Which game is most important this season?


Jack Weaver

Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops watches his team from the sideline during the Kentucky vs. New Mexico State football game on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, at Kroger Field in Lexington, Kentucky. UK won 56-16. Photo by Jack Weaver | Kentucky Kernel

Cole Parke, Sports Editor

In the world of college football not all games are created equal.

A matchup against a reigning champion is not the same as a matchup against an FCS opponent, regardless of how many coaches will claim they see every game the same.

With a minimum of 12 games, which ones matter the most?

No. 12: Game three against Youngstown State

It had to be Youngstown State.

While Kentucky showed one year ago that not all FCS opponents will be blowouts with Chattanooga, Youngstown State is fresh off of a 3-7 season in the Missouri Valley.

Not great even by FCS standards, the Penguins should be by far the easiest game on Kentucky’s schedule.

The only noteworthy thing about this matchup is that it could be a pivotal bounce back opportunity if Kentucky loses on the road in Gainesville the week prior.

No. 11: Game one against Miami Ohio

While a loss in week one would all but certainly tank the season, ranking games by which are most “okay” to lose is not the objective of the list.

Kentucky should have little problem against Miami Ohio in week one and, while the RedHawks have an impressive starting quarterback in Brett Gabbert, there is little to no pressure in the minds of UK fans going into the start of the season.

Miami Ohio should be what ULM was one year ago: a fun season-opening win for home fans to enjoy before UK travels to a tough road matchup early in the season.

No. 10: Game 10 against Vanderbilt

The first SEC matchup to make the list, Vanderbilt poses the least challenge to Kentucky, especially in Lexington.

Having gone 2-10 the season prior and losing at home to Kentucky, the Commodores’ goal going into the season has to be merely winning a conference game, a feat they failed to accomplish last season.

The Commodores have not won in Lexington in a decade, before Mark Stoops arrived to take the head coaching job for Kentucky.

Matter of fact, Vanderbilt has not defeated Kentucky since 2015 periods, losing six straight duels against the Wildcats.

Suffice to say, Vanderbilt is hardly a threat in the eyes of many.

No. 9: Game nine at Missouri

The first road game on the list, Missouri should be the easiest test UK has away from Kroger Field.

The Tigers could catch Kentucky slacking if the Wildcats aren’t careful, but it’s unlikely that will happen.

While it may normally have the markings of a trap game, a loss for Kentucky would be a stunner.

Missouri’s defensive backs may give UK quarterback Will Levi’s some issues, but Kentucky has a sturdy run game to go alongside its passing attack to balance that out.

If UK’s defense remains sturdy, the Cats should have no problem with Missouri.

No. 8: Game four against Northern Illinois

While NIU being this high may come as a surprise to some, this matchup has trap game written all over it.

Kentucky travels on the road against preseason No. 21 Ole Miss the week after, and with the lack of respect given to most non power-five schools, it’s safe to say many don’t see Northern Illinois as a legitimate threat.

The Huskies won the MAC in 2021, going 9-5 with a stout offense that averaged 32 points per game.

They also return sophomore running back Harrison Waylee, who secured 574 yards on 101 carries (5.7 yards per carry), with 114.8 yards per game before going down with an injury that ended his season.

Northern Illinois is far from the best team UK will play, but trap games always feature less talented squads than the ones who come after them.

Watch out for the Huskies.

No. 7: Game six against South Carolina

While this may come as a surprise with the Gamecocks’ addition of Oklahoma transfer quarterback Spencer Rattler, it’s hard to rank this game higher than certain others this season.

The Gamecocks should not be taken lightly by UK fans, nor should they have been last year, but with Kentucky winning in Columbia in 2021, it’s hard to imagine they’ll lose in 2022 with many of the same core pieces returning.

Columbia is a difficult place to play thanks to USC’s home environment, but Kroger Field is sure to be packed with Kentucky fans eager to tip the tide in favor of the home team.

Kentucky could lose to South Carolina if they aren’t careful, but it should be more than capable of getting the win.

