John Clay

Kentucky football can seize opportunity in ordinary SEC East

'Nobody's greater than the team': Denzil Ware talks about Cats' chemistry

UK's Denzil Ware talks about Jordan Griffin, the Wildcats' chemistry and interacting with visitors on Fan Day.
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UK's Denzil Ware talks about Jordan Griffin, the Wildcats' chemistry and interacting with visitors on Fan Day.

To get the jump on things — the early bird gets the worm — the Amway/USA Today College Football Coaches Poll is already out, the nation’s gridiron leaders confirming what we already suspected: The SEC’s balance of power still tips aggressively West.

As seems the case since Nick Saban re-charged the Crimson Tide, Alabama is the preseason No. 1. (The AP poll, of which I’m a voter, debuts this month.) The coaches place LSU at No. 12. Auburn is No. 13.

That makes three SEC West members ranked ahead of any school from the other side of the conference aisle. At No. 15, Georgia is the first SEC East team on the list. Defending division champ Florida is at No. 16. Tennessee is No. 24.

This illustrates a more local point. I’m bullish on Kentucky football’s chances to take another step forward. Mark Stoops has enough returning talent and coaching continuity to actually be a major factor in the SEC East race. And judging by the continuing not-so-super state of the division, the window of opportunity is open to do exactly that.

A look at UK’s challengers in the East:

Georgia: Kirby Smart’s head coaching debut hit choppy waters last season. The Bulldogs finished 4-4 in the conference and 8-5 overall. They were buried 45-14 at Ole Miss and fell flat in a 24-10 loss to Florida in Jacksonville.

Smart claims to have learned from his rookie mistakes. Sophomore quarterback Jacob Eason should improve off his freshman growing pains. Nick Chubb is back at running back. Georgia did field a top-20 defense a year ago. Kentucky’s Nov. 18 trip to Athens might be the toughest game on UK’s schedule.

Florida: The Gators have won back-to-back division titles since Jim McElwain arrived in 2015. Don’t be fooled, however. Today’s Gators are mere shadows of the steamrollers Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer operated in Gainesville.

McElwain enters another year unsure at quarterback. The guess is Notre Dame grad transfer Malik Zaire will have control of the reins when the Gators visit Kroger Field on Sept. 23.

Tennessee: Big Orange Country murmurs suggest weariness with Lyle Allen “Butch” Jones. An underachieving 4-4 in the SEC and 9-4 overall last year, the cliché-happy UT coach is 30-21 overall and 14-18 in league play. That won’t fly on Rocky Top.

Now Jones must replace quarterback Josh Dobbs, top backs Alvin Kamara and Jalen Hurd, plus his best defensive player in Derek Barnett. Tennessee’s mood will be interesting to gauge when the Vols visit the Bluegrass on Oct. 28.

South Carolina: The debate at SEC Football Media Days centered around which team — South Carolina or Kentucky — was in better position to move up the conference ladder. The media chose the Gamecocks, voting Will Mushchamp’s team fourth and UK fifth.

While the Cats have beaten the Gamecocks three straight, a fourth won’t be easy. Coach Boom has an established quarterback in Jake Bentley. And Stoops’ troops must visit Columbia on Sept. 23.

Vanderbilt: Derek Mason isn’t James Franklin, his Nashville predecessor, but the former Stanford defensive coordinator is learning on the job. In his three seasons, the Commodores’ win total has grown from three to four to six last year.

Quarterback Kyle Shurmur returns. Ralph Webb rushed for 1,283 yards last year. Toss out the Independence Bowl loss and Vandy finished 2016 with momentum, beating Ole Miss 38-17 and Tennessee 45-34. It gets UK in Music City on Nov. 11.

Missouri: The Tigers won a pair of division titles in their first three seasons after moving up from the Big 12. Alas, the bottom dropped out last season, Barry Odom’s first as head coach. Mizzou melted to 4-8 overall, 2-6 in the SEC.

Odom needs some weapons to accompany quarterback Drew Lock. And Missouri’s defense was dead last (479.7 yards allowed per game) in the SEC and 118th nationally. The hole looks too deep for a one-year climb. The Tigers come to Lexington on Oct. 7.

SEC football media poll

EAST

POINTS

Georgia (138)

1572

Florida (96)

1526

Tennessee (3)

998

South Carolina (5)

897

Kentucky

869

Vanderbilt (1)

554

Missouri

388

WEST

POINTS

Alabama (225)

1683

Auburn (13)

1329

LSU (4)

1262

Arkansas (1)

796

Texas A&M

722

Mississippi State

633

Ole Miss

379

(First-place votes)

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