Mark Stoops has been no stranger to pivotal games during his time at Kentucky. From South Carolina in 2014, to Mississippi State in 2016, and even to the beatdown his Wildcats dished out in Rocky Top last year, the Wildcats typically come out on top at the inflection point.
In 2021, the Wildcats will face a schedule full of games that will once again re-determine the trajectory of this program, but there may be none more important than the Week 2 matchup against Missouri.
Since moving to the SEC East almost simultaneously with the hiring of Mark Stoops, the Tigers and the Wildcats have basically traded SEC positioning since 2012. Kentucky obviously hasn’t reached the heights of two SEC Championship appearances like Missouri did when they first joined the league, but the two programs have been jostling for position since Mark Stoops kickstarted the Kentucky rebuild. Despite a big disparity in the standings when the Tigers first joined the SEC, Kentucky still holds a slim 5-4 margin over the Tigers in head-to-head match-ups.
In fact, in each of the last four seasons, Kentucky and Missouri have been separated by just one spot in the SEC standings, with the head-to-head matchup determining the outcome. Fortunately, for Stoops and company, the Wildcats have come on top three of the last four seasons, with last year being the exception.
It’s easy to forget about the Tigers after the ‘Cats rattled off five-straight wins against them, but the truth of the matter is at SEC Media Day, Kentucky and Missouri will be the trendy picks for third place behind Florida and Georgia in the SEC East.
After Eli Drinkwitz toppled a reeling and sluggish Kentucky team in his first season, the Tigers gained a little bit of steam heading into the offseason. They went on to win three of their next four and even cracked the top 25 in the CFP ranking before ending their regular season with two losses and a canceled bowl game.
In the offseason, Drinkwitz reaped the benefits of Missouri’s budding success. The Tigers locked up two four-star commitments in Deshawn Woods and Tavorus Jones. At one point Mizzou had a top-20 recruiting class for 2022 with six verbals from top-300 prospects and an average rating of .9028.
So what does all of this mean? It means that Missouri is a MUST-WIN for Kentucky in 2021.
The Tigers rebuild is well ahead of schedule, almost like Kentucky’s was in 2014. It’s paramount that the Wildcats stop the Tigers in their tracks on Sep. 11th at Kroger Field. It’s a matchup that will almost surely determine each team’s placement in the SEC East and will have heavy recruiting implications.
The path to SEC success runs through Missouri for Kentucky. Think about the Tigers being the signature win of that brutal 2015 season, Stephen Johnson’s late-game-heroics to beat the Tigers in 2017, Kentucky’s improbable comeback in 2018 to set up a date with Georgia for the SEC East, and Lynn Bowden running through in 2019 to vault Kentucky back over .500.
Missouri has been at the crossroads every season for the Wildcats, and they’ll be standing there again in Week 2. It very well could be the difference between a seven- or nine-win regular season for the ‘Cats.