Weekly takeaways, trends and technicalities from the the final week of the SEC regular season.

Time flies, doesn’t it? The 2023 regular season is officially in the books, leaving only this weekend’s slate of conference championship games to go before field is set the 4-team format embarks on its final lap. This year marks the 10-year anniversary of the Playoff, a run that, so far, has rarely offered much in the way of 11th-hour intrigue.

Compared to the BCS format it replaced, the CFP committee has led a charmed existence: Its only controversial call, the decision to tap Big Ten champ Ohio State for the final slot over Big 12 co-champs Baylor and TCU in 2014, paid off in an improbable title run for the Buckeyes. In the meantime, the committee routinely “got it right” because it has yet to be presented with a decent opportunity to get it wrong.

Frankly, it’s overdue.

An unusually chalky year at the top of the polls has yielded an unusually crowded field of contenders at the tape: 7 teams will be in action this weekend with serious designs on a Playoff slot — Alabama, Florida State, Georgia, Michigan, Oregon, Texas and Washington — none of whom are likely to survive a loss and several of whom are not guaranteed a ticket even if they win. An 8th team, Ohio State, is waiting in the wings, clinging to hope that the dominoes will fall in exactly the right pattern on the heels of a season-defining, 30-24 loss at Michigan.

Excluding games against each other, those 8 teams are a combined 89-1 against the rest of college football, the lone blemish coming in Texas’ last-second heartbreaker against Oklahoma in Week 6. For once, the moment is ripe for a little chaos — or a lot.

With that in mind, here are 5 simmering themes with the potential to boil over on what could go down as the most dramatic weekend of the 4-team era:

1. The Chalk

Before we wade into the chaos, let’s establish a baseline scenario that follows the path of least resistance. No surprises here: 4 undefeated teams enter, 4 undefeated teams emerge.

1. Georgia (13-0 | SEC champ)
2. Michigan (13-0 | Big Ten champ)
3. Washington (13-0 | Pac-12 champ)
4. Florida State (13-0 | ACC champ)
– – –
• Odd team out: Texas (12-1 | Big 12 champ)

There is precedent for 3 undefeated teams on Selection Sunday, in 2018, ’19, and ’20 (if anything that happened in the COVID year can be cited as precedent), but never 4. If the Dawgs, Wolverines, Huskies, and Seminoles all take care of business in their respective conference championship games, only 1-loss Texas will potentially be left to make the slightest peep about it. (Assuming for the sake of this scenario the Longhorns take care of their own business as 13.5-point favorites against Oklahoma State.) It will be as close to a rubber-stamp scenario as they come.

On that note, it’s worth emphasizing:

2. If Florida State wins, Florida State is in

It’s fair to speculate about where FSU stands with the committee with face-of-the-program quarterback Jordan Travis on the shelf due to a nasty ankle injury. The Seminoles conspicuously dropped from No. 4 to No. 5 in last week’s rankings, and sorely missed their MVP Saturday in an uninspiring, 24-15 win over Florida. (More specifically, a thoroughly mediocre edition of Florida also down to a backup QB making his first career start.) With Travis, they were serious contenders averaging more than 40 points per game over the course of a 17-game winning streak. Without him, they project as significant underdogs in any hypothetical Playoff semifinal matchup.

That said, get real. At the end of the day, snubbing an undefeated Power 5 conference champ with wins over LSU, Clemson and both of its major in-state rivals would trigger a meltdown the likes of which even the BCS could never have managed. A key injury can move point spreads; it can’t be wielded as an excuse to dismiss a perfect record on the field based on bad vibes.

Of course, there’s still the matter of actually finishing with a perfect record. Standing in the way is Louisville, a mere 3.5-point underdog in the ACC Championship Game despite suffering its 2nd loss of the season Saturday against Kentucky. The Cardinals can put the question to bed, free up a ticket for a 1-loss team, and crack open some of the more unwieldy chaos scenarios in the process. Otherwise, a trophy accepted by Tate Rodemaker on behalf of a 13-0 team is no less real for the distinction.

