ATHENS – In the top-heavy SEC East, the bottom has fallen out.
The division’s top three teams — Florida, South Carolina and Georgia — are a combined 12-2 in league games. The bottom four teams — Vanderbilt, Tennessee, Kentucky and Missouri — are a combined 1-14 in the league.
The division’s disparities are displayed in Saturday’s Georgia-Kentucky matchup. The rested Bulldogs (5-1, 3-1 SEC) are a four-touchdown favorite on the road against the injury-ravaged Wildcats (1-6, 0-4).
The Wildcats are on a five-game losing streak. They trailed Arkansas 42-0 at halftime last week. Their top two quarterbacks are injured. Their coach’s job is in jeopardy. They’re facing a fourth game in five weeks against a ranked opponent.
And they’re playing a sport that has no room for compassion.
“We’ve got our own problems, you know,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “We’ve got enough problems of our own.”
Georgia’s problems stem from its 35-7 loss to South Carolina, a loss that reinforced the gap between the division’s upper and lower echelons. (The Bulldogs had rolled past Missouri, Vanderbilt and Tennessee before stumbling on South Carolina.) But Georgia’s problems pale in comparison to the plights of Kentucky and several other SEC teams.
The SEC gets much acclaim for its top teams — teams that have won the past six national championships and occupy the top two spots in this week’s BCS standings. But the league’s claim of top-to-bottom strength is thrown into question when four teams are winless in league play — one in the West (Auburn, two seasons removed from a national title) and three in the East (Kentucky, Tennessee and Missouri).
Georgia vows to take nothing for granted against Kentucky, which, according to three computer rankings, has faced the nation’s toughest schedule.
UGA players note that Kentucky led South Carolina 17-7 at halftime three weeks ago (before losing 38-17) and gave the Dogs a tough game last year (losing 19-10). They don’t mention that the Cats have been outscored 152-38 in SEC play this season, lost to Western Kentucky and last won Sept. 8 (vs. Kent State).
“In the SEC … you really do have to have a good game, no matter who you are (playing), the best team or the worst team in the conference,” Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray said. “Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri — those are still very talented teams. If you don’t come with your ‘A’ game … any team has a chance to beat anyone.”
Florida coach Will Muschamp said that in his experience as a player, defensive coordinator and head coach in the SEC, “week in and week out there are no gimmes. That’s what I would say separates our conference from a lot of conferences.”
Yet the top three teams in the SEC East are 9-0 this season against the division’s other four.
Kentucky was picked to finish last in the East in a preseason media survey, and that was before injuries wrecked the team.
“That’s just football. We understand that. Our motto has been ‘next guy up,’” Kentucky coach Joker Phillips said. “A lot of times, the next guy has been a true freshman.”
Starting quarterback Maxwell Smith is out for the season with a torn ankle ligament suffered early in the South Carolina game. Another quarterback, freshman Patrick Towles, suffered a high ankle sprain the next week and hasn’t played since. Freshman Jalen Whitlow, seen as possibly a wide receiver when the Cats signed him, is expected to start at quarterback for a third consecutive game.
“You go through two or three quarterbacks — it’s got to be tough,” Richt said. “I can’t imagine what that would be like.”
Kentucky also lost two tailbacks and two safeties to season-ending injuries. Four other defensive backs have been injured, resulting in three freshmen starting in the secondary last week.
Asked if he has gotten to the point of wondering what else could go wrong, Phillips laughed. “We got to that point about a month ago.”
Richt was asked if part of him feels for Kentucky. The question sounded familiar to the Georgia coach, who was asked something similar a year ago when his team started 0-2 after going 6-7 the previous season.
“My answer was, ‘I don’t expect anybody to feel sorry for me. I expect everybody to hook it up and play the very best they can. I expect everybody to watch film and get the best plan possible and try to exploit whatever you think can be exploited,’” Richt said. “I’m sure that’s how all the coaches around the league feel.”
– Tim Tucker
Staff writer Chip Towers contributed to this article.
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