Re-evaluating each SEC team's 2021 ceiling at the unofficial halfway point
I don’t want to scare you, but it needs to be brought up.
Of the 14 SEC teams, 12 have played half of their regular-season games.
Stunning, I know. Time works in mysterious ways, especially in the SEC. In a matter of 2 weeks, you can go from being a borderline top-5 team to wondering if your team will avoid finishing last place in the division … to then beating No. 1 Alabama.
Shoutout, Texas A&M.
The Aggies are one of the reasons that I wanted to do a new exercise. We spend 8 months breaking down how we think these teams will project and what each best-case scenario would be, so why not treat that process with a bit more fluidity?
Re-evaluating upside is tricky because it isn’t an absolute projection. We’re saying that in a best-case scenario, this is how it could play out. What is a best-case scenario, you ask? Well, it’s capitalizing on realistic opportunities. It’s probably not realistic for anyone to say that Georgia is a winnable game.
(Watch Kentucky go out and stun the Dawgs to send us into full 2007 mode.)
The beauty of projecting upside in-season is that we have a legitimate sample size to base it on. We’re no longer guessing about whether Mizzou can defend the run. We know that it can’t. At all.
I included my preseason expectations just as a reference point because while those are mostly out the window now that we’re a month into the season, it’s important to understand that a team with a 5-7 preseason projection probably shouldn’t be picked to go to the Playoff, even if I was a bit to low on it.
OK, shoutout everyone now:
Preseason projection: 11-1, 1st in West
Re-evaluated ceiling: 11-1, 1st in West
I said in the preseason that Alabama was going to lose in the 1st half of its schedule for the first time since 2015. and I thought that would happen against Texas A&M. Then Haynes King got hurt and A&M’s offense went into the toilet, which meant that I jumped off that preseason take … only to watch it actually happen. Of course. Welcome to 2021. At the midway point of the season, Alabama actually has a negative point differential on the road, and it ranks No. 12 in the SEC in plays of 30-plus yards.
Having said that, this doesn’t feel like 2010 all over again. At least, I don’t think. If Alabama can get past MSU on the road and avoid its first 2-game SEC losing streak since 2007, things set up well. Four of those final 5 games are at home. That’s not to say it’s a guarantee that Alabama cruises to 11-1, because the offensive line has to improve, and if it doesn’t, that Iron Bowl matchup is going to go down to the wire. Still, we’re talking upside here. The Tide still have national championship potential, even if the A&M game showed a floor we hadn’t seen in 2 years.
Preseason projection: 7-5, 6th in West
Re-evaluated ceiling: 9-3, 3rd in West
So here’s the crazy thing. My preseason projection actually predicted this exact start. I had each of those first 6 games nailed, including both wins against the Texas schools.
Why does that change my projection? Well, what I didn’t expect was Arkansas to beat them both by double digits. I predicted that KJ Jefferson would be a breakout star in the SEC, and honestly, he’s been even better than I thought. There’s a case to be made that he’s on his way to being the program’s 1st All-SEC quarterback since Tyler Wilson in 2011. Saturday against Auburn is going to tell us a ton about this defense, which got off to another incredible start, but again hit that midseason lull. Maybe that was just the byproduct of facing 2 elite offenses.
But look at the remaining schedule. I’d argue that only 1 of those games (at Alabama) will have the Hogs at a significant disadvantage. The Ole Miss loss will prevent me from saying that 2nd place in the West is realistic, and it was a tough pill to swallow for New Year’s 6 Bowl purposes. But it’s not necessarily a done deal that the Hogs will be on the outside looking in. A&M and Texas getting to 8-4 or 9-3 would certainly help the cause.
Preseason projection: 5-7, 7th in West
Re-evaluated ceiling: 9-3, 3rd in West
Hand up. I underestimated Auburn in the preseason. Specifically, I underestimated Bo Nix and Jarquez Hunter. In that LSU game, Nix changed what many (myself included) thought he was capable of. Becoming the first Auburn quarterback to win in Death Valley in the 21st century was a major hurdle. And Hunter’s emergence no longer makes me terrified about Tank Bigsby getting nicked up.
So why 9-3?
Is Auburn going to be a massive underdog against Ole Miss? Probably not. At least not more than a touchdown, barring some major injury. Those are at least winnable games. While Arkansas’ ground game is infinitely better than LSU’s, even Razorbacks fans wouldn’t assume that redemption after last year’s officiating debacle is imminent. Nix showed upside that few thought he had, and for now, it’d be underselling Auburn to have anything less than a 9-3 ceiling.