3. No one can afford to lose (not even Georgia)

Each of the past 2 years, Georgia has arrived at the SEC Championship Game undefeated and so far ahead of the pack its seat in the Playoff was already secure, win or lose. In 2021, the Bulldogs actually did lose, breaking down for the first time all year in a lopsided loss to Alabama; they fell from No. 1 to No. 3 but were never in danger of missing the cut and they rebounded to win it all in a CFP Championship Game rematch. Last year, TCU made the bracket despite losing in double overtime in the Big 12 title game, and has a semifinal win to show for it.

None of the 4 undefeated teams this weekend have that luxury.

Florida State has no margin for error. Georgia and Washington could both be seamlessly replaced in the pecking order by Alabama and Oregon, respectively, and would almost certainly fall behind Texas if the Longhorns take care of their business against Oklahoma State; ditto Michigan in the (highly unlikely) event that the Wolverines fall into a black hole against Iowa. This is also where we note Georgia, Michigan and Washington’s underwhelming nonconference schedules, which aren’t going to do them any favors without the benefit of a zero in the loss column. There are plausible routes to redemption, but they’re narrow and require more help than a team that woke up on game day controlling its own destiny has any right to expect.

4. The Nightmare Scenario: Alabama vs. Texas

No plausible scenario stands to divide the nation quite as intensely as the one that pits the Longhorns against the Crimson Tide for the final ticket, and with each passing week it gets a little more plausible. Imagine, for example, that Bama springs an upset against Georgia while the chalk prevails elsewhere, resulting in a pecking order that looks like this:

1. Michigan (13-0 | Big Ten champ)
2. Washington (13-0 | Pac-12 champ)
3. Florida State (13-0 | ACC champ)
4. Alabama (12-1 | SEC champ) or Texas (12-1 | Big 12 champ)
– – –
• Odd teams out: Texas/Bama … Georgia (12-1 | lost SEC Championship Game)

Or the same scenario, except with the added wrinkle of Oregon prevailing in the Pac-12 over Washington:

1. Michigan (13-0 | Big Ten champ)
2. Florida State (13-0 | ACC champ)
3. Alabama (12-1 | SEC champ) or Texas (12-1 | Big 12 champ) or Oregon (12-1 | Pac-12 champ)
4. Alabama (12-1 | SEC champ) or Texas (12-1 | Big 12 champ) or Oregon (12-1 | Pac-12 champ)
– – –
• Odd teams out: Texas/Bama/Oregon … Georgia (12-1 | lost SEC Championship Game) … Washington (12-1 | lost Pac-12 Championship Game)

Who ya got? Who ya don’t?

To SEC fans, the notion that the committee might conceivably snub a 12-1 SEC champion that just capped an 11-game winning streak by beating the 2-time defending national champions to clinch the conference championship is outrageous — at least as bizarre as the notion that it might conceivably snub an undefeated version of Florida State. The SEC champion has gone on to play for the national championship, either in the Playoff or the BCS Championship Game before it, every year since 2006, no questions asked. It may as well be an automatic birthright. It’s almost impossible to imagine it going any other way.

But then, that assumption runs directly into the cognitive dissonance of Texas’ 34-24 win in Tuscaloosa in Week 2. A double-digit win, on the road, that confirmed the Longhorns arrival as a national contender under Steve Sarkisian. Two teams, both 12-1, both conference champions, but one with a decisive head-to-head victory on the other’s field. Why play the games, only to ignore the results? It’s almost impossible to imagine it going any other way.

Then there’s Oregon, currently ranked ahead of Texas and Alabama, with an opportunity to avenge its only loss against a first-rate Washington outfit on a 19-game winning streak. How could the Ducks win a game of that magnitude and subsequently drop?

If you think you know with any kind of certainty how the committee is likely to go about resolving that deadlock, well, that might say more about your own biases than the actual process. Only Georgia can render the question moot.

5. Ohio State is not dead yet

In a coma, maybe, but not dead. The Buckeyes’ loss to Michigan left them on life support, with very little chance of backing into the bracket for the second year in a row.

Only a very specific set of results can reopen the path: Wins by Georgia, Washington and, yes, Michigan, combined with losses by Texas and Florida State — thereby clearing the deck of the rest of the current 1-loss teams except for FSU. If they’re still alive by nightfall on Saturday, you’ll know things have officially gotten weird.

• • •


The week’s best individual performances.

