It was another thrilling week around the Southeastern Conference, though perhaps you’d get some push-back on that thought from the entire state of Alabama. Chris Lee takes a look at the latest storylines around the SEC.
This week’s storylines
A power shift
Everybody figured that the SEC would get one, maybe two teams, in the College Football Playoff. Most everybody figured those teams would be Alabama and Auburn. Well, the SEC might well get two teams in the playoff, but those squads may well be Ole Miss and Georgia.
Let’s start with the Rebels. We knew Ole Miss could beat the tar out of crummy teams, but we weren’t sure how a team with an uncertain running game, the loss of its stud left tackle, and quarterback Chad Kelly would handle a supremely talented ‘Bama team playing in its own building. Let’s put it this way: if you could accuse one team of losing its poise, it sure would not have been the Rebels, who won the turnover battle 5-1 and seemed to be in control most of the evening.
Yes, it’s hard to get used to using the words “Ole Miss” and “elite” in the same sentence. But with four potential first-round NFL picks this spring and Kelly having as good a year behind center as anyone in the league, the Rebels look for real.
Georgia also impressed this weekend, disposing easily (52-20) of a South Carolina squad that’s too often had UGA’s number over the years. We knew that running back Nick Chubb was one of America’s best, but as with Ole Miss, we weren’t so sure what the team had at quarterback.
How about this for an answer? Grayson Lambert was 24-of-25 passing—that’s an all-time NCAA record for completion percentage when a quarterback throws at least 20 times—for 330 yards, three scores and no picks. Meanwhile, the Georgia defense held Carolina to 258 total yards.
I’ll emphasize that it’s early, but Georgia is a legitimate national title contender if Lambert plays at anything close to that level.
As for Auburn… let’s just go ahead and call the Tigers the nation’s most disappointing team so far. LSU basically doubled up Auburn in yards (485-243) as LSU’s Leonard Fournette (19 carries, 228 yards, three scores) ran at will. Meanwhile, Auburn quarterback Jeremy Johnson (six interceptions) played so poorly that he’s now been benched in favor of true freshman Sean White for this weekend’s Mississippi State game.
Dysfunctional on both sides, it’s not the kind of season Auburn had in mind. Forget a national title, a bowl game isn’t even a given for the Tigers the way they’re playing now.
Inconsistent quarterback play
We’ve documented the issues at Auburn, and a bunch of other teams have had uneven performances from their signal-callers as well. For that matter, one reason Alabama didn’t get the performance it wanted against Ole Miss was because coach Nick Saban’s having a tough time deciding between Cooper Bateman and Jake Coker right now, and frankly, neither gave Saban what he needed on Saturday.
Those two schools are far from the only ones having issues.
Missouri won despite shaky play from Maty Mauk—that was a theme last year also—and the Tigers managed a 9-6 win over lowly UConn as fans booed Mauk and hoped they’d see highly-touted freshman Drew Lock.
South Carolina’s Connor Mitch is out for a while, and replacement Perry Orth was terrible on Saturday, prompting coach Steve Spurrier to go to Lorenzo Nunez, who so far appears to be much more of a runner than he is a passer.
The jury is out at Florida (Will Grier) and LSU (Brandon Harris). Vanderbilt’s Johnny McCrary and Georgia’s Lambert have looked fantastic at times, and bad at others. To a lesser degree, the same can be said of Kentucky’s Patrick Towles. I don’t know what to make of Tennessee’s Josh Dobbs, who looked great at times last year but has put up some pedestrian performances so far.
Looking around the league, I see four schools—Mississippi State (Dak Prescott), Arkansas (Brandon Allen), Texas A&M (Kyle Allen, with Kyler Murray in relief) and Ole Miss (Kelly)—that should feel relatively confident in their QB situations at the moment. Others will likely be added to the list, but until we see players consistently perform well against teams other than Austin Peay or New Mexico State, it’s hard to say who they’ll be.
Is the league down?
From what it was supposed to be, I’d say it is, and it’s not just an Alabama-Auburn thing.
If Auburn’s not the league’s most disappointing team, it’s Arkansas, which has now lost back-to-back games to Toledo and Texas Tech. If the Razorbacks can’t beat mediocre teams, it could turn up the heat on coach Bret Bielema, who has won a grand total of two SEC games while in his third year in Fayetteville.
Missouri is still ranked in the AP Top 25, though I’m not sure it’s deserved. The Tigers have been poor on offense (325 yards per game) and keep in mind, this comes against Southeast Missouri State, Arkansas State and UConn.
Nobody expected huge things from South Carolina, but the Gamecocks were edged by Kentucky, clobbered by Georgia, and could have easily lost to North Carolina.
The jury is out on Tennessee (disappointing loss to Oklahoma), and Florida (3-0 and looks improved, but lack of quality foes), and I’m not sure how much clarity this weekend’s matchup offers us.
Mississippi State is worse than a year ago, but there’s no shame in that.
Vanderbilt, Texas A&M and LSU look better than a year ago, but it’s early.
The bottom line: the league’s failure to win out-of-conference games (I’m looking at you, Arkansas, Tennessee and even Vandy), and failure to dominate in games it should have dominated (Missouri) has cast a shadow of doubt that the league is still king of the hill.
- Ole Miss (3-0, 1-0)
- Georgia (3-0, 2-0)
- Alabama (2-1, 0-1)
- LSU (2-0, 2-0)
- Texas A&M (3-0, 0-0)
- Tennessee (2-1, 0-0)
- Missouri (3-0, 0-0)
- Florida (3-0, 1-0)
- Mississippi State (2-1, 0-1)
- Auburn (2-1, 0-1)
- Arkansas (1-2, 0-0)
- Kentucky (2-1, 1-1)
- South Carolina (1-2, 0-2)
- Vanderbilt (1-2, 0-1)
Player of the Year
- Leonard Fournette, LSU, RB
- Nick Chubb, Georgia, RB
- Chad Kelly, Ole Miss, QB
- Dak Prescott, MSU, QB
- Derrick Henry, Alabama, RB
- Robert Nkdemdiche, Ole Miss, DT
- Jordan Jenkins, Georgia, LB
- Kentrell Brothers, Missouri, LB
- Vernon Hargreaves, S, Florida
- Myles Garrett, Texas A&M, DE; Charles Harris, Missouri, DE; Skai Moore, South Carolina, LB and Trae Elston, Ole Miss, DB
This week’s picks (27-7 overall, 11-14 vs. the spread)
Ole Miss 40, Vanderbilt 14 (Ole Miss -28): Vandy almost always plays Ole Miss tough—bet you didn’t know the ‘Dores have won the last three meetings in Oxford—but the ‘Dores don’t have the offense to keep up.