Sports

In SEC, every game is a big game

Four Southeastern Conference football teams are ranked in the Associated Press top 10. Five are in the top 15. Even Vanderbilt is ranked, tabbed 21st by the writers, 25th by the coaches. It's the first time the Commodores have cracked the polls since 1984.

Five SEC teams are among the nation's top 20 in total defense, based on yards allowed. The Kentucky defense is ranked 17th in the nation, yet is just fourth in the SEC, behind Florida (fifth in the nation), South Carolina (ninth) and Alabama (14th).

No wonder, with Western Kentucky on tap Saturday, UK Coach Rich Brooks was looking ahead during the SEC coaches' teleconference on Wednesday.

"It's a big game for us because this is our last non-conference game," said Brooks. "And if we're able to take care of business, we go into league play at 4-0, which is critically important for post-season opportunities."

After all, the SEC may have never been deeper (six teams in the Top 25), or more balanced (Vandy's sudden surge), or tougher on the coaches used to experiencing success.

Ask Steve Spurrier, once the conference king, now coach of an also-ran with an 0-2 league record and no real answer at quarterback.

"We need to get Stephen Garcia some playing time," said the ol' ball coach on Wednesday of a true freshman quarterback who spent most of the summer suspended for team violations.

You could ask Arkansas' Bobby Petrino, who suffered the most lopsided defeat of his college coaching career in last Saturday's 49-14 loss to Alabama.

You could ask Tennessee Coach Phil Fulmer about the toughness of the league, but your question would be drowned out by the boos.

As a recent e-mailer pointed out, Fulmer is to Tennessee as Tubby Smith was to Kentucky, a coach whose national title memories are fading rapidly. The two even won their national titles in the same year — 1998.

But Fulmer's Vols haven't finished a season in the AP top 10 since 2001. After an opening-week debacle of a 27-24 loss to a now-dreadful UCLA this season, there were close to 20,000 empty seats at Neyland Stadium for the home opener against UAB.

Then last Saturday, Fulmer ran his futility to 0-4 against Florida since Urban Meyer became the Gators' coach. Worse, the past two have come by margins of 39 and 24 points.

Last Saturday, the Vols fell behind 17-0, fumbled at the 1-yard line, then badly botched a time-management situation near the end of the first half before throwing an interception in the end zone.

(Kentucky basketball fans would have compared it to Smith telling Sheray Thomas to leave the free throw lane during that SEC Tournament loss to Mississippi State.)

In the post-game news conference, Fulmer didn't get the Nick Faldo treatment — the European captain was asked, "How does it feel to take a winning team and make it into a losing team," after his side lost the Ryder Cup — but his wife and daughter did glare at a reporter who had the nerve to ask what was going on.

Here's what's going on: The league just keeps getting better.

Georgia suffered off-the-field summer problems and a couple of key training camp injuries, yet keeps right on rolling. Its 27-10 win at Arizona State last Saturday wasn't nearly that close.

Louisiana State lost its top two quarterbacks on offense and an all-world tackle (among others) on defense, and still won at Auburn last Saturday. Alabama not only has the best freshman class in America, the Tide are 4-0 heading to Athens, Ga., for another showdown Saturday night.

The following Saturday, Nick Saban's club returns to Tuscaloosa for Kentucky's conference opener.

No wonder Brooks wants that fourth win come Saturday. Getting any wins in the SEC will be no easy deal.

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