Emotional McClinton leading 5-0 Cats

Marcus McClinton’s voice roars over Commonwealth Stadium’s loudspeakers about 20 minutes before every home game.

“I’m tired of coming close,” he yells. “I want to win!”

Through the first five games of the 2007 season, McClinton has gotten his wish.

The junior free safety, who said he is one of the most passionate players at UK, has helped lead the Cats to their first 5-0 start since 1984. The record landed UK a No. 8 ranking in both the USA Today and Associated Press polls, and McClinton still isn’t hiding his emotions.

When the new polls came out Sunday afternoon, the safety took a few minutes to celebrate.

“I’m a very emotional guy,” McClinton said. “I was very excited.”

Until Sunday, UK hadn’t appeared in the top 10 since the season-ending poll for the 1977 season, and head coach Rich Brooks couldn’t remember coaching a higher-ranked team in his 23 seasons as a head coach.

McClinton and the 14 other seniors only dreamed of playing on a top-10 team during their first years in Lexington, when the program struggled through probation and losing seasons.

Now, the seniors meet each week to make sure they keep the Cats on the right path through the end of the season, said senior defensive end Dominic Lewis.

“Most of the senior class has been here since 2003, so we’ve seen the lows,” Lewis said. “To be on the rise, it’s definitely a thing we want to keep going. We talk about maintaining winning.”

But being in the top 10 has been dangerous ground for several teams already this season.

Michigan was ranked fifth before losing its season opener to Appalachian State. Five top 10 teams — No. 3 Florida, No. 4 Oklahoma, No. 5 West Virginia, No. 7 Texas and No. 10 Rutgers — fell last week.

When UK began the season outside the top 25, Brooks said it was an accurate portrayal of where his team stood. Even now, he is not sold on UK as the eighth-best team in America.

“It might be high, but if we win this week, it might have been right,” Brooks said. “Early in the season, rankings are very suspect in all categories. We just hope it isn’t a passing fancy.”

Brooks said he tells his team every week that its current ranking matters less than its ranking at the end of the season.

“It’s where you finish that is the key,” he said. “It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. The recognition is nice but, it’s not real meaningful at this point in the season.”

The next three weeks will go a long way in deciding where the Cats finish the season in the polls. UK travels to South Carolina — No. 11 in the AP poll — Thursday to face a team that has beaten the Cats seven straight times. After that, UK has home dates with No. 1 Louisiana State and No. 9 Florida.

Florida, the defending national champion, fell to Auburn last week but remained steady in the rankings. UK hasn’t beaten LSU since 1999 and last defeated Florida in 1986.

With such a schedule, UK could play top-10 quality football for the next three weeks and still lose, said senior tight end Jacob Tamme. But the Cats aren’t focused on LSU or Florida yet, he said.

“If you don’t (take it one game at a time), that’s when this type of point in the schedule gets you,” Tamme said. “That’s how we’ve had success in the past. We’ve prepared week in and week out and tried to take our best shot to the field.”

Brooks set his goal for UK early in the season: to be a factor in the Southeastern Conference East race. Now, with his team at 1-0 in conference play and in sole possession of first place in the East, his team’s weekly rank isn’t what he focuses on.

“(The ranking) is nice,” Brooks said. “But it really, in my mind, doesn’t mean much. I’d rather be 2-0 in the SEC than ranked in the top 10 at this point. That’s a more significant thing for this program.”