John Clay: Football Cats toil in weak SEC East

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMay 13, 2010 

There's the new-coach transition. The defense has holes to fill. The quarterback spot isn't settled.

For reasons not entirely under Joker Phillips' control, the fear here is that Kentucky football could be in for a dip in his debut season.

Until you look around the rest of the SEC, especially the Eastern Division of the SEC.

If the Cats are in for a bit of a down year, they might have plenty of conference company.

Over at cbssports.com, Dennis Dodd re-engineered his college football pre-season top 25, post-NFL draft edition, and only one team from the once-powerful East got a Dodd nod.

Welcome back, Florida. Even without Tim Tebow, the Gators checked in at No. 4 on the post-spring hit parade.

Meanwhile, Georgia and Tennessee were nowhere to be found. South Carolina was also a no-show, even though some around the league say this might be Steve Spurrier's year to finally shove the Gamecocks into gear.

There are plenty of reasons for such pre-season pessimism.

The heat is on at Georgia, where Mark Richt's team has underachieved each of the last two seasons. Now the Dawgs face a quarterback riddle. Redshirt freshman Zach Mettenberger played well enough in the spring, only to be bounced from the squad after some legal trouble. That leaves the job to another redshirt freshman, Aaron Murray.

True, the Bulldogs return 10 offensive starters but, in this league, you need a quarterback to make things work.

Most say South Carolina has that quarterback in Stephen Garcia, but Spurrier is not so sure. The Ol' Ball Coach has spent the spring praising backup Connor Shaw and challenging Garcia to get better.

It's a Steve Superior mind game, no doubt, but the Gamecocks need for it to work if they are to capitalize on the misfortune of others.

That means Tennessee's misfortune. Derek Dooley is a much better hire than most casual fans know, but Vince's son has plenty of work to do. He starts without offensive lineman Aaron Douglas, running back Bryce Brown and quarterback Nick Stephens, a trio who figured to play key roles but have left the team, for one reason or another.

And while Tennesseans praised now-despised Lane Kiffin for squeezing seven wins from last year's limited talent, that analysis might have to be rewritten after two Vols, Eric Berry and Dan Williams, were first-round picks.

OK, who are we leaving out here? Oh yeah, Vanderbilt. The Commodores won two games last season. Bobby Johnson is a better-than-solid football coach. His climb is always uphill, however.

As for the Southeastern Conference West, it will be a bear. Defending national champ Alabama appears ripe for a repeat. Behind quarterback Ryan Mallett, Arkansas is seen by many crystal-ball gazers as the Tide's top divisional competition. Louisiana State has tons of talent.

The good news: Kentucky doesn't play any of those three.

Auburn has made some pre-season lists, but the Tigers must travel to Lexington this year, after losing to Rich Brooks' team on The Plains last year.

The Cats must travel to Mississippi on Oct. 2, but the Rebels lost their starting quarterback, Jevan Snead, and their best player, running back Dexter McCluster, taken 36th by the Kansas City Chiefs. Better to visit Oxford this fall than last fall.

That leaves Mississippi State, UK's annual foe, one that beat the Cats in Lexington in '09. But Kentucky has won its last two and three of its last four in Starkville.

Of course, the Cats haven't beaten Tennessee since 1984, Florida since 1986 and South Carolina since 1999. And though they are coming off a win at Georgia last year, this year's Cats might not be quite as good as last year's Cats.

Then again, you might say the same about the rest of the division.

Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.

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