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Music City Bowl preview: Is Kentucky football good?

The numbers don't think so.

NCAA Football: Louisville at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

It was October 7.

One Wildcats football team was celebrating an electrifying 40-34 win over division rival Missouri while the other huddled in shock, in search of answers after being completely manhandled by Penn State on Homecoming.

One set of Wildcats was off to their best start since 2014, while the other was just 2-3 five games into a season in which Big Ten West contention had previously seemed possible.

One team was one last-minute stop away from their first 6-0 start since 1950. The other had just two victories against lowly Nevada and Bowling Green.

SECCountry, an SEC-centric news outlet, published an article titled “Kentucky football: Somehow the Wildcats are 5-1, with winnable games ahead,” while we at Inside NU published an article that read “Wildcats dreadful on offense in embarrassing 31-7 home loss."

“We’ve put our own backs against the walls now haven’t we," Pat Fitzgerald said after Northwestern 31-7 drubbing at the hands of Penn State. "We gotta learn from this, we gotta grow and we gotta come back fighting guys, that’s the only choice we have."

You get it. One team got off to a really good start and one didn’t. Kentucky was 5-1 and seemed to have one of their best teams in years. Northwestern was 2-3 and appeared to be starting what may be a difficult season.

Two months later, the narrative has flipped completely. Northwestern reeled off 7 straight conference victories. It won an FBS record three-straight games in overtime against Iowa, Michigan State and Nebraska en route to an impressive nine-win campaign.

Meanwhile, Kentucky faltered. It won just two of its final six games against SEC bottom-feeders Tennessee (who’s laughing now, BigVolDaddy?) and Vanderbilt. Kentucky fell 45-7 to Mississippi St, 42-13 to Georgia and 44-17 to Louisville. In essence, the Wildcats from the Blue Grass State faced another reminder that they were still a basketball school in a football crazed conference.

They weren’t the 1950 team that defeated the No. 1 ranked Oklahoma Sooners in the Sugar Bowl to win the National Championship. Any sliver of hope that Kentucky football was truly back vanished at the hands of Georgia, Mississippi State, and Lamar Jackson, err Louisville.

Kentucky’s best win of the season turned out to be that electrifying 40-34 victory over Missouri, who finished 7-5 and is heading for the Academy Sports + Outdoors Texas Bowl vs Texas.

Kentucky’s FPI (Football Power Index) ranking is 59. For context, the FPI has Northwestern at 26. Not including the four playoff teams, there are 55 FBS teams in closer proximity to Northwestern in terms of FPI.

In S&P+, Kentucky ranks 94th, over 50 (!) spots below Northwestern, just two spots ahead of Minnesota. Kentucky's second-order wins, which measures a team's expected win total based on performance, was 4.6, marking one of the biggest differences between actually wins and second-order wins in the country.

The Wildcats from down south have a better offense than defense, though neither unit is particularly strong. The offense comes in at 68th in S&P+, while the defense ranks 102nd nationally by the same metric.

The sentiment among Northwestern fans is that Chicago's Big Ten Team got robbed — many hoped the 'Cats would play in the Holiday Bowl. Instead Michigan State, a team they beat, is headed for San Diego to take on No. 21 Washington State. I’m sure Northwestern players would have appreciated an opportunity to take on a team ranked just one spot below them. A trip to beautiful Southern California would have just been a bonus.

Northwestern may have lost out on an opportunity to play in a potentially bigger bowl against a better opponent, but now the Wildcats’ odds of another 10-win season are much higher against a Kentucky team that, by the numbers, isn't super strong. Northwestern has a 69.9 percent chance to win against Kentucky, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index.

The numbers, of course, will mean nothing if Northwestern lays an egg in Nashville, but the Big Ten Wildcats seem to have a favorable matchup this December. At a minimum, at least the Wildcats hailing from Evanston will be able to escape the excruciatingly cold Chicago weather for a few days, though a trip to sunny San Diego would have been nicer in more than one way.