Twenty-three percent of the college football season is now over. Soak that in. We are now entering week four, and by the time next Sunday rolls around, a quarter of the season will be in the books. Crazy talk.
Here is what we’ve learned in the SEC through three weeks:
This conference is really top heavy: Power is still well in place within the SEC, as viewed both within the conference and around rest of country as well. However, there are two great teams and a few good teams. And there are some teams showing complete power outages, too. It does bring into question the strength of the overall conference. Starting with Alabama and followed closely by LSU, they are the two front runners once again. Georgia is a cut above the rest in the East, followed by Florida and South Carolina. Arkansas, who was expected to compete at least for the West division, is no longer in the picture and fighting for bowl eligibility. ULM beat Arkansas and should have beaten Auburn. The West is much more top heavy than the East – yeah, I hear you Mississippi State fan. MSU is largely untested thus far, and we’ll know more about them when they hit the meat of their schedule. This is just a top-heavy league right now, which still works for competing for another national championship. On another note, the East is closing the gap on the West.
Three games in the SEC that will decide division fate: The SEC features three remaining big games that everyone can circle on their calendars – Alabama-LSU, LSU-Florida and Georgia-Florida. South Carolina’s season will get played out through those three games, and with a backup quarterback – depending on Connor Shaw’s health – I’m not sure they can make it through the gauntlet of their schedule and come out as East winners. But that’s why we play the games. The winner of the Alabama-LSU game will once again be the front runner in the West and in the national championship talk. Florida-LSU will be a battle of two undefeated teams, and we’ll know what Florida is really made of and whether they can compete. Florida-Georgia will likely decide the East, depending on Florida’s outcome against South Carolina the week before. Right now, everything points to those three games.
Alabama is ready to defend their national championship: What Nick Saban is doing right now at Alabama is terrifying for everyone else. He’s virtually reloaded his team, something everyone said he couldn’t do before the season started. They are the most dominant team in college football right now, bar none. Two shutouts in the last three games, allowing an impressive 4.7 points per game and averaging over 42 points per game on offense. Bama has one game circled, and one game only – LSU. They are the legitimate national championship contender through the first three weeks because they are battle-tested. The Tide have won two decisive games away from Tuscaloosa. They don’t need home field advantage. Saban’s running Operation Blackbriar with about 22 Jason Bourne’s running around assassinating anyone who gets in their way.
Addition by subtraction: LSU loses several key players off last year’s club, namely the Honey Badger and Boots Jefferson, and the team hasn’t lost a step. They look better because Zach Mettenberger provides a balanced offense. The Tigers’ scholarship numbers are way down, but this team’s ability to move the football is up. Alfred Blue, currently injured, and Kenny Hilliard have been monsters in the backfield, and Mett keeps defenses honest with his big arm. The defense is just as nasty, led by NFL bodies all over the front seven. Could LSU be the team to beat in the West?
Despite reaching #8 in rankings, Arkansas will struggle to be bowl eligible: Just look at where this Arkansas team came from to where they are now in three weeks, and it’s mind-blowing. But is it really? The Bobby Petrino fiasco carried over onto the field, and it’s very evident that John L. Smith has no business being even the interim head coach. The product on the field – granted, it’s Tyler Wilson-less – is head scratching with some of the skill position personnel on the team. Names like Knile Davis, Cobi Hamilton and Dennis Johnson have had zero impact. Somehow, some way, this Arkansas team has to pull together and salvage the season before it’s too late. That starts this weekend against a 3-0 Rutgers team. If Wilson plays, it would help tremendously, but he doesn’t need to prove anything at this point, other than escaping another concussion before the NFL Draft. If I’m his daddy, I tell him he’s not playing for a few weeks. Concussions are serious business. You look ahead to the schedule, and there are two penciled-in wins against Kentucky and Tulsa, but even those two teams can score points and will give the Hogs a fit. Getting six wins to finish the season may be a stretch.
