Cats have tough climb ahead in SEC

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistSeptember 13, 2010 

John Clay

In football, in the SEC, in the SEC East, for Kentucky to step up others have to step back.

That's the real world, folks, on the climb up Mt. Everest that is the nation's roughest, toughest, most difficult football conference. For Kentucky to enjoy a significant leap up the treacherous terrain, a couple of the traditional powers must suffer a sizable rock slide.

Two weeks into the college grid campaign, that could be exactly what's happening.

For years, the SEC East was a UT-Florida match race. Most years, Florida came out on top, but sometimes Tennessee passed The Swamp people for the top spot. No more.

It was a hard knocks weekend in Knoxville. First the NCAA saw behind Bruce Pearl's lying eyes. The sometimes-shirtless Tennessee basketball coach was forced to tearily admit he had misled investigators about how many times he had talked to recruits.

Competing against John Calipari in recruiting can make men do some pretty desperate things.

My question: If Oklahoma State's Dez Bryant was suspended for lying to the NCAA last year, and UCLA fired Jim Harrick over lying about an expense report, why wasn't Pearl axed by Tennessee? Or suspended?

The entertaining Pearl has been a basketball booster shot for the SEC. But you can't lie to authorities. The real world calls that perjury. Ask Roger Clemens.

OK, now back to football. Last week, UT Coach Derek Dooley said he was even teaching his Vols how to shower. Saturday, the rain on Rocky Top washed away the Vols. After a lightning delay, Oregon's mighty Ducks rolled 48-13. Rich Brooks was at Neyland Stadium with a smile on his face.

Analysis: UT is paying for Phil Fulmer's too-long reign, and for Lane Kiffin's too-short stay. Looks like a long season.

Speaking of Fulmer, Mark Richt is starting to take on that Fulmer look. Richt hasn't picked up a few pounds, but he is accumulating the losses. Saturday, Georgia lost at South Carolina 17-6. The Dogs have dropped five of their last nine SEC games.

True, Georgia didn't have entrepreneurial wideout A.J. Green, suspended by the hypocritical NCAA for selling his bowl jersey for $1,000 to a suspected agent.

Still, there seems to be an ongoing looseness about the Georgia program. Dogs are always running afoul of regulations in one way or another. Nothing heinous, but there's just enough to suspect a troubling lack of discipline.

As for the rest of the membership, Florida is Florida. Forget the slow starts. The Gators will hit the finish line first. And Vanderbilt's new coach, Robbie Caldwell, may be funny, but the Commodores appear destined for the same sad fate. It's hard to find great football players who can get into Vanderbilt.

That leaves the Cats and the ol' ball coach to fill the gap. Kentucky is 2-0. Randall Cobb cannot be stopped. Mike Hartline is 13th nationally in pass efficiency.

But UK's two conquests, Louisville and Western Kentucky, are both tepid teams. A real read on Joker Phillips' first edition won't come until Sept. 25 at Florida.

Right now, South Carolina is in best second-banana position. Steve Spurrier is happy to saddle up freshman running back Marcus Lattimore and enjoy the ride. If that pesky NCAA investigation doesn't distract the Gamecocks, Spurrier has his best Columbia club.

Then again, South Carolina fans thought that in 2007, when the Gamecocks beat Georgia in Athens and started the year 3-0. Then South Carolina lost its last five and finished 6-6.

The conference champ that season? It was an 11-2 Georgia, which tsunamied Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl.

Remember, in this season, there are plenty of steps left to be taken.

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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