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Even if it means me being horribly off in the preseason.
Preseason projection: 9-3, 2nd in East
Re-evaluated ceiling: 9-3, 3rd in East
Psssssssssst. Hey. You. Yeah, that’s right. I’m talking to you, person who predicted doom and gloom after the Kentucky loss. It’s really not crazy to see Florida go 9-3 with a chance for win No. 10 in the Citrus/Outback Bowl. The Gators are double-digit favorites in Death Valley, and outside of the Georgia game, Florida should be a double-digit favorite in each game the rest of the way:
- at South Carolina
- vs. Samford
- at Mizzou
- vs. Florida State
The Gators have their weaknesses, mainly not having game-changing options in the passing game and a quarterback who has been mistake-prone. The Emory Jones-Anthony Richardson debate cooled a bit with the latter struggling after returning from injury. But the Gators have one of the league’s best defenses, and a year removed from having the nation’s No. 1 passing offense, Florida has the top non-service academy rushing offense in America. The Gators should run all over every non-UGA opponent on that remaining schedule, especially Mizzou’s FBS-worst run defense. You’re not crazy if you think Dan Mullen’s floor season could still be getting to 10 wins in a bowl game.
Preseason projection: 11-1, 1st in East
Re-evaluated ceiling: 12-0, 1st in East
Hand up, here. I predicted Clemson would score a lot against the Georgia defense. Here’s how wrong I was about that. I predicted the Tigers would score 35 points. Not only did Clemson only hit 3 points, but the UGA defense has allowed only 26 points in its first 6 games (it’s silly that stats websites don’t take away the pick-6 UGA allowed when it comes to the scoring defense number). Tank Bigsby scored the only touchdown against the Georgia 1st-team defense, and it took a heroic effort just to do that in game No. 6. So yeah, Jordan Davis and Nakobe Dean are leading a special unit.
But the interesting question is about the offense. We really don’t know the potential of it because JT Daniels has essentially played in 2-plus games. Stetson Bennett IV stepped in and did an excellent job of executing Todd Monken’s offense. Bennett stretches the field significantly better than he did last year. Here’s the other thing. Georgia’s passing game looks solid despite the fact that Darnell Washington, Kearis Jackson, George Pickens and Arik Gilbert played a combined 133 offensive snaps and have a total of 8 catches for 92 yards. Yet UGA has the best scoring differential in the country at +206.
Ladd McConkey and Brock Bowers deserve a ton of credit for that. Those guys have turned into legitimate All-SEC players even though they were far down the totem poll in the preseason. Something tells me that bodes well for the Dawgs’ offense moving forward. There’s a chance that UGA will be a 3-score favorite in every game the rest of the regular season. Hence, 12-0 seems like the most likely possibility.
Preseason projection: 8-4, 3rd in East
Re-evaluated ceiling: 10-2, 2nd in East
I know what you’re thinking. Why isn’t 11-1 the ceiling? Why can’t Kentucky beat every program left on the schedule who isn’t UGA? Wasn’t 6-0 beyond whatever perceived preseason ceiling there was for Kentucky? Yes. That’s fair. The Florida hurdle is cleared, and LSU was more lopsided than anyone could’ve imagined in the preseason. Wan’Dale Robinson looks like the best SEC transfer, Chris Rodriguez Jr. is thriving in his role as a 1st-time starter and the defense is looking 2018 levels of dominant.
Then why only 10-2? I can’t sit here today and assume that Kentucky will go 3-0 in games at MSU, vs. Tennessee and at Louisville. If I were betting, I’d say at least 1 of those games trips up the Cats, who really didn’t maximize their potential in the first 4 games with ball security issues. They won each of their first 3 games vs. SEC competition by 1 score, so assuming an 11-1 mark is just a bit too much, as promising as the start has been.
But even if 10-2 happens, Kentucky could be on its way to its 1st New Year’s 6 Bowl, which would be quite the feat.
Preseason projection: 9-3, 3rd in West
Re-evaluated ceiling: 6-6, 6th in West
Swing and a miss. Think about this. LSU is 3-3 with 3 upcoming games as a likely double-digit underdog. That’s not even including home against Arkansas, either. The Tigers could be an underdog there, too. Yikes. That’s for a team that just lost Kayshon Boutte, Derek Stingley Jr. and Eli Ricks for the season (I’d be stunned if Stingley returned). If we were gonna see LSU figure things out, it would’ve happened at Kentucky. Instead, the Tigers were totally dominated in the trenches, and they got blown out worse than they did at UCLA.
