John Clay

Where might Kentucky finish in SEC East? It’s a toss-up.

Kentucky quarterback Terry Wilson’s working on his leadership skills

After practice on Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2019, Kentucky football quarterback Terry Wilson talks about being a more vocal leader. The junior is entering his second year as the UK starter. The Wildcats open the season Aug. 31.
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After practice on Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2019, Kentucky football quarterback Terry Wilson talks about being a more vocal leader. The junior is entering his second year as the UK starter. The Wildcats open the season Aug. 31.

It kicks off Saturday. This Saturday. College football. Florida and Miami start it off with a 7 p.m. ESPN matchup from Orlando. That’s the No. 8 Florida Gators, according to the AP preseason poll, and the archrival Miami Hurricanes. Not a bad way to start.

It’s also a good way to get an early look at a future Kentucky football opponent (Sept. 14 at Kroger Field) and a major contender in the SEC East race. It’s also a way to speculate about how UK might fit into that division race.

Georgia is the prohibitive SEC East favorite to repeat as division champions. After all, the Bulldogs are No. 3 in the preseason rankings. Star quarterback Jake Fromm returns. Coach Kirby Smart has recruited so well you have to believe the Bulldogs boast ready replacements for any personnel losses.

But can Georgia shake off its disastrous 2018 finish? Up 28-14 on Alabama in the SEC title game, the Dawgs collapsed and lost 35-28. The hangover carried over to the Sugar Bowl where Georgia lost 28-21 to Texas.

Geared up for its second season under Dan Mullen, Florida is the general consensus for the second slot. After a shaky start, including that streak-snapping 27-16 home loss to Kentucky, the Gators won their final four games, including a 41-15 mauling of Michigan in the Peach Bowl.

Quarterback Feleipe Franks returns for an offense that averaged 45 points per game over that final four-game win streak. Yes, 63 points came against Idaho, but Franks blossomed under Mullen’s tutelage. No reason to think that won’t continue.

After the Bulldogs and Gators, however, the remainder of the division looks to be a toss-up with five teams that could go either way. Pros and cons abound.

Last year was supposed to be South Carolina’s breakthrough season under Will Muschamp. Didn’t happen. The Gamecocks took their fifth straight loss to Kentucky and wound up 7-5. They lost 56-35 at eventual national champion Clemson and were blanked 28-0 by Virginia in the Belk Bowl.

Jake Bentley returns at quarterback, but you have to wonder if Carolina’s post-Spurrier rebuild has progressed as thought. Or will Muschamp suffer the same fate he experienced at Florida, where he was fired after four seasons?

Missouri lost star quarterback Drew Lock but will plug in Clemson transfer Kelly Bryant. The new guy has an experienced offensive line and skill spot weapons in running back Larry Rountree and tight end Albert Okwuegbunam, an All-America candidate.

Two games turned Mizzou’s 2018 season. Barry Odom’s team went 8-5 overall and 4-4 in the SEC, but suffered a 37-35 loss at South Carolina and a 15-14 home loss to Kentucky. Plus, Missouri is facing a postseason bowl ban. Might that tax Mizzou’s motivation?

Vanderbilt is coming off its second bowl game under head coach Derek Mason. After going 6-7 with a 3-5 league record, the Commodores are unsettled at quarterback. Mason said he will announce the starter at kickoff of the Aug. 31 opener against visiting Georgia. But Vandy does boast, for my money, the best running back in the SEC in Ke’Shawn Vaughn, who averaged 7.9 yards per carry last season.

After its surprising 24-7 win over Kentucky on Nov. 10, a 5-5 Tennessee seemed almost assured of a bowl game under first-year coach Jeremy Pruitt. Alas, a trap door opened. Missouri trounced the Vols 50-17 in Knoxville, then UT lost to archrival Vandy 38-13 in Nashville.

Jarrett Guarantano returns at quarterback, but the Vols have suffered severe attrition both before and during camp. Pruitt has recruited well, but the Vols are also 2-14 over the past two SEC seasons. It will be interesting to see what new coordinator Jim Chaney, poached from Georgia, can do with UT’s offense.

So where does this leave Kentucky? Its pros and cons are well-defined. The Cats are coming off a 10-3 season. But they must also overcome huge personnel losses. The schedule works in their favor (eight home games) and they have taken advantage of program dips at Florida and Tennessee.

Will that continue? We shall see, starting Saturday. This Saturday.

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