Nothing against Starkville, a fine college town despite being the easy target of SEC jokes. Nothing against Mississippi State, an excellent university whose head football coach grabs his fair share of headlines for matters outside of football.
And nothing against the matchup, but when Mark Stoops and Kentucky play Mike Leach and Mississippi State on Saturday night at Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville, it would be nice if this was the last time the two conference foes would see each other for a while. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
Despite being in opposite divisions, UK and MSU have played every season since 1990. As the designated “permanent” cross-division opponent, the SEC East member Wildcats and SEC West member Bulldogs are annual foes, same as the other six members of their own respective divisions.
Why is this so? It dates back to 1992 when then SEC commissioner Roy Kramer added new members South Carolina and Arkansas and split the conference into two divisions of six teams each. He also increased the number of conference games played from seven to eight.
The divisional format produced objections. SEC West member Alabama and SEC East member Tennessee balked at the idea of not playing each season in their traditional third Saturday in October slot. SEC East member Georgia and SEC West member Auburn balked at the idea of losing their status as the Deep South’s oldest rivalry.
To appease those parties, the league came up with the “permanent opponent” idea. East Division teams would play two West Division foes on a rotating basis, plus one West Division team on an every-season basis. The permanent opponent breakdown went as follows: Tennessee-Alabama; Georgia-Auburn; Florida-LSU; Ole Miss-Vanderbilt; South Carolina-Arkansas and, yes, Kentucky-Mississippi State.
When the league granted Texas A&M and Missouri membership in 2012, the schedule scenario changed to six division foes, one rotating cross-division foe and one “permanent” cross-division foe. The latter was tweaked a bit, with Arkansas switching to Missouri as its “permanent” cross-division rival, leaving South Carolina with Texas A&M.
Meanwhile, Kentucky-Mississippi State remained in place. And while that has been an even matchup over the years — the all-time series is tied 24-24 — the setup has deprived UK fans from seeing their Wildcats play against other SEC West members.
Texas A&M is the most glaring example. Despite this being the Aggies’ 10th football season in the conference, they have never played in Kroger Field. Not once. The only time the two teams have met as SEC members was in 2018 when Texas A&M beat Kentucky 20-14 in overtime at Kyle Field in College Station. The Aggies aren’t scheduled to visit UK until 2025.
And while Mississippi State has visited Lexington 15 times since the league expanded, Alabama and Auburn have played here four times each. Arkansas has been to Lexington once (2019) since 2008. LSU’s loss to the Cats on Oct. 9 was the Tigers’ first trip to the Bluegrass since 2007. On the flip side, thanks to a scheduling quirk, Ole Miss has played UK in Lexington three times since the Wildcats’ last trip to Oxford in 2010.
This could all change when Texas and Oklahoma begin SEC play, no later than 2025. The conference hasn’t said whether it will keep the division format, go to a pod-type setup or switch to an all-in-one format as in basketball. Still, expanding the league schedule from eight to nine games appears inevitable. One solution would be to move Alabama and Auburn to the East. That would leave the Georgia-Auburn and Alabama-Tennessee rivalries intact, while allowing Oklahoma and Texas to renew rivalries with former Southwest/Big 12 Conference rivals Texas A&M and Arkansas.
No matter the outcome, let’s hope there will be more variety in the scheduling. As it stands now, eight of Kentucky’s 12 opponents — six from the East, Mississippi State from the West and Louisville from the non-conference schedule — are set in stone.
Time to break things up. Alabama Coach Nick Saban has said every SEC football player should have the opportunity to play against every other conference member at least once in his four years. No offense Mississippi State, but come on SEC, make it happen.
No. 12 Kentucky at Mississippi State
When: 7 p.m.
TV: SEC Network
Records: Kentucky 6-1 (4-1 SEC), Mississippi State 4-3 (2-2)