Five of the last 6 opponents are currently ranked. So the ceiling is essentially saying that LSU can go 2-3 in those games, though maybe even that’s a bit too optimistic. It’s tough because Max Johnson has actually shown a lot of promise, and there are guys like Damone Clark on defense who are having excellent seasons. But with a coach who appears to be on the way out, it certainly feels like the “us against the world” mentality just isn’t there in Baton Rouge.
Preseason projection: 6-6, 4th in East
Re-evaluated ceiling: 5-7, 5th in East
It’s a shame that Mizzou’s run defense is so terrible, because Tyler Badie is having a phenomenal season that’s worthy of praise. Quietly, the Tigers have a top-20 offense at the midway point, and while Connor Bazelak’s downfield passing hasn’t quite been elite, he’s still not the thing holding Mizzou back. It’s the run defense. Like, the worst run defense in America. Struggle to stop the run, and it doesn’t really matter if you’ve got a nice offense. Ask 2017-18 Ole Miss about that.
Here’s the other thing. It’s nothing but SEC foes the rest of the way. Arkansas, Florida and Georgia will run all over Steve Wilks’ defense. A&M’s ground game has been disappointing, but it’s still a backfield with Isaiah Spiller and Devon Achane, both of whom only need a crease to make you pay. And then there’s Vandy and South Carolina, both of whom have Year 1 coaches with cellar-dweller offensive lines. Outside of that, though, it’s hard to imagine Mizzou finding the answers to win any of those other games. Or at the very least, if the Tigers did, it would be a major upset. That’s not ideal for Year 2 of the Eli Drinkwitz era.
Preseason projection: 7-5, 5th in West
Re-evaluated ceiling: 8-4, 3rd in West
Has there been a tougher team to figure out than MSU? It has been a roller-coaster from week-to-week. Beating A&M on the road now looks a whole lot better after what Alabama just did in College Station, but there are still losses to a couple of 3-loss teams who are now reeling (Memphis and LSU). Zach Arnett’s defense is solid, but it still isn’t going to do all the heavy lifting. MSU always feels like it’s 2 dumb turnovers away from a loss, which is entirely possible when you throw the ball 57 times per game.
The most encouraging thing for MSU was watching how Will Rogers handled an elite A&M defense. How will he handle an elite Alabama defense? I’m guessing it’ll be better than last year, though that’s not saying much. His connection with Makai Polk is blossoming, and it’s starting to make the Mike Leach Air Raid look the part. So if Alabama is considered a loss, an 8-4 ceiling is saying that at best, the Bulldogs could go 3-1 in these 4 games:
- vs. No. 11 Kentucky
- at No. 17 Arkansas
- at Auburn
- vs. No. 13 Ole Miss
If MSU does indeed get out of that stretch with a 3-1 mark, Bulldogs fans should be ecstatic about the Year 2 progression under Leach.
Preseason projection: 8-4, 4th in West
Re-evaluated ceiling: 10-2, 2nd in West
Like with Kentucky, it’s awfully tempting to go 11-1 as the ceiling. Ole Miss is actually ranked higher than every remaining opponent left on the schedule. Matt Corral is tied for the Heisman Trophy favorite in the latest odds, the ground game is versatile and prolific and D.J. Durkin’s defense has absolutely improved, despite what the Arkansas game might’ve suggested. So why can’t 11-1 be the ceiling?
Including Tennessee this weekend, Ole Miss has 3 road games against SEC teams that have winning records on the year. That’s not including tricky home matchups with Texas A&M and Malik Willis-led Liberty in Hugh Freeze’s return to Oxford. Those are 5 games in which Ole Miss could get tripped up. And let’s also not forget that Ole Miss is a 2-point conversion away from being 0-2 to start SEC play after a blistering 3-0 start in nonconference play. The defense is far from perfect, and to escape a division as deep as the West with an 11-1 overall record, you can’t have a defense that allows nearly half a hundred in each SEC game (small sample size).
Also like Kentucky, though, Ole Miss is now in the driver’s seat for a New Year’s 6 Bowl. That’d be a major win in Year 2 of the Lane Kiffin era.
