HOOVER, Ala. - Derek Dooley thought he was about to escape Southeastearn Conference Football Media Days without hearing a question about the two tough-luck, last-minute losses his team suffered last season.

Then, with time running out in Dooley’s interview session Thursday, a reporter fired away, asking how Dooley and his team dealt with those wild losses to LSU and North Carolina.

“I almost got out of here,” Dooley said, prompting laughter from the crowd.

You might recall that the Volunteers believed they’d stopped LSU on the last play of regulation Oct. 2 in Tiger Stadium, but a penalty for 13 men on the field allowed Stevan Ridley to score the game-winning touchdown with no time left in a 16-14 stunner.

Then, in the Music City Bowl, the Tar Heels had too many men on the field on their final play of regulation - but officials ruled that quarterback T.J. Yates had spiked the ball with :01 second left, allowing UNC to kick a field goal and send the game to overtime, where the Tar Heels eventually won 30-27.

“I told everybody I was 8-7 in postgame handshakes last year,” Dooley said. “It was a remarkable feat.”

In reality, the Volunteers finished 6-7, and this season they’re awfully young. Dooley said he has 57 freshmen and sophomores, and only 24 juniors and seniors.

Asked about the LSU loss Thursday, defensive lineman Malik Jackson called it “heartbreaking,” but echoed his coach when he said: “If you look back on it, we made a lot of mistakes before that last play happened.”

Better days for UK?

Even though Kentucky lags behind many of its SEC rivals in tradition and homegrown talent, second-year coach Joker Phillips said he believes his Wildcats should still strive for more than winning seasons.

“Not just going to bowl games, but being able to contend for championships in this league,” said Phillips, whose team visits LSU on Oct. 1.

“I’ve told this team (that) the teams that are successful in this league are the teams that have discipline, teams that are physical, teams that ... are mentally tough.”

UK lost leading receiver Randall Cobb (1,017 yards) and leading rusher Derrick Locke from last year’s team, which went 6-7 and lost to Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl here in Birmingham.

Still, quarterback Morgan Newton said he believes UK has found good players to help replace them.

“That’s what the coaches recruit for,” Newton said.

Friendly rivals

Dooley admitted that he has mixed feelings about Will Muschamp becoming the head coach at Florida.

Dooley and Muschamp, who coached together at LSU, are good friends, though Dooley said friendship will be set aside when their teams meet Oct. 8 in Knoxville.

“I’m proud of him,” Dooley said. “He deserved it. He’s earned it. But I’d rather him (still) be at Texas, because he’s a friend of mine. I mean, that’s just how it is.

“He’s doing to do a great job - there’s no doubt in my mind. But we’ve got to play each other every year, and that’s a big game for both programs.”

Lathers laid up

Dooley said he still didn’t know when junior linebacker Herman Lathers, a former standout at Scotlandville, would be able to return to action. Lathers broke an ankle during offseason 7-on-7 drills.

“I can tell you this: It’s not going to be any time soon,” Dooley said. “We’re just going to have to monitor it week to week. But it was a blow to us.”

Lathers’ injury means Tennessee will start the season with just one returning starter in its front seven: Jackson, a senior, at left tackle.

Meanwhile Prentiss Waggner, a junior from Clinton, made the transition this spring from cornerback to free safety.

“Prentiss had a good year for us last year,” Dooley said. “A lot of interceptions (five), but not very consistent.”

LSU plays Oct. 15 at Tennessee, the Tigers’ first trip to Knoxville since 2006.

Invading his turf

LSU coach Les Miles can only hope his offense gains as much mileage as he’s gotten since last season over being an admitted sideline grass chewer. There’s even going to be a College Game Day commercial with Miles and Lee Corso on the subject.

Georgia center Ben Jones, however, demands equal time. He wants to remind everyone he was there first, having been spotted stuffing a chunk of turf (not just a few blades of grass) after the 2009 Georgia-Georgia Tech game.

“I’m going to have to talk to him about that,” Jones said with a smile. “He must have stolen that from me.”

The last word

“Stay away from Tweeting so much. That Twitter will get you.”

- Kentucky QB Newton

on how the Wildcats

can improve in 2011