There was one overall message we learned from the third weekend in SEC football: After only three games the conference appears as balanced as it has been from top to bottom. Let me make the case:
No. 1, it’s time for all of us to start giving some love to Missouri: I didn’t think the Tigers could repeat as SEC East champs because they lost their quarterback (James Franklin), best running back (Henry Josey), top three wide receivers (including Dorial Green-Beckham), and two NFL draft choices from the defensive front (Michael Sam, Kony Ealy).
Well, Maty Mauk (12 touchdowns in three games) is an upgrade at quarterback. Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy give the Tigers a great one-two punch at running back. Bud Sasser, Jimmie Hunt and Darius White are on track to be just as productive at wide receiver. Marcus Golden and Shane Ray are as good as any rush ends in the conference.
Missouri has dominated two pretty good teams in Toledo and UCF. Still, we’ll find out soon if the Tigers are really contenders. After this week’s visit by Indiana, they play at South Carolina, host Georgia, and are at Florida in the span of four weeks.
No. 2, South Carolina 38, Georgia 35: Both teams put up a ton of yards in adverse conditions but neither team has a championship defense. Both teams are capable of winning the rest of their games. Both are capable of 2-3 losses. Both may be Top 15 teams but neither looks like a Top 10 team. Both teams have to play Auburn from the SEC West.
No. 3, Florida 36, Kentucky 30 (3 OT): Florida was very fortunate to win and I can’t tell you how impressed I was with the resilience and athleticism of Kentucky. The Wildcats have had major improvement at quarterback (Patrick Towles), at running back (Braylon Heard, JoJo Kemp) and showed a toughness that simply hasn’t been at Kentucky since Rich Brooks retired as coach. I was surprised to see Florida’s secondary get torched like it did.
No. 4, Tennessee got beat by 24 at No. 4 Oklahoma but the Vols hung in there: Said coach Butch Jones: “The locker room is different…we didn’t blink.” The Vols get this week off and then go to Georgia. They are young on the lines of scrimmage but much better at the skill positions, especially at quarterback with Justin Worley. They are going to be a tough out for everybody.
No. 5, the strength of the SEC West: We already knew the SEC West would be brutal with Auburn, Alabama and LSU plus the two Mississippi schools, which both think they have their best teams in a long, long while. Now Texas A&M is playing like its hair is on fire with 163 points in three games, the most in school history since 1917.
No. 6, the Hogs make it even tougher: After watching Arkansas roll up 438 rushing yards and 40 minutes time of possession at Texas Tech, you have to say this: If Arkansas is the seventh best team in the SEC West — and the Hogs well could be — then it really is the toughest division in football.
Here is the point: I see a lot of really good teams in the SEC, but I’m not sure I see a great one.
We’ll find out. Auburn could be a great team but the Tigers have the most brutal road schedule on the planet, starting Thursday at Kansas State. Alabama could win all of its games with stability at quarterback and in the secondary. I think LSU is a year away from being really good. Texas A&M makes you hold your breath on offense “and” defense for very different reasons. I think everybody in the SEC East will have at least two conference losses.
What does this mean when the College Football Playoff selection committee sits down to do its work in late October? I can’t imagine a four-team playoff without the SEC champion in it. But is this conference so balanced that it will, as my friend Tim Brando suggests, cannibalize itself to the point where everybody has two losses? And does a two-loss SEC champion, if it happens, get in over a one-loss team from another Power Five conference?