Preseason projection: 5-7, 6th in East
Re-evaluated ceiling: 5-7, 5th in East
South Carolina is what I thought it would be in Year 1 of the Shane Beamer era. It has a frustrating offense that’s held back by a poor O-line, it has some bright spots on defense and it has elite special teams because #BeamerBall. Did I miss anything? The Gamecocks are still searching for their first Power 5 win under Beamer, which is why it’s tough to say that a 3-3 close to the season vs. Power 5 competition is possible. Home against Vandy this weekend and then at Mizzou in a few weeks are the only games that South Carolina fans should feel good about.
And yeah, Clemson, Florida and Texas A&M have all been relatively disappointing. But are we of the impression that those defenses, all of them in the top 20 in scoring, are about to watch the floodgates open for South Carolina’s struggling offense? Nope. Those defensive lines will feast on the Gamecocks. And quietly, that Auburn defense actually looks improved, too. If South Carolina somehow wins 1 of those 4 games and makes it to a bowl game this year, Beamer’s hype train will be at warp speed at season’s end.
Preseason projection: 6-6, 5th in East
Re-evaluated ceiling: 8-4, 4th in East
Alabama and Georgia. Those are the only 2 games left on the schedule that I’d definitely look at and say “nope, not happening.” It’s no longer unrealistic to think that the Vols can knock off Ole Miss or Kentucky. Josh Heupel’s offense looked like a juggernaut in 2 games against East competition that were expected to be on Tennessee’s level entering 2021. Yeah, about that. Hendon Hooker changed the upside of the Vols in Year 1 with Heupel, and Tiyon Evans is well on his way to becoming a star in the SEC.
What’ll be fascinating is how Tennessee’s defense looks against the Ole Miss offense. The Vols have been better defensively than where some (myself included) projected with 1st-year coordinator Tim Banks. And for what it’s worth, Pitt’s offense is No. 1 in FBS right now. The Vols held the Panthers and Gators under their season averages. But now is when the gauntlet begins.
- vs. No. 13 Ole Miss
- at No. 5 Alabama
- at No. 11 Kentucky
- vs. No. 1 Georgia
Win 2 of those games and Heupel will have quieted a whole lot of Year 1 skeptics (myself included again).
Preseason projection: 10-2, 2nd in West
Re-evaluated ceiling: 9-3, 3rd in West
Wait. Did I say that MSU was the toughest team in the SEC to figure out so far? My bad. Wrong maroon SEC West team. That title belongs to the Aggies, who seemed like a lock to go from a top-7 team to 0-3 in SEC play until they decided to go all 2010 South Carolina against No. 1 Alabama. So was that a “turn the corner” game for Zach Calzada in A&M’s offense? Or is he about to revert back to being arguably the worst starting quarterback in the SEC like he was in those previous 4 games? That’s the tough part.
A&M’s defense is good enough to keep the Aggies in virtually any game. DeMarvin Leal and Jayden Peevy are a matchup nightmare, and the Aggies have been exceptional on the back end for the vast majority of those 6 games. The Alabama win absolutely changed the potential ceiling, because we’ve now seen what Jimbo Fisher’s team can do when Calzada plays like he did on Saturday night, and we also saw the makeshift offensive line finally show up. The game at Ole Miss is the only matchup that I’d be surprised if A&M won.
Outside of that game, the other 5 remaining opponents are a combined 2-11 vs. Power 5 competition. That’s why somehow getting to 9-3 and salvaging what looked like a lost year suddenly seems possible.
Preseason projection: 3-9, 7th in East
Re-evaluated ceiling: 3-9, 7th in East
Anybody who wants to push back on that projection should look at the fact that the Commodores are 0-3 vs. Power 5 competition with an average margin of defeat of 41 points. The good news for Vandy is that Georgia and Florida are in the rearview mirror, and the next 3 opponents are a combined 1-6 in SEC play. The bad news is that when you’re ranked dead last in FBS in scoring offense, you’re not exactly in prime position to beat a Power 5 foe.
I’ll say that my preseason prediction of beating Mizzou is at least possible. If Rocko Griffin can stay healthy going into that showdown against the Tigers, no, I wouldn’t rule out the idea of him having a big day en route to an upset win against Mizzou. Griffin went for more than 100 against Stanford, which is only slightly better than Mizzou against the run. But other than that? Clark Lea’s squad isn’t going to find itself in too many competitive games in the latter half of the season.