Strong starts prime SEC teams for conference openers

No. 10 Tennessee hosts No. 15 South Carolina Thursday in the Southeastern Conference women's opener, which will be televised live as Fox Soccer Channel's NSCAA Game of the Week at 8 pm ET.

Both teams were unranked at the beginning of the season, but they have climbed into the Top 25 with strong starts. They aren't the only SEC teams to play well over the first four weeks. Indeed, the SEC may be deeper than it has ever been.

Here's a look at the SEC field going into conference play:

TENNESSEE (5-1-1). The Vols are off to their best start in program history, but they will be quickly tested against South Carolina and No. 16 Florida on Saturday. UT will be favored Thursday night against Gamecocks. The Vols have won all six games against USC in Knoxville.

Tennessee's ranking is deserved. It has beaten Penn State and Wake Forest and tied USC, 0-0, in Los Angeles. The goal the Vols allowed in last week's 2-1 win over UNC Greensboro was the first goalkeeper Jaimel Johnson had allowed in the past 457 minutes of play.

SOUTH CAROLINA (8-1-0). The Gamecocks proved their 1-0 win over North Carolina in their opener was no fluke. They ran off seven straight wins before tying Clemson, 1-1, last Friday.

Freshman forward Erin Sullivan, who scored the gamewinner against UNC, leads USC with 13 points on five goals and three assists. The Gamecocks got good news in the 4-0 win over Marshall Sunday when another freshman, Brooke Jacobs, seeing her first action of the season after recovering from an ACL injury suffered last year, recorded two assists in her first collegiate game.

FLORIDA (4-2-2). Canada World Cup player Melanie Booth was so ready to return to the Gators that she played 64 minutes last Sunday at Nebraska, just three days after Canada was eliminated from the Women's World Cup in China. Booth red-shirted last year to play for Canada in World Cup qualifying and had not played for Florida since November 2005.

Seniors KeLeigh Hudson and Ashley Harris lead Florida with nine and eight points, respectively. Gator fans hope Preseason All-SEC selection Stacy Bishop's goal against Nebraska is a sign of things to come. It was her first goal in eight games for Florida, which opens SEC play against Georgia on Friday.

GEORGIA (7-1-0). The Bulldogs are off to their best start since 1999 when they were 7-0-1.
Georgia's only loss was a 1-0 defeat at then-ranked Southern California. The Georgia attack is paced by Carrie Patterson's four goals and three assists, followed by Caroline Simpson's four goals and two assists.Coach Patrick Baker says the Bulldogs should be ready for their SEC opener against Florida after a full week of training. "We have finally been able to put three straight days of training together after we had three short weeks due to Thursday games and travel," he said.
KENTUCKY (6-0-2). The Wildcats have equaled their best start in program history, a  7-1-0 start through their first eight games in 2001. Freshmen have played key roles this year. Sydney Hiance came off the bench and recorded two consecutive shutouts, including a shutout at Louisville, and Laura Novikoff and Alicia Browning are tied for the team lead with four goals each.

LSU (6-1-2). Last week's 2-2 tie at Texas showed the Tigers are for real. It was the best result they have ever had against a Top 10 team. LSU, which opens against Mississippi State and Mississippi, is the SEC's top-scoring team with 27 goals in nine games. Rachel Yepez leads the SEC with nine goals and 19 points. Fellow sophomore Malorie Rutledge leads the conference with eight assists.

ALABAMA (7-2-0). Things are looking up for the Tide. For the first time in two years, 'Bama is healthy heading into SEC play. By this time last season, four players had already been lost to season-ending injuries. The Tide, who will open SEC play at home with Vanderbilt and Kentucky this weekend, concluded non-conference play with wins of 9-0, 3-0 and 5-0 last week.
ARKANSAS (7-2-0). The Lady Razorbacks swept both games for the last two weekends -- all by shutouts -- and will carry a four-match winning streak into SEC play against Ole Miss and Mississippi State.  Freshman Britni Williams continued her outstanding season in goal with her fifth shutout against Missouri State.  She dropped her goals-against average to 0.34 (13th best in the country).
AUBURN (4-2-1). The Tigers, who open SEC play against Kentucky and Vanderbilt this weekend, posted a pair of shutouts over the weekend. All five of Auburn's goals were scored by different players and all five were the first goal of the season for each player. Freshman Ashley Marks is the only Tiger with multiple goals (3).

MISSISSIPPI STATE (4-4-0). The Bulldogs, who face LSU and Arkansas this weekend, closed their non-conference schedule with a 1-0 win over North Florida, their first shutout victory in 23 months, and a 5-0 defeat at Memphis.

MISSISSIPPI (3-3-2). Ole Miss, which kicks off SEC play with a road trip to Arkansas Friday night and LSU for a Sunday matchup, slumped to losses to Memphis (conceding the tying goal with 20 seconds left in regulation) and Colorado College (CC's first goal came on an own goal) after having a big Week 3. Chrissy Strini collected both game-winning goals for the Rebels in wins over Rice and UCF.

VANDERBILT (3-4-1). The Commodores have had bad luck so far. They have outshot their opponents by an average of 21-10.5 but have only three wins in eight games. The 3-0 win at College of Charleston on Sunday snapped a three-match losing streak for the Commodores, two of which came in overtime. Vanderbilt opens SEC play with four road games, starting this weekend against Alabama and Auburn.

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