Georgia is best in East, Alabama is best in West, but who is SEC's No. 3 team?
We’re eight weeks into the 2017 campaign, and so far we can definitively conclude that Alabama and Georgia are the cream of the crop.
To the surprise of absolutely no one, the Crimson Tide are doing what the Crimson Tide do. They’ve been No. 1 in the polls since the start of the season and once again appear to be nothing short of loaded on offense, defense and special teams.
While it’s not necessarily a surprise — they were picked to win the division at Media Days back in July, after all — the Bulldogs have indeed exceeded expectations with their level of play. Not only are they undefeated, but six of their seven victories have been blowouts. Their only narrow escape was over an improving Notre Dame on the road.
But with ‘Bama and UGA having already lapped the field a few times, it begs the question: Who is the third-best team in the SEC?
Unfortunately, no program from the East can make a convincing argument. After Mississippi State wiped the floor with Kentucky this past Saturday in Starkville, every club in the division now has at least two losses in league play.
Even two-time defending East champion Florida — coming off a much-needed bye in Week 8 — has two defeats already in the SEC and can be eliminated from the division race altogether Saturday by the Dawgs. The Gators have owned the Cocktail Party the last generation or so, but it would be nothing short of a shock if they prevailed in Jacksonville.
South Carolina is a frisky 5-2 overall, but in-conference losses to Kentucky and Texas A&M are blemishes on its résumé.
As for the rest of the East, the fact that Tennessee, Missouri and Vanderbilt are all 0-4 in league play to this point is an embarrassment. In particular, the Volunteers are a complete disaster and dangerously close to a full-on laughingstock.
Getting back to the Wildcats, this was the year to move past all the “basketball school” jokes and make something happen in football. However, they squandered what would’ve been a monumental triumph by letting Florida out of Lexington alive — that’s 31 consecutive losses in the series now — and then were outclassed by Mississippi State.
In the race for No. 3, we have to look to the West. While there are three worthy contenders, each has a wart or two.
Auburn is 6-2 overall, 4-1 in the SEC and has been ranked as high as No. 10. The Tigers suffered the proverbial “good loss” in Week 2 at Clemson. There’s no shame in a one-score defeat to the defending national champion on the road.
But their 27-23 loss to LSU two Saturdays ago is hard to explain. Just 17 minutes into the game, Auburn had a 20-0 lead — Death Valley wasn’t so deadly — and appeared to be announcing itself as a genuine threat to Alabama in the division. Whatever worked early failed to work late, though. The Bayou Bengals came back to win in dramatic fashion.
Even if coach Gus Malzahn and Co. recovered by blowing out Arkansas seven days later, their head-to-head loss to LSU will linger.
So that means the Bayou Bengals are clearly the third-best team in the conference, right? With back-to-back-to-back wins over league foes Florida, Auburn and Ole Miss, coach Ed Orgeron (above) seems to have righted the ship in Baton Rouge.
However, how quickly some have have forgotten LSU’s mind-numbing defeat to Troy — at Tiger Stadium, you’ll recall — on Oct. 1. The ground game struggled in the absence of tailback Derrius Guice. Quarterbacks Danny Etling and Myles Brennan both threw a pick. The defense couldn’t get off the field in crucial situations.
While a setback at the hands of the Trojans didn’t hurt them in the SEC race, the Bayou Bengals have no get-out-of-jail-free card to play.
Neither Auburn nor LSU has played resident division bully Alabama yet. Texas A&M has and actually managed to keep it close. In their other conference games, the Crimson Tide have won by 59 over Vanderbilt, 63 over Ole Miss, 32 over Arkansas and 38 over Tennessee.
The Ags lost by 8 — even if their final touchdown came with 17 seconds left in garbage time. Kellen Mond, a true freshman QB, has continued to improve and brings shifty legs to go along with a strong arm. Receiver and return man Christian Kirk can score from anywhere. The pass rush has actually improved without the departed Myles Garrett.
A&M had an extra seven days to savor a 19-17 W at Florida in Week 7 and now welcomes Mississippi State to Kyle Field in Week 9.
So those are the three candidates: Auburn, LSU and Texas A&M. Each has a head-scratching loss burned into our collective memory. Aside from Auburn succumbing to LSU and LSU choking against Troy, the Aggies blew a 34-point lead at UCLA in the opener.
If anything, this only solidifies how sensational Alabama and Georgia are compared to the other 12 member institutions. Each has been bored for a quarter here and there when facing inferior competition — the Crimson Tide vs. Colorado State, then the Bulldogs vs. Missouri — but for the most part they’ve put the pedal to the metal.
Make no mistake about it: Any matchup aside from ‘Bama-UGA in the league title game come December will be a colossal disappointment.
Being the third-best team in the SEC could matter when it’s time for bowl invitations. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that both Alabama and Georgia are voted into the College Football Playoff. The scenario is out there.
If that turns out to be the case — the chances may be remote, but it’s far from impossible — then some big-time bowl games could be up for grabs. The Sugar Bowl is off the table since it’s one of the national semifinals this year, but the Outback, Peach and Citrus Bowls all play on New Year’s Day and can invite teams from the conference.
Based on what we know now, the Crimson Tide and Bulldogs are alone on the leap lap. But the others are still swapping paint.