Sidelines with John Clay

Kentucky football’s fourth place prediction is a win-win

Kentucky coach Mark Stoops speaks to the media at the SEC Football Media Days, Wednesday, July 13, 2016, in Hoover, Ala.
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops speaks to the media at the SEC Football Media Days, Wednesday, July 13, 2016, in Hoover, Ala. Associated Press

It’s still the middle of July, seven Saturdays before the opening weekend, so we don’t have to make up our minds quite yet. Still, all in all, the prediction that the throng attending the SEC Football Media Days in Alabama made Thursday placing Kentucky fourth in the SEC East seems entirely possible.

Actually, that would be a win for Mark Stoops’ fourth year as the Kentucky coach. If the Cats do indeed finish fourth that presumably means that they would have beaten Vanderbilt (picked fifth), Missouri (sixth) and South Carolina (seventh). Even if Kentucky doesn’t win another conference game, that would leave the Cats 3-5, not just the best league record in the Stoops Era, but the best SEC record since 2009, Rich Brooks’ final year as coach.

As Josh Kendall of The State pointed out, there’s something to be said for finishing fourth, which is essentially being the best of the worst. You obviously don’t want to finish last, or next-to-last, and fifth place is pretty close to the cellar, as well. All things considered, that makes the No. 4 hole a decent spot, especially for a program trying to improve.

So can Kentucky beat the bottom of three?

All things considered, the Cats should have beaten Vanderbilt last year in Nashville and this year they have Derek Mason’s club visiting Commonwealth Stadium on Oct. 8. Kentucky has lost four of its last five to the Commodores, but the win was in Lexington in 2014 when a solid defensive effort led to a 17-7 win. Right now, here in July, I’d give Kentucky the edge.

Kentucky beat South Carolina last year in Columbia, snapping a dreadful 22-game road losing streak, so there’s no reason to think the Cats can’t beat the Gamecocks in Lexington this time around. Will Muschamp is the new South Carolina coach and most agree one reason Steve Spurrier hung up his visor in the middle of last season was because the Old Ball Coach could see tough times ahead. A Kentucky win would mean three straight victories over the Gamecocks.

Missouri could well be the toughest game of the trio. Yes, UK beat the Tigers 21-13 at CWS last season. Yes, Missouri has a new coach in Barry Odom. And yes, the Tigers’ talent pool has sprung a leak. This year’s Oct. 29 game is in Columbia, however, where Kentucky lost 33-10 in 2012 and 20-10 in 2014. It won’t be that much easier this time around.

As for the rest of the media picks, unlike last year when it chose Auburn to finish second in the West but to somehow win the league, this year it made the more conventional choice of predicted SEC West winner Alabama over predicted SEC East winner Tennessee. I would have done the same.

In the East, I would have flip-flopped Florida and Georgia, putting the Bulldogs at No. 2 ahead of the Gators at No. 3. I doubt Florida benefits from the bounces it enjoyed in 2015. Kirby Smart may be in his first year as a head coach, but Mark Richt left him plenty of talent.

In the West, my lone quibble is with Auburn, picked sixth. Having played for the national title just two years ago, Gus Malzahn finds his back against the wall after a pair of sub-par years. I’m guessing Auburn finds a way to at least finish as high as fourth.

Then again, it’s just July. There’s plenty of time for changed minds.

SEC media predictions

East (first place votes) - total points

Tennessee (225) - 2167

Florida (57) - 1891

Georgia (45) - 1860

Kentucky - 933

Vanderbilt (2) - 810

Missouri - 807

South Carolina (2) - 800

West (first place votes) - total points

Alabama (246) - 2220

LSU (76) - 1984

Ole Miss (5) - 1479

Texas A&M (3) - 1130

Arkansas (1) - 1047

Auburn - 890

Mississippi State - 518

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