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Keith Taylor: Twists and turns in SEC East creates an avenue of opportunity for Kentucky

The landscape of the Southeastern Conference has changed in the past two weeks. That’s good news for Kentucky.

Top-ranked Alabama is the best in the West, but the SEC East is much murkier after Tennessee’s 49-10 loss to the Crimson Tide last weekend, leaving Florida in sole possession of first place in the division. Vanderbilt’s upset of Georgia created an opening for the Wildcats, currently in a second-place tie with the Volunteers.

 Kentucky coach Mark Stoops and the Wildcats host Mississippi State Saturday (Keith Taylor Photo)

Kentucky coach Mark Stoops and the Wildcats host Mississippi State Saturday (Keith Taylor Photo)

Two straight conference losses by Tennessee, combined with the Commodores’ shocker in Athens has created a window of opportunity for Kentucky going into the second half of the season. Despite his team’s current positioning in the conference standings, Stoops said the Wildcats can’t afford to look ahead and must take a weekly approach to the final six weeks of the season.

“You cannot look that far ahead,” Stoops said Monday. “We are really focused on this week, but I think our players do realize that if we continue to take care of our business then we will have a good opportunity this week and it is just week to week. That is where our focus needs to be and to dissect it even more, what are we going to do today? How are we going to work today to prepare ourselves for this Saturday?”

A bye week gave the Wildcats (3-3, 2-2) a chance to get healthy and an opportunity to soak in the college football scene. Stoops said watching the other collegiate games across the country last weekend gave his players an insight into what can happen on any given Saturday and reflect on the team’s level of improvement during the past month.

“I definitely believe that our players realize, just by taking a step back and watching a Saturday, which we don’t get a chance to do a lot, just to sit back and watch all the football games and football teams and you realize that a lot of people’s margin for error is really small,” Stoops said. “And on any given Saturday things go different ways and I think they realize some of the good things that we have done.”

Stoops hopes the improvement continues as the Wildcats (3-3, 2-2 Southeastern Conference) host Mississippi State Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium. Although the Bulldogs (2-4, 1-2) have struggled in the first year of the post-Dak Prescott era, Dan Mullen’s squad has won seven straight against the Wildcats, including a 42-16 victory a year ago in Starkville.

Even without Prescott in the lineup, Stoops said the Bulldogs, led by versatile quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, are “still difficult to defend.”

“They have always been multiple and Coach (Dan) Mullen has always been difficult to defend because of the things that we constantly talk about with the quarterback run game and the pressure that they put on you and the stress that it puts on defenses when the quarterback runs the football and spreads you out and still has playmakers across the board,” Stoops said.

As for his own team, Stoops said the break was “really good timing.”

“I felt like we used it wisely to heal up and look at all areas we need to improve on and continue to build on all the things we were doing well,” Stoops said. “I felt like it really came at a good time. Our players seem fresh and recharged and ready to go.”

Barker update

Stoops said there’s been no change in sophomore quarterback Drew Barker’s condition. Barker has been out with a back injury since he left the New Mexico State game after the first series on Sept. 17.

“No big jump one way or another,” Stoops said.

Stoops added he’s not going to rule out a return before the end of the season, leaving it up to the medical staff to determine Barker’s future. Stoops said the “doctors are not ready to make that decision.”

Stoops added that Barker has been “very supportive” of the team since being out of the lineup.

“He helps any way he can,” Stoops said. “I’ve been proud of him that way. It’s hard and he’s worked hard to get the position he did and it was a very quick start so I don’t know how the ending is going to go but he’s doing whatever he can to help and I appreciate that.”

Keith Taylor is a senior sports writer for KyForward, where he primarily covers University of Kentucky sports. Reach him at keith.taylor@kyforward.com or @keithtaylor21 on Twitter

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