1. LSU QB Jayden Daniels. Against Texas A&M, Daniels accounted for 355 total yards and 4 touchdowns through the air in a come-from-behind, 42-30 win to wrap up one of the most prolific regular seasons on record. It’s a strange thing to say about the Heisman frontrunner, but Daniels doesn’t get enough credit for just how historic his season has been beyond the raw counting stats that prevail on TV.

Yes, he leads the nation in total offense and touchdowns. He’s also the owner of the best passer rating in FBS history; boasts the No. 2 all-time QBR rating; and leads the nation in both passing EPA and rushing EPA. Once you get started, it’s hard to stop.

Anyway, Daniels’ 98.3 QBR rating against the Aggies was the best in the conference for the 7th time in the past 8 weeks, the lone exception coming on LSU’s open date. More on his outrageous production in the context of the Heisman race later in the week.

2. Missouri RB Cody Schrader. Representation is important, and I join with 5-foot-[x] men across America to applaud Schrader for his efforts on behalf of this often (literally) overlooked group. He capped a stellar regular season on Friday by churning out a career-high 217 yards on 8.0 per carry in a 48-14 romp over Arkansas — his 5th consecutive game over the century mark and 8th of the year. With that, he moved into 2nd-place nationally in rushing yards (1,489) and scrimmage yards (1,680) behind Oklahoma State’s Ollie Gordon II, whose upcoming performance in the Big 12 Championship Game might be the only thing standing between Schrader and the Doak Walker Award.

3. Alabama QB Jalen Milroe. Milroe’s boom-or-bust performance at Auburn was typical of his boom-or-bust season. Slightly more than half of his 366 total yards on Saturday came on just 5 plays, all of them game-changers in a game that seemed to turn about a dozen different times:

  • 1st quarter: A 33-yard completion to Malik Benson on 3rd-and-17, extending Bama’s opening possession en route to a touchdown and a 7-0 lead
  • 2nd quarter: A 68-yard touchdown pass to Jermaine Burton immediately following the Tigers’ second touchdown, putting Alabama back on top 17-14 heading into the half
  • 3rd quarter: A 37-yard run into Auburn territory immediately following the Tigers’ third touchdown, setting up a go-ahead field goal attempt (no good)
  • 4th quarter: A 19-yard scramble on 3rd-and-20 with Bama trailing 24-20 and the clock winding down, setting up a 4th-and-1 conversion on the ensuing play

And, of course:

  • 4th quarter: The game-winning heave to Isaiah Bond on 4th-and-31 following a Keystone Kops sequence of events in the final minute, an instant entry into the book of Iron Bowl lore.

Uneven as it was, Milroe’s afternoon yielded 2 of his best numbers of the season in terms of both passer rating (184.8) and Total QBR (89.5). Just as important, given his reckless reputation: No turnovers for the 3rd time in the past 4 games.

4. Alabama OLBs Dallas Turner and Chris Braswell. Neither Turner nor Braswell has quite managed to fill Will Anderson Jr.’s shoes on his own, but together they’ve been as consistently disruptive as any edge-rushing combo in America. Against Auburn, they were breathing down Payton Thorne’s neck all afternoon, finishing with a combined 16 QB pressures, 3 sacks and a forced fumble by Braswell that effectively ended the game. For the season, their 99 combined pressures per PFF ranks 2nd nationally among teammates behind only UCLA’s Laiatu Latu (64) and Gabriel Murphy (55).

5. Kentucky RB Ray Davis. Davis had been a bit muted over the second half of the season, along with the rest of Kentucky’s offense. Against Louisville, though, he was at his versatile best, accounting for 127 scrimmage yards (76 rushing, 51 receiving) and 3 second-half touchdowns in the Wildcats’ biggest win of the year.

With that, Davis is officially Kentucky’s 7th 1,000-yard rusher in the past 8 years — and, thanks to the transfer portal, quite possibly the first player to account for 1,000 scrimmage yards in a season at 3 different schools, having previously done it at Vanderbilt and Temple. I can’t dive into a complete list of every 1,000-yard rusher in NCAA history to make that statement with certainty, so for now let’s just say that if Davis isn’t the first, it’s an extremely short list.

