Josh Kendall

The Fight for Fourth an underrated storyline in SEC East

Kentucky coach Mark Stoops speaks to the media at the Southeastern Conference NCAA college football media days Wednesday in Hoover, Ala.
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops speaks to the media at the Southeastern Conference NCAA college football media days Wednesday in Hoover, Ala. AP

The headliners in Wednesday’s session at SEC Media Days were done by lunch.

The conference schedule makers put Alabama head coach Nick Saban, who arrived at The Wynfrey Hotel with four police escorts, and Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema, who has taken over Steve Spurrier’s role as the Most Interesting Head Coach in the Conference, in the two-team morning rotation, which made for a shoulder-to-shoulder media ballroom. The afternoon session consisted of Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops and Missouri head coach Barry Odom and plenty of elbow room for everyone.

The lack of interest in Stoops’ and Odom’s appearances is understandable, but it shouldn’t hide from South Carolina fans the fact that Wednesday afternoon’s session should be the most interesting of the week for them.

The Wildcats and Tigers, along with Vanderbilt, are the Gamecocks’ peer group for the 2016 season. While Tennessee and Florida and Georgia jockey for the top spot in the SEC East, the four teams at the other end of the division will be waging a less public but no less important battle – the race for fourth place in the SEC East.

There’s nothing sexy about shooting for fourth. There are no catchy mottos, no trophies, no contract bonuses that reward staying right in the middle of the road; but being the best of the worst is very important for each of the four head coaches of those teams.

Whoever finishes fourth in the SEC East will be able to sell their fans on progress.

Whoever finishes seventh will enter next season with lots of doubters, if they enter next season at all.

These are all imperfect teams. There’s not one in the group that couldn’t go 3-0 or 0-3 against the rest of the Flawed Four.

The quartet breaks neatly into two groups – the veterans in Stoops and Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason and the first-year guys in South Carolina’s Will Muschamp and Odom. The Fight for Fourth is a much more desperate chase for Stoops and Mason. Kentucky’s coach enters his fourth year with a 4-20 record in conference play.

“You know what you’re getting into when you play this league,” Stoops said. “We’re doing the things necessary to take the next step. We’ve done the work. We have the pieces in place. We will take the next step.”

That next step means winning close games, Kentucky running back JoJo Kemp said. Those close games are going to coming against South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Missouri.

“Not only is it a big year for Coach Stoops, it’s a big year for the program,” Kemp said. “I set goals and that’s to come here and change the program, change the culture around Kentucky football, so not only for him, I want to do it for myself, for the fan base, for everybody who has been working so hard. It’s a big year for all of us.”

Muschamp and Odom are in no danger of being out of a job next year no matter where they finish in the league, but there are no long leashes in the SEC and nobody wants to come out of the gate and fall on their face.

“Nobody wants to be on the bottom,” Missouri linebacker Michael Scherer said. “I don’t want to go home and have to hide out because I don’t want to talk about how bad our season was.”

“We’re No. 4!” might not have much of a ring to it, but for the bottom half of the SEC East it will have plenty of meaning in 2016.