John Clay

Turnovers magnified in SEC with fewer snaps

Unsullied by a single turnover, Florida happily started the season 3-0. Fourth game, however, the Gators grew sloppy with their cargo, turned over the football three times, and paid a steep price. Visiting Ole Miss departed The Swamp with a Gatorade celebration.

Ranked near the bottom of the Southeastern Conference in total offense and total defense, Vanderbilt began with a poll-friendly 5-0 start thanks to turnover margin and special teams. Then Vandy visited Starkville and lost the turnover battle and the war to Mississippi State.

Stat: In SEC games to this point, teams that won the turnover battle are 12-5.

Here's one of the five that went the other way: South Carolina committed four turnovers inside of 20 minutes last Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium, yet survived to beat Kentucky 24-17.

Here's why: The Cats had a blocked 21-yard field goal turn into an 81-yard Gamecocks touchdown. And Steve Spurrier's squad returned a kickoff 84 yards to set up another score.

For all the belly-aching concerning the flat-as-the-floor offenses among the membership — it's not just Kentucky; times are turbulent at Tennessee and Auburn, too — the new clock rules in college football have resulted in fewer plays, placing greater emphasis on turnovers and special teams.

At plus-11 after six games, North Carolina leads the nation in turnover margin. Not surprisingly, Butch Davis' team is 5-1. In fact, add up the win-loss records of the top 10 teams in the NCAA's turnover margin category, and the total is 51-10.

Kentucky is knocking at that top-10 door, checking in at a tie for 11th with a plus-7 margin. It's one reason the Cats own four wins. But Rich Brooks' bunch is also 0-2 in league matters, blamable in part to special team snafus.

Unpardonable stat: Going back to last year, the Cats have had three field goals blocked in their past eight games.

Start with the acid-flashback to the Tennessee tilt last season when Lones Seiber lined up for a potential 35-yard game-winning field goal in overtime that would have snapped UT's 23-year series win streak. Alas, the kick was re-routed. So was the outcome. UT won 52-50.

This year, with UK clinging to a six-point lead over Middle Tennessee, Brooks sent Seiber out for a 31-yard try with less than 30 seconds remaining. But Middle blocked the kick before it got off the runway. Only a (questionable) flag for holding thrown at MTSU on the return kept the visitors from springing the upset.

Even the switch to Ryan Tydlacka as place-kicker failed to save UK from the same blockbuster last week. A pair of protection errors created a breezeway for a grinning Gamecock to easily block Tydlacka's 21-yarder. Captain Munnerlyn claimed the bouncing ball and turned 81 yards into a touchdown. Guess what, South Carolina won by seven points, 24-17.

"Hopefully," said Brooks in discussing the errors on the line that led to the block, "that will never happen again."

It can't happen again, not if a team with a struggling offense hopes to crack its conference goose egg.

As Brooks said after the South Carolina loss, most conference games are white-knuckle affairs that come down to a few plays. That's even more so now. Fewer snaps makes each snap more important.

Yes, Kentucky needs more from its offense to beat Arkansas on Saturday night. But it also needs fewer mistakes on the plays that don't show up in the yardage totals, yet count even more toward the final score.