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VAUGHT: Kentucky’s non-conference football schedule is, well, pretty ‘blah’

By Jamie H. Vaught
Contributing columnist

When you look at UK’s non-conference football schedule for 2020 (if there is a pigskin season), it’s really nothing special to talk about. Just like the past, the school’s non-league slate is not very attractive. It’s blah.

Except for the regular season-ending showdown at Louisville, the Wildcats – who finished last year with an 8-5 mark, including a Belk Bowl win over Virginia Tech – have three cupcakes on the 2020 schedule. They are Eastern Michigan (season-opening opponent), Kent State and Eastern Illinois. According to the preseason national rankings of the Football Bowl Subdivision schools in the newly released Athlon Sports College Football yearbook, Eastern Michigan is No. 117 (out of 130) and Kent State is No. 103. Eastern Illinois, which plays in Football Championship Subdivision, is a member of the Ohio Valley Conference.

But, to be fair, Kentucky is not the only “Power Five” schools that understandably tries to schedule easy wins at home every year to pretty much guarantee the required six victories for a bowl trip. Depending on its conference schedule, many schools will have three cupcakes along with one usually-tough rivalry game (like Georgia-Georgia Tech, Florida-Florida State, among others).

For instance, look at Tennessee. The 2020 Vols are guilty for playing teams like Charlotte, Furman and Troy besides an attractive date with Oklahoma. Look at Alabama. The Crimson Tide, who faces Southern California in a season opener at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, are guilty for facing Georgia State, Kent State and Tennessee Martin.

In a perfect world, while keeping rival Louisville on the schedule, I have three possible UK opponents for future non-conference matchups to recommend and all three have regional appeal.

How about Cincinnati of the American Athletic Conference? The Bearcats, a preseason Top 25 team that is coming off two straight 11-win campaigns, would be a more attractive choice and they are pretty good. Athlon Sports has picked Cincy to win the conference this fall.

The Bearcats, coached by former Ohio State defensive coordinator and interim coach Luke Fickell, return 16 of 22 starters from offense and defense.

UK’s last game with Cincinnati took place nearly 25 years ago. In 1996, the host Bearcats whipped Bill Curry’s Wildcats 24-3 during UK’s 4-7 campaign.

How about Indiana of the Big Ten conference? Coming off an 8-5 Gator Bowl season, the Hoosiers would be a good choice.

Under the leadership of coach Tom Allen, IU has improved and is becoming a more respectable squad. And Indiana is rated No. 40 in Athlon Sports’ preseason poll, just behind No. 32 Kentucky.

UK last played against IU in 2005, losing to the Hoosiers 38-14 in Bloomington during coach Rich Brooks’ third season at Kentucky

How about Western Kentucky of the Conference USA? The Hilltoppers, who were 9-4 in 2019, are expected to be good again this season.

WKU boss Tyson Helton, who was named C-USA Coach of the Year last season, will be beginning his second season at the helm of the Hilltopper program. As you may remember, Helton was Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt’s first hire as offensive coordinator and quarterback coach back in 2018 before arriving at Bowling Green.

The Wildcats and the Hilltoppers last met in 2013 when WKU came out on top with a 35-26 win at Nashville. That was coach Mark Stoops’ head coaching debut at Kentucky.

Besides Cincinnati, Indiana and Western Kentucky, the other attractive non-conference foes with regional appeal would be Marshall from Huntington, West Virginia, of the Conference USA and Memphis of the American Athletic Conference.

It would be awesome if the Wildcats could find a way to play these schools.

Unfortunately, after this fall, Kentucky still will be facing the similar cupcakes in the next five years, according to FBSchedules.com website.

So, Kentucky and other major schools will continue to feature their so-called ‘blah’ non-conference schedule.

For many college football fans, that’s kind of sad.

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By the way, nine Wildcats have earned a spot on the 2020 Athlon Sports Preseason All-SEC squads.

Senior center Drake Jackson and senior offensive tackle Darian Kinnard were named first-team offense, while senior punter Max Duffy is a first-team specialist.

Senior offensive tackle Landon Young and guard Luke Fortner landed on the second- and third-team offense, respectively, while senior running back A.J. Rose was placed on the fourth-team offense.

Defensively, senior linebacker Jamar “Boogie” Watson was named to the second-team defense, while senior nose guard Quinton Bohanna and junior safety Yusuf Corker collected fourth-team defense honors.

Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime sports columnist in Kentucky, is the author of five books about UK basketball, including newly-released “Chasing the Cats: A Kentucky Basketball Journey.” He is the editor and founder of KySportsStyle.com Magazine, and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via email at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.