An impartial observer would have to say that it’s shaping up to be a down year in the Southeastern Conference. The conference looked much stronger three weeks ago, but in that time it’s become apparent that several teams aren’t going to hold up and have credible years. In fact, there is some question right now as to whether the SEC will be able to field a full contingent of bowl eligible teams.
Right now, here’s how the conference breaks down for me:
- Alabama (5-0 SEC; 8-0 overall). The one big, pleasant surprise in the conference this season. Very well coached, Alabama is probably a year ahead of schedule in getting back to being a conference power. Not flashy at all, this is a team that plays to its strengths and weaknesses better than any school in the SEC. The remaining schedule is a dream. It would take a plane crash for the Tide not to appear in Atlanta.
- Florida (4-1 SEC; 6-1 overall). First in the conference in scoring offense. First in the conference in scoring defense. Dynamic special teams. But for some unfortunate turnovers against Ole Miss, the Gators would probably be the #1 team in the nation right now. The only caveat about the Gators is that they really haven’t been tested defensively so far. They’ve faced the #s 34, 48, 77, 82, 88, 100 and 105 nationally ranked schools in rushing offense. And they’ve only played one team to date which returned a starting quarterback from the season before – Arkansas’ Casey Dick. That’s not to say they’re not a good defensive team, but it’s something we’ll know a lot more about after this week.
- Georgia (4-1 SEC; 7-1 overall). Given the injuries, Mark Richt is doing as good a coaching job this year as he did in 2003. Similarly to that year, he’s riding three players to carry the team, although this time they’re on offense. If the Dawgs can survive Jacksonville, the rest of the schedule is doable – having that extra week to prepare for Georgia Tech’s offense is a big help.
GOOD, BUT NOT ELITE
- LSU (3-2 SEC; 5-2 overall). Hmmm… maybe Miles did win with Saban’s players. Florida and Georgia have exposed some weaknesses with the Tigers. The secondary and the wide receiving corps aren’t as dominant as in years past and it’s obvious that they’ve taken a step back at quarterback. Still, the talent at running back and in both lines is as good as ever and leaves these guys a step above every one else in the SEC besides the top three. I suspect LSU is going to give Alabama a better game than most expect because of that.
THE MEDIOCRE MIDDLE
- Vanderbilt (3-2 SEC; 5-3 overall). Ask me again in three weeks. The word is out on how to play this team: don’t give them any opportunities to take advantage of. The Commodores are last in the conference in total offense and tenth in total defense. Over the course of a season, that’s not a winning formula. Getting bowl eligible isn’t an impossible task with Kentucky and Tennessee left on the schedule, but it won’t be easy, either.
- South Carolina (2-3 SEC; 5-3 overall). Same song, different verse. This may be Spurrier’s last opportunity to beat Fulmer. The remaining schedule looks like it could yield as many as three wins, but in the end, really, what difference does it make?
- Mississippi (2-3 SEC; 4-4 overall). Turnovers have been the story with this team. They got the Rebels a huge upset win in the Swamp, but they cost them a couple of games as well. Because of their unpredictablity, it’s hard to handicap the remaining schedule, but it looks like there’s a decent chance for six wins. At least they have a pulse right now, which is more than you can say about the next school.
- Auburn (2-3 SEC; 4-4 overall). The biggest disappointment in the SEC this year, this team has fallen from being a darkhorse national title contender to most likely needing to beat Mississippi to avoid a losing record. The offense has been a black hole all year, but what really has to concern Tuberville right now is the collapse of the defense in the West Virginia game. The only ray of hope is that the Tigers have been competitive in all of their losses, leading at the half in all of those games. Of course, they did lose all four.
- Kentucky (1-3 SEC; 5-3 overall). Mediocre teams don’t lose 63-5 in a game where the score didn’t indicate how uncompetitive the ‘Cats really were. To be fair, injuries have decimated a team that wasn’t that strong to begin with. They’ve got their share of games left to become bowl eligible, but if they don’t play any better than they did last Saturday, they won’t make it.
- Tennessee (1-4 SEC; 3-5 overall). On paper, maybe it’s hard to believe the Vols reside here, but if you’ve seen them play, it’s deserved. The lack of elite talent on offense is shocking. The good news is that three of the last four teams they play are just as bad on that side of the ball. Who would have thought at the beginning of the year that both teams might have bowl eligibility on the line when UT plays Vandy?
- Mississippi State (1-4 SEC; 3-5 overall). Again, I have to ask: how does Woody McCorvey have a job? This is simply an awful offensive team. The difference between this year and last is that MSU isn’t having those games where they were able to take advantage of turnovers to pull off a couple of upsets. Bowl eligibility is doubtful at best.
- Arkansas (1-4 SEC; 3-5 overall). The Hogs are starting to show some signs of life over their past three games. It would be nice for the conference’s reputation if they could take care of business against Tulsa. The other three remaining games on the schedule most likely break 1-2 for Arky; if things came out 5-6, given preseason expectations for this team, that’s not a bad year.