UK's fate in 2015.
The success of Kentucky football campaigns tends to be determined by how the Wildcats fare against:
1.) Mississippi State, Kentucky's permanent interdivisional foe from the SEC West;
2.) Vanderbilt, the only SEC East program that the Wildcats have a winning mark against (9-6) in the 2000s;
3.) Louisville, UK's intrastate archrival.
During Kentucky's five-year bowl streak (2006-10), the Wildcats went a combined 10-5 against MSU, Vandy and U of L. Conversely, during the past four seasons without a bowl trip, the Cats have gone 1-11 against the same trio.
Those numbers illustrate how important it is to Wildcats' pigskin success to get the upper hand against three programs that, unlike many of Kentucky's other SEC rivals, do not have greater football "advantages" than do the Cats.
No Wildcats team has gone 3-0 in one season against Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and Louisville since 2002. Let's examine the odds of Kentucky and Stoops completing that sweep in 2015.
Game date: Oct. 24 in Starkville
Recent track record: MSU head man Dan Mullen is 6-0 vs. Kentucky.
Reason for Cats fans to fret: State returns Heisman Trophy candidate Dak Prescott at quarterback. Prescott — the kind of dual threat that gives UK fits — threw for 3,449 yards last season and ran for 986 while leading the Bulldogs (10-3) to the Orange Bowl.
Kentucky has not won an SEC road game since Nov. 21, 2009 (31-24 at Georgia).
Reason for Cats fans' optimism: Even with Prescott and 6-foot-5 wideout De'Runnya Wilson back, State suffered massive graduation losses. MSU returns only four starters on offense and four on defense.
UK plays well in Starkville. The Cats won three of four at MSU from 2002-2008 and have been within a TD of the Bulldogs on their last two trips in 2010 and 2013.
Odds of UK victory: 35 percent.
Game date: Nov. 14 in Nashville
Recent track record: UK's 17-7 home victory last year broke a three-game Vandy win streak.
Reason for Cats fans to fret: Vanderbilt has nine starters back on both sides of the football. After a disastrous 3-9 season in his first year replacing James Franklin, Vandy head man Derek Mason, the former Stanford defensive coordinator, has taken over running the VU defense.
Mason hired offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig from Wisconsin to revitalize an offense that was putrid in 2014 (17.2 points, 288.3 yards a game).
Reason for Cats fans' optimism: Vandy started four different quarterbacks last year, and sophomores Johnny McCrary and Wade Freebeck enter the summer still fighting for the top spot. The Commodores' offense did not exactly end the spring with guns blazing — the QBs threw five picks and took seven sacks in The Black & Gold Game.
Odds of UK victory: 60 percent.
Game date: Nov. 28 in Commonwealth Stadium
Recent track record: Louisville has beaten Kentucky four in a row. Cardinals head man Bobby Petrino is 6-1 vs. UK over his career.
Reason for Cats fans to fret: Historically, Petrino-coached teams take a big step forward in the coach's second year. In his first go-around at Louisville, Bobby P. went from 9-4 and 36.4 points a game (2003) to 11-1 (2004) and 49.8 in '04.
At Arkansas in 2008, Petrino's first Hogs team went 5-7 and averaged 21.9 points; the next season, the Razorbacks were 8-5 and put up 36 points a contest.
Reason for Cats fans' optimism: Petrino still has to settle on a quarterback. Will Gardner (5-2 as starter last year but returning from knee surgery); Reggie Bonnafon (two rushing touchdowns in win at Notre Dame); Lexington Catholic product Kyle Bolin (381 passing yards with three TDs vs Kentucky) and Penn State transfer Tyler Ferguson are all in the mix.
Off last season's 9-4 team, Louisville had a whopping 10 players selected in the 2015 NFL draft. Even with the Cardinals' usual array of big-name transfers ready to step in, that is a massive talent loss to absorb.
Odds of UK victory: 51 percent.