Not to mention Kentucky's SEC West opponents. Kentucky faces Mississippi State every season, and while State isn't the best team in the league, they have fared well against UK in recent years. The Wildcats rotate SEC West opponents, such as Auburn this year as well as Ole Miss.
There is a cry that seems to get louder every season that Kentucky needs a tougher out of conference schedule. But why?
The Wildcats' overall schedule is almost always guaranteed to be in the top 15 in the country. Besides the eight SEC games, they take on their in-state rival, Louisville. While the Cardinals have recently fallen upon hard times, it wasn't that long ago that Louisville was dominating the series. And in a rivalry game, almost anything can happen.
Nine of Kentucky's 12 games are going to be competitive. Vanderbilt, while never a conference power in the SEC, always comes to play against Kentucky because they feel that the Wildcats are their best opportunity at winning a conference game.
If you look over the SEC, compare the teams of similar stature as the Wildcats and you'll see that their schedules aren't that much different.
Ole Miss plays Jacksonville State, Tulane, Fresno State and Louisiana-Lafayette. No powers there. Mississippi State plays Memphis, Alcorn State, at Houston and at UAB. Arkansas plays Tennessee Tech, Louisiana-Monroe, UTEP and Texas A&M. Vandy plays Northwestern, at Connecticut, Eastern Michigan and Wake Forest.
Of those teams, Texas A&M, Houston, Fresno State, Northwestern and Connecticut are the best teams. Vanderbilt (for some reason) has decided to play two of those schools and there's a good possibility that the Dores won't win a game this year.
Rich Brooks built the Kentucky program up quite a bit during his time in Lexington and Joker Phillips is off to a good start as well. Brooks and Phillips wanted to win every game, but it's not realistic at this point. You have to focus on wins over the out of conference schools and then if you can win two or three games in conference, you become a 6-6 or 7-5 team that's going to a bowl.
Eventually Kentucky will likely upgrade the schedule and pick up a regional opponent. Maybe they bring back Indiana. They may bring in Memphis or maybe take on a Georgia Tech or West Virginia. But until Kentucky feels comfortable saying they'll win four or more conference games every year, Kentucky won't be adding tougher opponents to the schedule.
There seem to be two reasons behind upgrading the schedule.
The first one is that Kentucky isn't prepared for the SEC's speed and physical nature when they face their conference foes. While that may be true, that's why you have experience. Most of the upperclassmen will have faced SEC opponents in years passed and they are aware of what they are about to face when the SEC schedule comes around.
The other reason is directional schools, in-state opponents (save Louisville) and MAC schools don't draw the attendance numbers that people would like to see. While that's understandable, winning is more important. Winning games will ultimately lead to more bodies in the stadium. That in turn can lead to better schedules.
In the end, I think we have to wait and see how Joker does and how Kentucky continues to develop over the next several years. If Kentucky evolves into a true middle of the pack SEC team (8-4 average win/loss record) then we'll probably see Kentucky add another out of conference opponent that is a bigger TV draw and ticket draw. If Kentucky remains about where they are, then the schedule won't change.