Fat guy of the week: Georgia OL Amarius Mims

Another week, another dominant outing for Georgia’s offensive line in a 31-23 win over Georgia Tech. On one hand, the Bulldogs held Tech without a sack, the 3rd consecutive game and 8th this season the opposing pass rush has failed to register in the sack column; on the other, they churned out 262 yards rushing on 6.7 per carry, the majority of that coming as part of a career-high 156-yard effort from Kendall Milton. This week’s standard bearer for the unit is Mims, a 6-7, 340-pound behemoth who has re-entrenched himself at right tackle the past few weeks after missing 6 games to an ankle injury.

Mims didn’t allow a hit or QB pressure against the Jackets, per PFF. He earned the top run-blocking grade (72.7) of any full-time SEC o-linemen in Week 13 and made his massive presence felt well outside of the trenches.

With Mims firmly back in the fold, the concern up front entering the postseason shifts to the status of long-tenured right guard Tate Ratledge, who was one of several offensive starters held out against Georgia Tech due to nagging injuries.

Honorable Mention: Alabama DB Terrion Arnold, who didn’t allow a reception against Auburn and recorded 2 picks, including the walk-off INT as time expired. … Mississippi State DB Decamerion Richardson, who allowed just 15 yards on 9 targets in the Bulldogs’ 17-7 loss to Ole Miss. … Tennessee QB Joe Milton III, who set career highs for passing yards (383) and touchdowns (4) in his last home game as a Vol, a 48-24 win over Vanderbilt. … His top targets, Ramel Keyton and  Squirrel White, who combined for 242 yards and 2 of Milton’s TDs. … LSU LB Harold Perkins Jr., who was credited with a season-high 9 tackles and 2 TFLs against Texas A&M. … Missouri LBs Triston Newsome and  Chuck Hicks, who combined for 21 tackles and 6 TFLs in the Tigers’ win over Arkansas. … Florida RB Montrell Johnson Jr., who ran for 107 yards and a touchdown on 5.9 per carry against Florida State. … And Kentucky WR Barion Brown, who accounted for 70 scrimmage yards and a 100-yard kickoff return in the Wildcats’ win over Louisville, the 3rd return TD of his career.

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The scoring system for players honored in Superlatives awards 8 points for the week’s top player, 6 for 2nd, 5 for 3rd, 4 for 4th, 3 for 5th, and 1 for honorable mention, because how honorable is it really if it doesn’t come with any points? The standings are updated weekly with the top 10 players for the season to date.

Catch of the year of the week

There are no great quarterbacks without great receivers, and Malik Nabers has played that role for Jayden Daniels week-in, week-out. Nabers has been on the receiving end of 14 of Daniels’ 40 touchdowns, none of them more impressive than his acrobatic, 21-yard grab against Texas A&M to extend LSU’s lead to double digits in the 4th quarter:

Altogether, Nabers finished with 122 yards and 2 TDs against the Aggies, his 9th 100-yard game of the season and 5th with multiple touchdowns.

Quote of the week

“In all honesty, if he put it out there, it probably means he’s had all of the college or all of the Arkansas he wants.” — Arkansas coach Sam Pittman, responding to an Instagram post by quarterback KJ Jefferson prior to the Razorbacks’ blowout loss to Missouri that said “Last One.” Jefferson, who has a remaining year of eligibility in 2024, left the game in the first quarter with an apparent knee injury. Pittman said he hasn’t spoken to Jefferson about his future, adding that he typically waits until the Monday after the finale to meet with players.

SEC Power Rankings

Updating the food chain after the final week of the regular season.

1. Georgia (12-0). The Bulldogs’ 31-23 win over Georgia Tech was their 4th of the year in a game that was within 1 possession in the 4th quarter, which had only happened once over the previous 2 regular seasons (at Missouri in 2022). This is the week we finally find out whether those games were red flags or they’ve just been playing with their food. (Last week: 1⬌)

2. Alabama (11-1). Let’s not pretend that the nation’s most talented roster is some kind of Cinderella story, but the fact that the most underwhelming team of the Saban era is one win away from an SEC title and a Playoff berth is as much a testament to the program’s relentless consistency as the trophy case. (LW: 2⬌)

