A month into the season, six teams are within a game of first-place Missouri, which won its first and only league game of the season this past weekend.
The team that ends up representing the East in the SEC Championship Game is anyone's guess, but Kentucky has an opportunity to put itself in the thick of the race with a win this weekend.
That fact led to inevitable questions to players about the quick transition from back-to-back winless SEC seasons to being a victory away from contender status.
Patrick Towles, however, doesn't quite see things that way.
"I feel like we're right in the middle of the SEC race right now," Towles said.
The confidence reflected in Towles' words has overtaken the UK program in Mark Stoops' second season. The Wildcats (3-1, 1-1 SEC) will carry that belief into a matchup with South Carolina (3-2, 2-2 SEC) at 7:30 p.m. ET on Saturday for which fans are being asked to participate in a blackout.
"We're trying to win a football game," Towles said. "We want to win every football game we play. Every time we chalk it up over there, no matter where it is, we expect to win."
In spite of that expectation, the Cats understand the challenge awaiting them.
South Carolina opened the season in the top 10 before dropping its season opener against Texas A&M, 52-28. The Gamecocks, playing the nation's fifth-toughest schedule to date according to the Sagarin Ratings, then rebounded with wins over East Carolina, then-No. 6 Georgia and Vanderbilt before squandering a 13-point fourth-quarter lead in a loss to Missouri over the weekend.
"I know Coach (Steve) Spurrier and their staff, they've been unhappy with inconsistent play at times, but that's us as well," Stoops said. "They certainly looked dynamic on both sides of the ball. Certain games in particular, you look at the Georgia game and how good they played. So, I'm sure they're mad and ready to improve on all sides, just like we are."
Mad as they may be about the loss, the Gamecocks were outstanding defensively against Missouri. South Carolina allowed just 280 yards, 119 of which came on the Tigers' two touchdown drives in the fourth quarter. That's a far cry from the 680 yards Texas A&M racked up against South Carolina, a difference that can be explained in part by the three true freshmen on the Gamecocks' depth chart at cornerback.
"I think they simplified," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said, explaining South Carolina's improvement. "They cut down on the things they were doing. And I think they're tackling a lot better. They're playing a lot better fundamentally. ... So I think early in the season, that A&M game was much more of an aberration than anything. Because they've come back. If you look, I don't know of any defense in the country that's played the kind of offenses they've played this early in the season."
At times, UK's offense has played at a similar level to South Carolina's past opponents. At other times, the Cats have not, namely in the second half of a win over Vanderbilt on Saturday. Towles has taken a brunt of the criticism in the loss for his three fumbles and interception returned for a touchdown, but Brown says that's a little unfair.
"I think it's important that we've got to keep improving," Brown said. "Did some good things against Vandy, but I think much has been made about Patrick. If he plays bad and completes 23 of 30 every game, then we'll be all right."
UK is going to need Towles at his sharpest against South Carolina, however, and he's acutely aware of that fact.
"They're always tough," Towles said. "Every week is going to be a tough one for us. They're good up front, got a kind of inexperienced secondary but still talented. No matter who runs out there, they're going to be a talented player. We've got to be ready for them."
In spite of South Carolina's defensive talent, offense has always been Spurrier's calling card. The Gamecocks have piled up an average of 421.6 yards and 5.9 yards per play this season behind first-year starting quarterback Dylan Thompson (1,359 yards passing and 12 touchdowns) and star running back Mike Davis (80 carries for 368 yards).
"Coach Spurrier has had a lot of success and he has a lot of experience, and he's an excellent coach," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "And he will get you. So you've got to be on your Ps and Qs and you got to have your guys ready to play, because he knows how to get you and he's an excellent football coach. We're gonna have our (work) cut out for us this weekend."
UK's defense has been up to the task this season. After allowing just 139 yards and eight first downs in a win over Vanderbilt, the Cats rank 25th nationally in total defense, continuing a trend of second-year improvement under Stoops at all of his coaching stops.
"A big part of it is just fundamentally playing better," Stoops said. "That's what I've always prided myself on is teaching the guys how to play. ... We're far from where we want to be, but we are drastically improved on fundamentally how to play football. I think we need to continue to work on that."
Spurrier has taken notice of that improvement, whether it's on defense or otherwise.
"Kentucky Wildcats are a pretty good team," Spurrier said. "They don't look like some of their teams 10, 15 years ago. They are very fast, athletic. I think their defense is actually nationally ranked in all categories. They're a good-looking team. They play tough, smart, well-coached, and will certainly be a good challenge as we go into Commonwealth Stadium to play Kentucky this year."
The respect goes both ways.
"Coach Spurrier and South Carolina have won an awful lot of football games the past couple years and have a very good football team again this year, so we'll have our hands full," Stoops said. "We're excited to play. It'll be a great atmosphere in Commonwealth this weekend, and so our kids are up for the challenge and it's been a good week of preparation so far."