COLUMN: Bad Calls, Bad Defense Front and Center in SEC Week 3

While many schools and conferences have been playing for well over a month, the Southeastern Conference wrapped up its third week of play last week. So far, SEC football season has not disappointed when it comes to the watchability factor—unless, of course, you’re a fan of hard-nosed defensive battles (as many of the games up to this point in the season have been high-scoring affairs). I hope to make this a recurring column next semester, writing about the Sooner Athletic Conference, but this week I will be giving my thoughts on SEC football three weeks in, as well as my power rankings for the conference, ranking all fourteen teams based on performance up to this point and momentum going into the future. So, without further ado, let’s begin with my thoughts on some of the SEC’s biggest storylines:

ARKANSAS IS … BACK? This is something that I did not expect to be writing this early into the Sam Pittman era, but the longtime offensive line coach has turned the Razorbacks into a team that I don’t think anyone across the SEC wants to play. They played #3 Georgia close for most of the game in their season opener, and they followed that game up with their first SEC win since Oct. 2017 with a victory over Mississippi State. They also came close to defeating #14 Auburn last week, but a bad call at the end of the game kept that from happening. The hire of Barry Odom as defensive coordinator has proven to be a good one, as he has turned Arkansas into one of the SEC’s better defensive units. While the Razorbacks may not have the talent on both sides of the ball to break into the SEC’s elite, Pittman and Co. have Arkansas competing for wins on a weekly basis.

WHAT’S WRONG WITH LSU? It’s been tough sledding for the defending national champs three weeks in. They have a new quarterback under center for the Tigers in Myles Brennan, and most of the starters from last year’s championship team are no longer in Baton Rouge, but I don’t think anyone expected the Tigers to be sitting at 1-2 with losses to Mississippi State and Missouri. The defense has been atrocious, giving up 96 points in their first three games, including 45 to then-winless Missouri last Saturday. There immediately has to be questions about Defensive Coordinator Bo Pelini and his ability to lead an SEC defense in 2020, and if they cannot show improvement in the weeks to come (against teams like Florida and Auburn), LSU Head Coach Ed Orgeron may be looking for somebody else to take the reins on that side of the ball (Barry Odom, perhaps?).

GEORGIA/BAMA: There are only two undefeated teams in the SEC right now, and by this time next week, there will be only one. Georgia is the only team in the conference that has consistently produced at a high level on defense this season, but the Alabama offense will be the best one they have faced this season. Expect the Alabama defense to also have more of an edge to them coming into this week’s game after giving up 48 to Lane Kiffin and the Ole Miss Rebels. Georgia is coming off of a 44-21 victory over #18 Tennessee, meaning that they will come into the game with a lot more momentum than the Crimson Tide, who were unable to completely pull away from Ole Miss until the last couple of minutes of the game. I will take Georgia by a little to get the win, but I expect a close game, nonetheless, that will provide SEC fans with a pretty clear answer on who is the best in the conference four weeks in.

And now, here’s my power rankings three weeks in:

1.      GEORGIA BULLDOGS (3-0): This was a close one between Alabama and Georgia for the top spot, but Georgia’s defense has been nothing short of amazing, as they have held opponents to only 37 points across their first three games. The Bulldogs put the Tennessee hype train on pause by knocking off the Volunteers in a blowout win last week, and they will go into Tuscaloosa this Saturday as the team to beat.

2.      ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE (3-0): The Tide offense has averaged 51 points per game so far this season, and Mac Jones and Najee Harris have given the Tide one of the most explosive backfields in the country. They face the best defense in the conference, and quite possibly the country, when they face Georgia this week.

3.      FLORIDA GATORS (2-1): The Gators lost to #11 Texas A&M last week thanks to a last-second field goal by the Aggies, but don’t let that loss fool you: Florida is still in the hunt for a conference championship and a spot in the College Football Playoff with Kyle Trask, the best quarterback in the SEC, under center. They will have to wait a little longer than usual to get back out on the field, though, as they had to put football activities on hold after a coronavirus outbreak within the program.