3. Missouri (10-2) and 4. Ole Miss (10-2): Mizzou is the consensus pick for the conference’s third New Year’s Six slot, while bowl projections almost unanimously forecast Ole Miss in the Citrus Bowl. Is it that obvious? Lane Kiffin made the case for his team after the Egg Bowl, emphasizing that the Rebels’ only losses came in road trips to Alabama and Georgia. Given the lopsided scores in those games, though — not to mention that Missouri’s loss at Georgia was far more competitive — a better pitch would focus on the Rebels’ wins: They have 2 scalps from teams currently ranked in the AP poll, No. 13 LSU and No. 17 Tulane, while Missouri has none; the Tigers’ most notable victims, Kansas State and Tennessee, both fell out of the latest Top 25. The Tulane win, in particular, only keeps looking better: It remains the Green Wave’s only blemish, and the Wave can clinch their 2nd straight NY6 berth Saturday in the AAC Championship Game. If they do, the CFP committee will have a lot to consider before settling on who gets the snub. (LW: 3/4⬌)

5. LSU (9-3). The good vibes surrounding the offense help ease the sting of the record, but they should not overshadow the fact that the defense got this team relegated to the ReliaQuest Bowl. (LW: 5⬌)

6. Tennessee (8-4). The Vols aren’t far enough removed from the dark ages yet to take 8 wins for granted. But going 0-4 in the 4 biggest games of the season by increasingly uncompetitive margins isn’t going to be met with patience for long. (LW: 6⬌)

7. Kentucky (7-5). It’s hard to overstate how much easier 7-5 with a win over Louisville goes down in Lexington than 6-6 with a loss to Louisville. But the brief moment on Saturday night when it looked like Mark Stoops’ bags were packed for Texas A&M was the most explicit hint yet that the current arrangement may be getting a little stale for everyone. (LW: 8⬆)

8. Texas A&M (7-5). At first glance, incoming head coach Mike Elko is broadly similar to Stoops: A defensive-minded coach who has dramatically improved the on-field product at a basketball school despite the limitations that come with the territory, but who has not competed for championships or elite recruits at the level the Aggies have come to expect. But Elko knows Texas A&M well, having served 4 years ass Jimbo Fisher’s defensive coordinator from 2018-21, and inherits a roster with plenty of raw talent as his disposal. His first order of business: Keeping the depth chart as intact as possible with the first transfer portal window coming open and the vultures circling. (LW: 7⬇)

9. Auburn (6-6). Hugh Freeze’s debut is pretty well summed up by the fact that the Tigers lost by a wider margin against New Mexico State (21 points) than against Georgia, Ole Miss and Alabama combined (17 points). Make of that particular Rorschach test what you will. (LW: 9⬌)

10. Florida (5-7). Brace yourself for 8 more months of angst over Florida’s diminished talent level. The shortage of 5-stars and early-round draft picks might have more currency if the Gators’ biggest problem was getting over the hump against Georgia. Back-to-back losing records are not so easily explained away. The fact is, of their 14 losses to date under Billy Napier, 10 have come against teams rated below Florida in 247Sports’ Team Talent Composite. (LW: 10⬌)

11. South Carolina (5-7). Spencer Rattler spoke in the past tense following a 16-7 loss to Clemson, the worst statistical outing of his college career and most likely the last. His time in Carolina may go down as a disappointment, but given how little else the Gamecocks had going for them Rattler’s presence was arguably the only reason their regression from last year’s 8-5 finish wasn’t a lot worse. (LW: 11⬌)

12. Mississippi State (5-7). State fans are starved for good news, and at this point the arrival of a new head coach qualifies all by itself. Jeff Lebby was greeted with a hero’s welcome on Sunday night, while his boss, athletic director Zac Selmon, was literally carried away by the crowd gathered at the local airport.

Strong feelings for a first-time head coach, but after rooting for an offense that averaged 12.6 points per game in conference play a guy billed as an “offensive mastermind” is just what the doctor ordered. Lebby’s first priority: Replacing long-tenured QB Will Rogers, who decided to portal out following last week’s 17-7 loss in the Egg Bowl. (LW: 12⬌)

13. Arkansas (4-8). Sam Pittman will be back as head coach. Everything else in Fayetteville is TBD. (LW: 13⬌)

14. Vanderbilt (2-10). The situation Clark Lea inherited 3 years ago was grim enough that merely winning 2 conference games in Year 2 felt like a big step in the right direction. At the end of Year 3, the outlook is just as hopeless as when he arrived. The Dores didn’t come close to winning an SEC game this season, dropping their record to 3-38 in conference play over the past 5. (LW: 14⬌)

Moment of Zen of the week

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