No. 6: Game 12 against Louisville

While Kentucky fans may balk at the notion of in-state rival Louisville just being at the midpoint of the list, rivalries aside the game is just not as significant as others this season.

The Wildcats decimated the Cardinals 52-21 in Louisville last year and, while star quarterback Malik Cunningham returned for another season, it’s hard to imagine the opposite happening in Lexington.

The main point of importance for the matchup against Louisville is seeing how the season ends for Kentucky leading into a likely bowl game or even conference title game.

The Cardinals are the last opponent Kentucky faces in the regular season and with a returning star QB, that alone makes the matchup significant even without the rivalry aspect.

No. 5: Game seven against Mississippi State

Mississippi State will not be an easy opponent for Kentucky in 2022.

The Bulldogs were not an easy opponent in 2021 either, beating Kentucky 31-17 in Starkville.
That said, looking back at the series as a whole, the last seven games between Mississippi State and Kentucky have been won by the home team, and based on the level of the both teams, it’s hard to imagine that pattern changing.

Both teams are seeking greatness this season, and the Bulldogs do return star quarterback Will Rogers, but Kroger Field’s atmosphere may just be too much for MSU to handle.

Still, not a game to be taken lightly.

No. 4: Game five at Ole Miss

Ole Miss on the road will be a difficult challenge for the Wildcats, one that it may even come up short in.

That said, on its own, a loss to preseason No. 21 Ole Miss may not be all that poor for UK’s season assuming the Rebels maintain the level of play expected from them.

Not to mention the fact that with NIU being the trap game listed before, Ole Miss is not a sleeping bear being overlooked by the Cats.

Kentucky is perfectly capable of defeating Ole Miss regardless of the difficulty that comes with playing in Oxford, but even if it comes up short, the season is far from doomed.

No. 3 Game eight at Tennessee

Starting the top three, Tennessee slots in third just above Ole Miss for two reasons.

First, it’s later in the season, meaning that if Ole Miss was the potential first loss of the season, Tennessee would likely be the second loss that would drop the Wildcats out of playoff contention based on precedent.

Second, if Kentucky beats Ole Miss, Tennessee would likely be a potential first loss just a few weeks before Georgia with the SEC east potentially on the line in that game.

Even beyond those factors, Tennessee returns starting quarterback Hendon Hooker, who is already in the conversation for national player of the year.

Having defeated Kentucky in Lexington one year earlier, Tennessee gets to bring the Cats back into its stomping grounds in a stadium that is notorious for its harsh atmosphere and, more recently, flying golf balls.

No. 2: Game two at Florida

Regardless of what questions surround Florida’s program with a new head coach, The Swamp is a tough stadium to play in.

Take that factor and add into consideration it comes in week two of the season AND that Kentucky is forced to be without starting running back Chris Rodriguez Jr. due to legal issues, and you’ve got a recipe for a high stakes matchup.

This game sets the tone for the season.

If Kentucky comes out flat and dull and loses to Florida, Ole Miss, Tennessee and Georgia seem like near inevitable losses as well.

If Kentucky comes out dominant and put together even without Rodriguez, those games become a lot more plausible and confidence is built.

While not the most important game of the season, there’s a lot riding on week two for the Wildcats.

No. 1 Game 11 against Georgia

This is it.

This is what the whole season builds towards.

Hypothetically if Kentucky is successful in all or all but one of its matchups by this point, this game could very likely be for the SEC East and a trip to the SEC title game.

Alternatively, if an undefeated Kentucky makes Georgia its only loss of the season, there’s still a pathway for that team to make the college football playoffs even without making the title game.

Take all of that and add on the fact that it’s a home game for the Cats AND it returns veteran stars with a former NFL coach leading the offense, and this game has College Football Gameday written all over it.

The Georgia Bulldogs are the reigning national champions.

This will be a fight if Kentucky is to be successful, or even if it isn’t.

This could be the defining game of the season when it is looked back upon for years to come.