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SEC schedule analysis: Kentucky Wildcats

As we inch closer to the start of the season, it’s time to review the schedules of every SEC team. Whether it’s home vs. road, nonconference matchups or potential trap games, there’s a lot to get into.

We continue the series with the Kentucky Wildcats.

Nonconference opponents (with 2015 record)

Sept. 3: vs. Southern Miss (9-5)

Sept. 17: vs. New Mexico State (3-9)

Nov. 19: vs. Austin Peay (0-11)

Nov. 26: at Louisville (8-5)

SEC home games

Sept. 24: South Carolina

Oct. 8: Vanderbilt

Oct. 22: Mississippi State

Nov. 5: Georgia

SEC road games

Sept. 10: Florida

Oct. 1: Alabama

Oct. 29: Missouri

Nov. 12: Tennessee

Gut-check time: There’s a stretch from Oct. 22 through Nov. 12 where Kentucky plays four SEC teams in four weeks. It won’t be easy. It won’t be fun. But it’s critical to whether or not the Wildcats want to take the next step as a program. They went through a similar stretch last year -- five conference games in five weeks (the first coming on a Thursday night against Auburn) -- and they lost all five games. One win during that stretch would have made them bowl eligible. This year the four opponents are Mississippi State, Missouri, Georgia and Tennessee, in that order. The first two are the key. For one, Mississippi State and Missouri are more winnable games. But more importantly, winning one or both of those first two games will take the pressure off and help prevent another second-half slide.

Trap game: Any time Alabama is on the schedule, expect the game the following week to be difficult. Alabama’s punishing style has beaten down teams to the point where they have come out flat the next week, regardless of the opponent. In Kentucky’s case, the Wildcats follow their trip to Alabama with a home game against Vanderbilt. Both teams missed out on the postseason a year ago, and both teams will be fighting for bowl eligibility. It’s not a foregone conclusion that Kentucky will be favored, seeing as the Commodores won last year’s meeting, but with the game at home in Commonwealth Stadium it’s a major opportunity. And the Wildcats can’t afford to come out flat.

Final analysis: The goal is the same that it’s been the previous two years -- win that elusive sixth game and become bowl eligible. Obviously, Kentucky fans would like to finish with seven or eight wins, but six is that magical number. This year’s schedule sets up somewhat favorably for the Wildcats. Two of the four nonconference opponents are automatic wins, and a third (Southern Miss) is a team that Kentucky is expected to beat. That’s already halfway. The Wildcats also play South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State at home. Win all three and you’re playing in a bowl game. Even if they lose one of those three, they still have a winnable game remaining at Missouri that can put them over the top. Needless to say, there are enough winnable games on the schedule for Kentucky to get over the six-win hump for the first time since 2010.