HOOVER, Ala. – For most college football teams, the opening weeks of the season mean a few tune-up games prior to starting the grind of conference play and the matchups that really matter. They also represent every coach's biggest fear of his squad overlooking what is perceived as an inferior opponent.
Safe to say that isn't going to be a concern for Mark Stoops in his coaching debut at Kentucky. Both he and the players who accompanied him to SEC Media Days this week made it clear where their focus lies entering the 2013 season: an Aug. 31 date with the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers at LP Field in Nashville.
Kentucky's players are still stinging from WKU's 32-31 overtime upset of the Wildcats, a game that ended on a bold trick play, saw the Hilltoppers celebrate wildly on the field at Commonwealth Stadium and had their former head coach proclaim that "red is the new blue."
Willie Taggart has moved on to South Florida for "green," but the combustible fire had a little more fuel thrown on it when WKU made national headlines by hiring former Louisville and Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino, a figure who has ruffled a few UK feathers over the years himself.
"It's very important," UK senior running back Raymond Sanders said of the season opener. "It's an in-state rivalry game, and we want to beat those guys. We're looking forward to the opportunity, I can tell you that."
According to Sanders, the loss to WKU was the toughest he endured among many rough outcomes during a disastrous 2-10 season for the Wildcats.
"It definitely was," he said. "Those guys were pretty disrespectful on our field. And they've been disrespectful with some tweets and different things… We're just waiting for Aug. 31 and we'll let that talk."
Avery Williamson labeled it a "huge game," and while he claims he didn't feel the same level of disrespect from the Hilltoppers as some of his teammates acknowledged, the senior linebacker may have tipped his hand a bit when he added, "We're going to take it out on them."
For his part, Stoops is taking the predictable "next game is the most important game approach," but even he knows that Petrino is a name that many in the Big Blue Nation were clamoring to see in Lexington prior to his hiring.
Stoops has since won over the UK fan base in a big way with his surprising early success on the recruiting trail – the Wildcats have been in or around the national Top 10 for most of the summer – but he's yet to be on the sideline for an actual game as a head coach.
Forget the coachspeak. Stoops may not face a more important game all season.
"We have an awful lot on the line," he said. "We can't take anything for granted at Kentucky right now. We can't just show up and beat anybody. We have to play very well. We have to play to the best of our abilities. That's our job to be ready to play in that opener."
CATS TABBED LAST IN EAST:
Kentucky was picked to finish last in the SEC East in voting by 243 of the 1,239 credentialed media members on hand for SEC Media Days.
Georgia received 149 first-place votes as the preseason favorite to win the East. South Carolina was tabbed second, but received 75 first-place votes. Florida was third, receiving 19 first-place votes. Vanderbilt, Tennessee, Missouri and UK rounded out the East predictions.
Defending national champion Alabama was an overwhelming pick to win the West, claiming 225 first-place votes. Texas A&M with Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel at quarterback, was second with 11 first-place votes. LSU was third, receiving one first-place vote. Ole Miss, Auburn, Mississippi State and Arkansas rounded out the West predictions.
The Crimson Tide are tabbed to win the SEC championship. Kentucky will play the top three picks for the league title this season: Alabama on Oct. 12; Georgia on Nov. 23 and South Carolina on Oct. 5.
TWO CATS NAMED ALL-SEC:
Junior defensive end Alvin "Bud" Dupree and senior linebacker Avery Williamson were named third-team preseason All-SEC selections, the league announced Thursday.
Dupree finished among the SEC's top 10 in tackles last season with 91. He also recorded 12.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks, primarily from his outside linebacker position. The Irwinton, Ga., native be moving fulltime to defensive end this season.
Williamson was second in the SEC in tackles last season with 135. The preseason Butkus Award watch list member posted eight double-digit tackle games as a junior, including 20 against Vanderbilt. He also had 4.5 tackles for loss, four pass break-ups, three sacks and two forced fumbles.
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