At his weekly press conference on Monday, Kentucky coach Mark Stoops wasn’t ready to agree with the notion that his team is in the thick of the SEC East race. The Cats are just 2-2 in conference play, after all. Four league games lie ahead.
As far an opportunity to be a legitimate factor in the race, “we won’t be if we don’t take care of this week,” Stoops said.
Mississippi State comes to Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday for a 7:30 p.m. kickoff. The SEC Network has the telecast. Though 2-4 overall and 1-2 in the conference, the Bulldogs are an early three-point favorite. Their coach, Dan Mullen, is a perfect 7-0 against Kentucky.
If the Cats can stop that streak, however, they would certainly be right in the middle of what has become a jumbled divisional race.
Florida’s 40-14 mauling of visiting Missouri, combined with Tennessee’s 49-10 drubbing by visiting and No. 1-ranked Alabama, moved the Gators to first place in the division with a 3-1 record.
Tennessee already owns a 38-28 win over Florida, however, and enjoys a softer remaining league schedule. After a bye this Saturday, the Vols are at South Carolina, followed by Kentucky and Missouri in Knoxville, then Vanderbilt in Nashville. Florida is also off this week. Then the Gators play Georgia in Jacksonville, Arkansas in Fayetteville, South Carolina in Gainesville and LSU in Baton Rouge.
Injuries, however, could block the Vols’ path to Atlanta. As CBS’ Gary Danielson pointed out Saturday, seven of Tennessee’s 18 returning starters did not play against the Tide. Linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, perhaps UT’s most important defensive piece outside of pass rush end Derrek Barnett, is probably out for the season after undergoing shoulder surgery last week.
Meanwhile, Florida leads the SEC in scoring defense (12 points per game), total defense (252.5 yards per game), pass defense (132.8 yards per game), pass efficiency defense (80.8 rating), opponents third-down conversion percentage (27.7 percent) and interceptions (10 ties with Missouri).
On successive possessions Saturday against Mizzou, the Gators returned interceptions for touchdowns. With 3:25 left in the first half, Jalen Tabor took a Drew Lock pass 38 yards the other way for a 13-0 Florida lead. Eight plays later, Quincy Wilson returned a Lock pass 79 yards for a touchdown and a 20-0 lead with 1:14 remaining before halftime.
“Those were awesome things that picked everybody up,” said Florida coach Jim McElwain afterward.
The rest of the division isn’t likely to make a run at the crown. Georgia’s home loss to Vanderbilt on Saturday dropped the Bulldogs to 2-3 in league play. Even with the win, Vanderbilt’s conference mark is 1-3. South Carolina is 1-4. At 0-3, Missouri is still looking for its first conference victory.
Vanderbilt’s surprise victory in Athens -- Derek Mason’s first road league win since he became the Commodores’ coach in 2014 -- brought some extra credibility to Kentucky’s 20-13 win over Vandy on Oct. 8.
“Even though they hadn’t won a lot of games, we knew Vanderbilt was a good football team,” Stoops said Monday.
Meanwhile, is Kentucky good enough to knock off Mississippi State on Saturday and strengthen the argument it’s a possible division contender?
“Let’s take care of business this week,” Stoops said, “then we’ll worry about the next week.”
SEC football standings
Kentucky in SEC statistical categories
Pass efficiency defense
Third down conversions
Third down defense