Georgia is the favorite to win the East: I’m comfortable in saying that Georgia is the front runner to win the SEC East. Even though the team and defense have started slow the first three games, there is too much talent all over the defensive side of the ball not to be considered the team to beat in the East. And the offense under Aaron Murray isn’t too bad either. The knock against Murray is that he hasn’t been able to win big games, though I’d consider the win at Mizzou to be a big game in this early season. Yeah, Florida and South Carolina are both undefeated in conference play, but Georgia’s schedule, outside of those two teams, is a cakewalk. Georgia is the team to beat in the East right now.
Will Muschamp is becoming a good young head coach: Muschamp has taken some heat. He took it last year largely due to the massive offensive coordinator he hired. But the two best hires he’s made while at Florida have been the new strength and conditioning coordinator Jeff Dillman and offensive coordinator Brent Pease. Both were new hires from last year to this season, and they have helped Muschamp instill toughness into his team. He preaches winning the fourth quarter, and Florida has dominated the fourth quarter this year, outscoring their opponents 27-0. He’s made fantastic second-half adjustments, and he’s growing into a good young coach who can win at this level.
#TeamThompson: Unless your name is Tim Tebow or Cam Newton, running the football in this league as a quarterback has its risks. Connor Shaw gladly takes those risks week in and week out, but he’s still suffering from an injury he had while running against Vanderbilt, albeit a fluke shoulder blade fracture. It was originally called a bone bruise to his throwing shoulder, but it certainly doesn’t look good after reinjuring his shoulder this weekend. The Gamecocks resume SEC play Saturday against Missouri. Backup Dylan Thompson has thrown for over 500 yards and five touchdowns in Shaw’s absence, and he looks ready for the job. This will be Thompson’s team until Shaw returns. Then, it might still be Thompson’s team.
Three coaches on hot seat: To start the season, we knew Derek Dooley and Joker Phillips were on the hot seat, but Gene Chizik has joined them in dramatic fashion. Phillips and Chizik are 1-2, and Dooley is 2-1, losing the game he needed to win. If Dooley wins seven games, he’s back. Phillips might not be back based on how Kentucky has looked, and Chizik will fight to get bowl eligible. The two likeliest coaches to be replaced would be Chizik and Phillips, and we’re not even talking about John L. Smith because he’s already gone…he just doesn’t know it yet.
The newbies will compete in this league: Missouri and Texas A&M have proven they can compete in this league already. Both boast an 0-1 conference record, but my suspicion was confirmed about the inability to finish games in the second half. Florida and Georgia won in the second half, but Mizzou and TAMU will learn the type of prospects and recruits to reel in after this season.
Tennessee is like the ’11 Vols: Tennessee is still the Tennessee from the last few years – heavily equipped but can’t finish games. The Vols have the potential to have three first-round draft picks in Tyler Bray, Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson, but they couldn’t finish the game late against Florida. As a matter of fact, this team quit in the second half. As quickly as Tennessee can score, they were defeated when only down one touchdown. The suspicions of selfishness could be back again, and Florida looked like they gutted Tennessee and ripped their heart out. Someone has to emerge as a leader, or a 7-5 season is a real possibility.
Vanderbilt is still Vanderbilt: We heard all about the Vanderbilt brand during the spring leading up to this season, but Vanderbilt is still Vanderbilt. They start 1-2 on the year, and it will be a stretch to make a bowl with six wins. The Dores may be favored in three games at most. But there’s still time to right the ship, and I believe in James Franklin as a coach. I’m just not sure this club, outside of a few skill position players, can win six games. Vanderbilt continues to march towards the middle of the SEC East.
Egg Bowl will be more interesting than last several years: The state of Mississippi is ready for another war for the Egg Bowl. Dan Mullen has won three in a row since coming to State, but Ole Miss can score some points under Hugh Freeze. The Rebels might not be able to stop many offenses, but they can score. These teams have started 5-1 on the year, and both started 2-0 together for the first time since 1999.