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Sports Notes: Even in a year that saw teams with losing records rewarded, UK left out of bowl mix

By Glenn Osborne
KyForward sports editor

Let’s just call it adding insult to injury, the announcement of the various bowl matchups coming on the heels of another disheartening Kentucky football season.

This is all you need to know: In a year in which three teams with losing records (Nebraska, Minnesota and San Jose State) were rewarded with bowl spots, the Wildcats are once again sitting on the post-season sidelines.

Even among losers, UK is a loser. To be fair, there weren’t enough teams with 6-6 or better records to fill the 80 (yikes!) bowl slots. The NCAA then took all the 5-7 teams and ranked them according to academic performance. The three highest rated programs were chosen.

Here’s more: six of the teams on Kentucky’s schedule made bowl games. The SEC has 10 of 14 teams in post-season play, including UK foes Auburn, Mississippi State, Tennessee, Florida and Georgia along with Louisville, which is playing in its sixth consecutive bowl.

With a more challenging schedule in 2016, Drew Barker may find it touch to get UK to six wins and into a bowl (U of L Athletics Photo by Michell Hutchins)

With a more challenging schedule in 2016, Drew Barker may find it tough to get UK to six wins and into a bowl (U of L Athletics Photo by Michelle Hutchins)

Joining Kentucky on the sidelines are fellow SEC bottom feeders South Carolina, Missouri and Vanderbilt.

Of course, Alabama is ranked second in the final College Football Playoff Rankings and will meet Michigan State in one of the national championship semifinal games with Clemson rated first and set to match up with Oklahoma. Other SEC teams in the top 25 include No. 12 Ole Miss, No. 19 Florida, No. 20 LSU and No. 23 Tennessee.

All seven of the SEC West teams had winning records and gained bowl bids. The worst record was put up by Auburn at 6-6, followed by Arkansas at 7-5. By contrast, only three of the East Division teams finished above .500.

And there’s the rub as UK coach Mark Stoops tries to roll the boulder that is Kentucky football up the hill. It’s not just about who the starting quarterback is or whether the offensive and defensive coordinators are doing their jobs properly. It’s not just about how nice your stadium or your practice facilities are. It’s not even about whether you can continue to sucker your fans at the beginning of each season to believe that this might just be the year and they keep buying tickets and showing up for games.

It’s about the schedule, the conference you play in and whether UK will ever have enough top quality players to be competitive in the rugged Southeastern Conference. Three teams in the Wildcats’ division had losing records and the Cats had Louisiana Lafayette, Eastern Kentucky and Charlotte on the schedule and still a .500 or better season was out of reach.

Kentucky has one fewer home game next season, which opens with a match up with Southern Mississippi, the team Western Kentucky defeated in the Conference USA Championship. The Golden Eagles are in the Heart of Dallas Bowl opposite Washington.

The Cats also visit Alabama and Louisville. New Mexico State and Austin Peay are the other non-conference games on the slate. It’s hard to imagine a scenario that gets Stoops and Kentucky to the six-win plateau next year either.

It you thought the critics were harsh this season, give them 5-7 again next year and it will be brutal.

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Former UK quarterback Maxwell Smith, who transferred last year to San Diego State, presumably to make room for the ascension of Patrick Towles, helped guide his new team to a bowl game. If he can play with a knee injury he suffered in his team’s final regular-season game, it will be against Cincinnati in the Hawaii Bowl in Honolulu on Christmas Eve.

Towles can only hope his next move turns out so well.

Here’s something else to ponder. In a year in which Kentucky could not reach bowl eligibility, Indiana (6-6) will face Duke (7-5) in the Pinstripe Bowl in New York on Dec. 26.

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Western Kentucky and head coach Jeff Brohm, who may have other job offers in the coming weeks, will take on South Florida and former head coach and player Willie Taggart in the Miami Beach Bowl on Dec. 21. WKU is 11-2 while the Bulls are 8-4, but on a four-game winning streak. South Florida has won the last four meetings between the schools, the most recent in 2010.

That means the Hilltoppers will both play in a bowl game and be home in time for Christmas, something that wasn’t possible a year ago when they played in the Bahamas Bowl on Dec. 24.

Louisville is in the Music City Bowl for the first time in program history, opposite Texas A&M. After an 0-3 start, Louisville won seven of its last nine games. Texas A&M (8-4) has come out on top in its bowl games for the last four years.

The Cardinals will play an SEC team for the second-straight season. The Cards dropped a 37-14 decision to Georgia in the 2014 Belk Bowl in Charlotte, N.C. Louisville defeated SEC foe Florida 33-23 in the 2013 Sugar Bowl.

Petrino will be making his sixth bowl appearance at Louisville, setting a school record for most bowl appearances by a head coach (previous record: five by John L. Smith from 1998-02). Petrino will be guiding a team to a postseason appearance for the ninth time in 11 seasons as a head coach (six at Louisville, three at Arkansas).

Petrino is 2-3 in bowl games at Louisville, including a win in the school’s first BCS appearance in 2007 – a 24-13 win over Wake Forest in the FedEx Orange Bowl. He owns a 4-4 record overall in postseason action.

Smith, by the way, was recently named the next head coach at Division II Kentucky State.

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Wonder what the television ratings for these games will be? San Jose State (5-7) faces Georgia State (6-6) in the Cure Bowl in Orlando, Fla., on Dec. 19; Nebraska (5-7) takes on UCLA (8-4) Foster Farms Bowl in Santa Clara, Calif., Dec. 26; and Central Michigan (7-5) challenges Minnesota (5-7) in the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit.

Iowa was chosen over Ohio State for the Big 10’s berth in the Rose Bowl opposite Stanford, but the Buckeyes’ matchup with Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl ought to be a good one as will Florida versus Michigan in the Citrus Bowl.

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