Kentucky-South Carolina to determine contender vs. pretender in SEC East
There are three intraconference matchups Saturday in the SEC, and a genuine case can be made that the most intriguing is Kentucky-South Carolina.
For fans of this league, any game featuring both the Wildcats and Gamecocks can be a tough sell because neither is a traditional power — not in football, Big Blue Nation. There will be more eyes on Tennessee-Florida and LSU-Mississippi State, of course.
UK and USC are unbeaten at 2-0, although the ‘Cats haven’t been nearly as impressive as the ‘Cocks to this juncture. While coach Mark Stoops’s team only beat Southern Miss by seven on the road and Eastern Kentucky by 11 at home, coach Will Muschamp’s club upset N.C. State on a neutral site before traveling to the other Columbia and thumping Missouri.
This clash of East upstarts could very well determine who’s a contender and who’s a pretender in the SEC’s lesser division.
More often than not, the East is a three-horse race among blue-blooded programs. Either Florida, Georgia or Tennessee has proudly represented the division in the conference title game 22 of 25 times — including the first 18 consecutively.
The only outliers were South Carolina in 2010 and then Missouri’s back-to-back trick in 2013-14. Kentucky has never even qualified for Atlanta, just like lowly Vanderbilt. However, this could be another season when the Gators, Bulldogs and Volunteers are all on the outside looking in and wondering what happened to their stranglehold on the East.
Florida still has serious problems offensively, and not just due to the lackluster debuts of quarterbacks Feleipe Franks and Malik Zaire.
Top rusher Jordan Scarlett and top receiver Antonio Callaway remain suspended, as Gators coach Jim McElwain — his rep as an offensive mind is further soiled by the day — can’t risk playing them if they’re ruled to be ineligible by the NCAA at a later date.
Georgia, voted the team to beat two months ago at Media Days, is also 2-0. That being said, it’s not like the Bulldogs have begun 2017 with a bang. They struggled early against Appalachian State in Athens before finally figuring it out, and then they eked out a one-point victory over an overrated Notre Dame program in South Bend.
Jake Fromm, a true freshman taking the reigns from an injured Jacob Eason under center, is yet to ignite the passing game.
As for Tennessee, it took another miracle — that well eventually ran dry last year — to outlast pesky Georgia Tech at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Week 1. Even if Week 2 was a 35-point blowout, nobody is confusing Indiana State with Penn State.
The Volunteers are perhaps the hardest squad to read in the entire league. They can flip-flop back and forth between dominant and submissive from quarter to quarter. QB Quinten Dormady has been good but not great thus far replacing Joshua Dobbs. It’s hard to forget those 535 yards rushing they surrendered in the opener, too.
At the very least, the winner of Wildcats-Gamecocks will be tied for first place in the East one fourth of the way through the schedule.
UK came into the season expecting to feature one of the feistiest rushing offenses in the SEC — even with Stanley “Boom” Williams leaving a year early for the draft — due to the presence of tailback Benny Snell (above) and offensive coordinator Eddie Gran.
Through two contests, the ‘Cats are yet to truly get going on the ground and rank just 10th in the conference at 142.5 yards per game. While Snell averaged an impressive 5.9 yards per attempt a season ago, he’s down to 4.4 in 2017. Nobody will confuse Southern Miss or Eastern Kentucky with Alabama when it comes to stopping the run, either.
The aerial attack ranks a respectable seventh in the league at 202.5 yards per game, although Stephen Johnson doesn’t really scare anyone with his arm.
Even if the numbers haven’t been gaudy, USC has raised more eyebrows with its strong start. Neither the rushing offense nor passing offense — 12th and eighth, respectively, — ranks in the top half of the SEC, but Muschamp isn’t about stats.
Jake Bentley is one of the more confident passers in the conference, and with good reason. Wideout Deebo Samuel is perhaps the league’s premier playmaker and has already scored five touchdowns. If the blocking gets a bit better up front, then ball carriers Rico Dowdle and Ty’Son Williams will be more effective and take some of the pressure off Bentley.
On the other side of the ball, while the ‘Cocks have surrendered a ton of yards, they’ve managed to protect the scoreboard.
Currently, South Carolina is listed as a 6.5-point favorite over Kentucky. Williams-Brice Stadium should be buzzing in prime time — kickoff was moved to 7:30 p.m. — as the Gamecocks are hot and haven’t even played their first home game yet.
Whoever emerges victorious keeps pace with the winner of Tennessee-Florida in the division. USC, as a matter of fact, would advance to 2-0 in SEC play after brushing aside Missouri last week. While the Wildcats get to host Florida and Tennessee before going to Georgia, the ‘Cocks have the Gators at home but the Volunteers and Bulldogs on the road.
All these two can ask for is an opportunity to control their own destiny, and a win in Week 3 would keep those dreams alive.
For Stoops, being a legit threat in the East would be an accomplishment — at one of the country’s elite basketball schools, no less. He inherited a two-win program four years ago that wasn’t going anywhere under the departed Joker Phillips.
For Muschamp, he arrived following Steve Spurrier’s abrupt retirement in the middle of the 2015 campaign. He’s made the most of the talent left behind, plus many of his best players are freshmen and sophomores that he recruited himself. He looks to have learned from his previous errors as the head coach at Florida.
Still, before Kentucky and South Carolina get to elephant hunt Florida, Georgia and Tennessee, they must contend with each other.