4.      TEXAS A&M AGGIES (2-1): They haven’t been great, but the Aggies look like they are starting to right the ship after a rough start to the season. They defeated the then-#4-ranked Florida Gators last week, and a relatively easy schedule over the next month (featuring teams like Mississippi State, Arkansas and South Carolina) should keep the critics of A&M Head Coach Jimbo Fisher silent, for now.

5.      TENNESSEE VOLUNTEERS (2-1): In their first two games of the season, we learned that the Tennessee Volunteers are a really good team. But with their blowout loss to #3 Georgia, we learned another important thing about them: they are not an elite team, and Jarrett Guarantano may not be the quarterback that can take them to the next level.

6.      AUBURN TIGERS (2-1): Auburn fans are going through the true Gus Malzahn experience, watching a team that is good, but not great, with the potential to collapse at any point. That collapse would have happened if a better officiating crew showed up to Jordan-Hare Stadium last Saturday in their game against Arkansas.

7.      ARKANSAS RAZORBACKS (1-2): As previously mentioned, Sam Pittman has the Arkansas Razorbacks looking really good three games into the season. The defense has been stout, and while they aren’t the perfect example of offensive consistency, they have gotten better on that side of the ball every week. Are they the best 1-2 team in college football? They just might be.

8.      OLE MISS REBELS (1-2): Ole Miss fans have been treated to a very entertaining, yet explosive offensive approach from first-year Head Coach Lane Kiffin, as they have scored at least 35 points in every game this year. The defense needs some work, but they will have the chance to establish themselves as one of the conference’s better teams this week when they make the trip to Fayetteville to take on the Arkansas Razorbacks.

9.      KENTUCKY WILDCATS (1-2): The Kentucky defense led the way last week against Mississippi State, as they kept Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense off the board, with the Bulldogs’ only points coming from a safety in the third quarter. They will be in for a rough two weeks to follow that up, with games against #18 Tennessee and #3 Georgia.

10.    MISSOURI TIGERS (1-2): In his first collegiate start, quarterback Connor Bazelak was a bright spot for the Tigers, throwing for four touchdowns against LSU. It was a welcome sight for Mizzou, as they hadn’t shown much life offensively in their first two games of the season. Missouri won’t play this week after the postponement of their game against Vanderbilt.

11.    SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS (1-2): It is a make-or-break year for Head Coach Will Muschamp, and the Gamecocks won their first game of the season with a 41-7 blowout victory over Vanderbilt. That may not keep Muschamp’s critics off of him for long, though, as their next four games (against #14 Auburn, LSU, #11 Texas A&M and Ole Miss) could go a long way in determining whether or not Muschamp gets another year in Columbia.

12.    LSU TIGERS (1-2): The LSU offense has been decent. Myles Brennan isn’t Joe Burrow, but LSU has scored at least 34 points in every game this season. That hasn’t meant much, as the LSU defense has given up 96 points across their first three games this season. It won’t get any easier for LSU, as they still have games against Alabama, Florida and Ole Miss coming up.

13.    MISSISSIPPI STATE BULLDOGS (1-2): If you happened to forget about Mississippi State’s opening victory over LSU after the Bulldogs’ performances over the last two weeks, you wouldn’t be the only fan to do so. After giving Arkansas their first SEC victory since 2017, Mississippi State lost to Kentucky, not scoring a single point on offense. If the Mississippi State hype train slowed down after the Arkansas loss, it came to a screeching halt after the loss to Kentucky.

14.    VANDERBILT COMMODORES (0-3): Vanderbilt Head Coach Derek Mason said after last week’s 41-7 loss to South Carolina that his team barely reached the roster minimum, with only 56 scholarship players available due to COVID-19 contact tracing and injuries. Their game against Missouri got postponed on Monday “due to a lack of available scholarship student-athletes.” The SEC’s lone winless team will have to wait a little longer for a chance to collect their first win of the season.

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