LEXINGTON, Ky. — Alabama and Georgia are the preseason favorites to compete in the Southeastern Conference championship game this season.
The Crimson Tide were chosen by media members to win the Western division title and capture a fourth straight conference championship. Alabama was followed by Auburn, LSU, Arkansas, Texas A&M, Mississippi State and Ole Miss.
Kentucky was picked to finish fifth in the East, behind predicted winner Georgia, Florida, Tennessee and South Carolina, respectively. Vanderbilt was chosen sixth, followed by Missouri.
The Wildcats went 7-6 and 4-4 in the final conference standings last season and finished in a three-way tie with Georgia and Tennessee in the East. Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said his squad is close to closing the proverbial gap.
“How close we are to contending? You never know,” Stoops said. “I remember a few years back, I believe the team that won both sides didn't win a league game the year before. We are not concerned about the rest of the league. I know this about the league, the league's not backing up. Nobody we're playing is backing up. We're certainly not backing up. We're worried about us getting better to put us in a position to contend each and every week.”
Despite getting the early nod, Georgia coach Kirby Smart predicts taking the division title won’t be an easy task and thinks the Wildcats will be among the mix of teams competing for a division crown.
“When you talk about parity, I think parity is really good competition,” Smart said earlier this week. “I think last year, going into the last two weeks of the SEC's race, Kentucky is in the race. And when you have that, you've got almost an NFC East or AFC East effect of these NFL conferences where one loss doesn't put you out. You know the team that won the East last couple years, you can have two, maybe three losses because there's an even race there across the board. I think that's good and healthy for the conference.”
Alabama remains the best team in the league and carries a 17-game conference winning streak into the season. The Crimson Tide have played in the past two national championship games and captured the title two years ago. Alabama was runner-up to Clemson in last year’s finale and Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban hopes his team has learned a lesson from the setback.
“Whether you win or lose, we're always trying to self-assess to see what we need to do to get better,” he said. “I think when you lose, everybody's much more — the mindset is much more I'm willing to change. I want to learn. I don't want to waste a failure. What could we have done better? Because everybody's hurt by the fact that they lost, especially the way we lost that particular game on the last play of the game, but it wasn't the last play. It's what led up to the last play. And I think our players realize that.
“It takes a tremendous amount of accountability to be able to execute and sustain the execution for 60 minutes in the game. And we played against a really, really good team, which I think when you get in the playoffs, that should be what you expect. And we weren't able to finish the game like we needed to. And I think there's a lot of lessons to learn, and hopefully we won't waste a failure.”
Smart, a former assistant under Saban at Alabama, expects the Crimson Tide to continue their recent dominance both in the league and nationally. Smart added the team’s recipe for success remains intact and is the same formula he’s using with the Bulldogs.
“I think the biggest thing is recruiting and development,” he said. “A lot of people say it's one or the other, do you recruit great players or do you develop great players. When you do both, that's when you got something special. And I think every team in this conference is trying to play catch-up in regards to that. I think each one's getting closer, and we'd like to see that gap closed through recruiting. But you can only do that through hard work and grinding, and that's what we continue to do in Athens.”
League honors: Kentucky defensive lineman Dezil Ware was named to the preseason All-SEC second-team on defense, while teammate Jordan Jones was a third-team selection at linebacker. Mike Edwards was a third-team pick at safety.
Ware was one of Kentucky’s top pass rushers last season and was second on the team in total sacks (5.5 per game), tackles for a loss (12) and has started in 24 of 25 games, including the last 19 games.
Edwards collected 100 tackles last season to lead all conference defensive backs in that category. Jones led the league in solo tackles per game with 5.7 last season and collected 109 tackles last season and led the team with 15.5 tackles for a loss.
Predicted order of finish
Georgia 1572 (138)
Florida 1526 (96)
Tennessee 998 (3)
S. Carolina 897 (5)
Alabama 1683 (225)
Auburn 1329 (13)
LSU 1262 (4)
Arkansas 796 (1)
Texas A&M 722
Mississippi State 633
Ole Miss 379
South Carolina 1
* First-place votes in parenthesis.
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. He can be reached by e-mail at Keith.firstname.lastname@example.org.