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Don’t be mad, be glad.
The SEC will be a richer and more powerful conference once Texas and Oklahoma join the club. That’s true for every one of the 14 existing members, from Alabama to Vanderbilt, including, yes, Kentucky football.
I know what you’re thinking. Where football is concerned, the Cats barely compete in the SEC now. Since the league expanded to 12 teams in 1992, UK has posted just one winning conference season. That was a 5-3 mark in 2018. Since the league went to 14 members in 2012, UK’s conference record is just 24-50.
Yet Kentucky football is in much better shape now than at either expansion point. In 1992, Bill Curry was in the third season of what was a 26-52 tenure as UK coach. In 2012, Joker Phillips was in the last of his three seasons, a 2-10 record and box office collapse forcing Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart to make a coaching change.
Enter Mark Stoops. After an SEC record of 4-20 through his first three seasons, Stoops is 20-22 his last five. The Cats have been to five straight bowl games, with victories in the last three. UK’s foundation is stronger now than at most any point in program history.
To be sure, adding Oklahoma and Texas makes Stoops’ job more difficult. That’s especially true in the case of Oklahoma, and no one knows that more than Mark Stoops, whose brother Bob returned the Sooners to national prominence and then some during his 18 years as OU coach before handing the reins to Lincoln Riley in 2017.
Oklahoma won the BCS national title in 2000 to go with its previous modern national championships in 1985, 1975 and 1974. The current Sooners are on a streak of six consecutive top-10 finishes in the AP Top 25.
Texas is a different story. The Longhorns are on their third different coach since Mack Brown “retired” in 2013, only to resurface in a reunion with North Carolina. Steve Sarkisian replaced Tom Herman who replaced Charlie Strong, whom the Horns had hooked from Louisville. Texas’ record since Brown’s 2009 title game season: 78-60. Just once (No. 9 in 2018) in the past 11 seasons has Austin witnessed a team that finished in the AP top 10.
Sarkisian is capable of capitalizing on an athletics department that annually leads the nation in revenue. His recruiting efforts should improve now that Sark can sell prospects on the idea of playing Alabama, LSU, Florida, Georgia and yes, Texas A&M on a regular basis. The Horns won’t be down forever.
How Texas and Oklahoma will affect UK recruiting
Then again, Texas and Oklahoma are not a current focus of Kentucky’s recruiting efforts. The Cats would be hurt much more if the SEC expanded north into, say, Ohio or Michigan, where Stoops and Vince Marrow have exhibited considerable success in finding and developing talent. And those two now can add the prospect of playing Oklahoma and Texas to their sales pitch.
And isn’t that what this is all about? Best on best. Talking to UK’s players before last pandemic season, various Cats voiced how they looked forward to playing an all-SEC schedule, how they could match their talents against the best players in the nation.
Look at the recent success of UK’s other sports in the nation’s most competitive conference. Under Coach Craig Skinner, Kentucky volleyball won the national title, a feat no SEC school had previously accomplished. (And the Cats beat Texas in the title match.) In February, the UK women’s swim team won a conference title for the first time in school history. The UK softball team has been to the College World Series. There are 21 current and former UK athletes competing in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
Kentucky football can compete on the sport’s biggest stage, as well. Will it be tough? Of course. But when Oklahoma and Texas officially join the SEC, the Cats shouldn’t fear the Sooners and Longhorns. They should welcome the challenge.