LEXINGTON, Ky. — Most seasons in the Southeastern Conference, having three losses before Halloween relegates a team to spoiler status.
This isn't most seasons, at least not in the wide-open SEC East.
Kentucky (4-3, 1-3) and Georgia (3-4, 2-3) meet Saturday knowing a win could give them a legitimate shot at making it to Atlanta for the SEC title game. All six teams in the division have at least two losses with six weeks to go.
While Kentucky coach Joker Phillips allows the Wildcats would need some help, coming off an upset of South Carolina certainly helps. And his team played well enough in the second half against the Gamecocks — rallying from an 18-point deficit to win 31-28 — that he isn't afraid to mention what's still on the table if the Wildcats can keep it going.
"I want our guys to hear it," Phillips said. "Usually you have coaches who say we don't talk about it. Here in Kentucky, we need to hear it. I think we need to hear it."
Georgia coach Mark Richt isn't quite as blunt about his team's prospects even though the Bulldogs are finally starting to look like the team considered one of the conference favorites over the summer.
"I'm sure it's in the back of everybody's mind that things could get more exciting, but things won't get more exciting unless we win this game, so that's where our focus has been," Richt said.
Georgia has won two straight by a combined score of 84-14, including a shutout of Vanderbilt last weekend. The offense is starting to catch fire thanks to the return of wide receiver A.J. Green, who missed the first four games while serving an NCAA suspension for selling a game-worn jersey.
Freshman quarterback Aaron Murray has cut down on the turnovers and the defense has sorted out communication issues that plagued it during a disastrous four-game losing streak. Richt credited his assistants for stripping some of the complexity out of both the offensive and defensive calls following a stunning defeat at Colorado three weeks ago.
"I didn't see us playing as fast as we should, and I asked myself why," Richt said. "Was it the way we practiced? Are we giving our guys too much to think about? We revved it up in practice, we got more physical, we wanted more effort, and we said let's see what happens. I think since then we've played full speed without hesitation and now with more confidence."
It certainly looked that way against the Commodores. Vanderbilt managed just 140 yards of total offense and never threatened while the Bulldogs rolled.
The confidence that was on the verge of eroding in September has returned. As strange as it sounds, they're the hottest team in the SEC East at the moment and with games against Florida and Auburn still on the schedule, still have plenty of chances to make some noise.
"We knew what we had since back in the summer, and when things weren't going our way we weren't doing what we knew we could do," said Georgia running back Carlton Thomas. "We pulled together and took a stand. that's what we did. Everything's getting better and we pulled out some wins."
Georgia has won despite the absence of cornerback/returner Branden Smith, who will miss his third straight game with a concussion. Kentucky's been dealing with injury issues of its own, including senior running back Derrick Locke, who will sit out with a shoulder injury. Locke scored two touchdowns in Kentucky's win at Georgia a year ago.
The Wildcats managed to survive without their leading rusher a week ago, storming back to stun the Gamecocks behind the play of thriving quarterback Mike Hartline. The senior threw for a career-high 349 yards and four touchdowns against South Carolina, including the game-winner to Randall Cobb with 1:15 remaining.
It was the kind of performance that was years in the making for the Hartline, who has endured more than his share of criticism during his two-plus seasons under center. The offense is clicking, though Locke's injury will force the Wildcats to rely more heavily on Cobb to move the ball on the ground out of the "WildCobb" formation.
"It's hard to play a guy like him, it's like playing triple-option football," said Richt of Cobb. "It's hard to simulate him in practice. I don't know if we have anybody that could do that on our scout team."
Not many do, though the emergence of Chris Matthews and LaRod King is making it difficult for teams to focus on Cobb. He was wide-open on the game-winning play against the Gamecocks.
The victory set for a giddy celebration that cost the school a $25,000-fine from the SEC when fans stormed the field. The Wildcats hope the dramatic comeback serves as a turning point in the season. The preseason goal was to remain a factor in the SEC East race until late in the season. A win on Saturday would be another step in the right direction, especially in a year that's proving to be anything but predictable.
"It's always going to go down to the wire who wins it," Phillips said. "It's going to be two or three teams. It just happens to be now at this time in the season it's probably all six of us have a chance."