No matter what happens when Kentucky plays at Missouri, the Wildcats have already clinched a rare feat.
UK goes into Saturday with a 3-2 record in SEC play. Even with a loss, the program will not head into November with a losing conference record. The Cats have managed to get into the season’s final month at .500 or better in the league just twice in the divisional era. The first time was when Hal Mumme was coaching up Dusty Bonner in 1999, going 3-2 before Halloween. The other was in 1993 when Bill Curry had the immortal Pookie Jones at quarterback and went 4-2 over the first two months.
As big an achievement as that is, Kentucky can do more. If things fall just right for them this weekend, the Wildcats can go into November alone atop the SEC East.
In the standings, Florida leads the division with a 3-1 conference record. The Wildcats are second at 3-2, while Tennessee is in third at 2-2.
The Gators head to Jacksonville this weekend for the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. UF is about a touchdown favorite in the contest, but Georgia can certainly win if it gets a good game out of Jacob Eason. It’s a rivalry in which surprises happen all the time, so it’s far from out of the question that UGA could win. If the Bulldogs pull it off, that would bump Florida down to 3-2 in league play.
Tennessee is visiting South Carolina this weekend. The Vols are about a two-touchdown favorite and should win the game. Even so, that would only push UT’s record to 3-2 in the SEC.
That leaves Kentucky.
The Wildcats are a five-point underdog to Missouri, and the S&P+ picks for the week like the Tigers by double that margin. Mark Stoops’s track record doesn’t suggest a win for Big Blue either. The S&P+ ratings think Mizzou is about 7.1 points better than UK on a neutral field, and Stoops has never defeated a team at least seven points higher than his Wildcats in the final S&P+ ratings. He’s also only 1-2 on the road against opponents that are within a touchdown of his teams.
Of course, there is a reason why they play the games. The kickoff in Columbia is set for noon, which is the prime time for upsets in SEC play. UK could come out of this weekend with a win.
Picking up the victory over Mizzou would result in Kentucky having a 4-2 record in SEC competition. Tennessee will be no better than 3-2, and a win for Georgia in Jacksonville will put Florida at 3-2 as well. In this scenario, the Wildcats will go into November with a half-game lead atop the standings.
To be sure, Kentucky would attain sole possession of the East going into November thanks to the schedule and Mother Nature.
Tennessee had only five SEC games scheduled through October 29 instead of UK’s six, and a pair of the Vols’ games happened to be against two of the conference’s best teams in Alabama and Texas A&M. If Florida had played and won its game against LSU on its originally scheduled date, the Gators’ record would be no worse than 4-2 even with a loss to Georgia. They would then be in first by virtue of having defeated Kentucky back in September, even if they fall to the Bulldogs. Kentucky also hasn’t played Tennessee, a team that appears to be clearly superior to UK. Getting UT before the calendar flips to November almost certainly would’ve given the Wildcats a third conference loss.
That said, it’s a sign of progress for Mark Stoops that his team is in position to be on top of the division after two full months. The pressure was on him to deliver in his fourth season, and his 44-35 loss to Southern Miss and 45-7 loss to Florida to open the year had sportswriters scrambling to look up his buyout terms.
Instead of getting canned early, Stoops has put himself in prime position to attain bowl eligibility by winning this weekend. He only needs two more wins to get there, and Austin Peay should give him one of those wins on November 19. Even if he falls at Missouri, next week he gets a home match with a Georgia team that has already lost to Vanderbilt.
Kentucky most likely will not win the SEC East, but it has a chance to sit on the throne for a week or two depending on how things shake out. If the Wildcats gain sole possession of the East lead this week, they would retain it next week by defeating UGA.
That fact doesn’t speak well for the SEC East’s quality in 2016, but it does mean that UK football has a chance to drag Wildcat fans’ attention away from the hardwood on occasion in November. Doing so would finally be a real sign of forward progress for Stoops in Lexington.