Alabama leads SEC rankings after first Saturday, but then it gets murky
USA TODAY Sports’ Paul Myerberg breaks down the latest Amway Coaches Poll.
Alabama was in midseason form against Missouri.
LSU lost at home to Mississippi State. Georgia struggled in the first half against Arkansas.
Florida quarterback Kyle Trask looked the part of a Heisman Trophy contender with six touchdown passes in the Gators’ win against Ole Miss.
Auburn had the best win of any ranked SEC team in fending off Kentucky.
With every team kicking off against a conference opponent, Saturday gave early insight into how the SEC race might shake out during an abbreviated and unorthodox regular season.
One thing is certain: The picture isn’t any clearer. After one week, here’s how the SEC ranks from first to worst.
No issues here. While other teams struggled to find the right tempo from the start, the Crimson Tide rolled past Missouri 38-19 and look ready to make a run at the national title. Quarterback Mac Jones finished 18 of 24 for 249 yards and two touchdowns as he begins to build his case for all-conference honors.
I think Florida’s defense has had better days (613 yards and 29 first downs allowed) but Lane Kiffin’s scheme at Ole Miss is going to take advantage of the Rebels’ speed and skill talent. While the defense improves, Trask and star tight end Kyle Pitts lead an offense that has made miles of improvement since Dan Mullen’s arrival in 2018.
It’s just one game, and a win at that (37-10). It still contained enough sloppiness and misplays to worry Kirby Smart while highlighting a major concern: What is Georgia going to do at quarterback? Backup Stetson Bennett played well enough in place of D’Wan Mathis, who really struggled, but the Bulldogs need a healthy JT Daniels.
Kentucky was just outside the Amway Coaches Poll heading into Saturday, so Auburn had the best start of any ranked SEC team. (Though Mississippi State had the best win overall, obviously.) The inability to get things going on the ground is temporarily worrisome, but the Tigers got a solid performance from sophomore quarterback Bo Nix.
5. Mississippi State
Who saw this coming? Maybe it’s a little more obvious looking back at LSU’s long list of changes since the end of last season. But the Bulldogs were expected to struggle a bit transitioning to Mike Leach’s offensive scheme without a full offseason to work out the kinks. Not quite. Quarterback K.J. Costello rewrote several of the school’s single-game records in the 44-34 upset.
Remember how much was lost since last season? Maybe a few of us forgot. It’s a bad loss that puts LSU in a very bad spot in terms of getting back to the College Football Playoff. But a New Year’s Six bowl is very much an option for a team that will almost certainly improve as the regular season rolls on and be a tough out for any opponent come December.
Struggling against South Carolina is nothing new for Tennessee, which might’ve had higher expectations than a 31-27 win to kick off the season but should be happy to escape and stretch its winning streak to seven games, the longest active stretch in the conference.
Turnovers doomed Kentucky and cost the Wildcats the shot at a rare win against a ranked Auburn team. In the end, the 29-13 loss highlighted what this team is built to do: Kentucky is strong on both lines but not flashy, and the team’s straightest line to success is to own the line of scrimmage and protect the football.
9. Texas A&M
Beating Vanderbilt 17-12 after leading 7-5 at halftime isn’t going to please Jimbo Fisher or the Aggies’ fan base, which is expecting a step into major playoff contention after two seasons of so-so results to start the Fisher era. Still, don’t ignore how hard it can be for many teams to get the engine restarted after missing the spring and going through an oddly scheduled fall camp. In good news, LSU’s struggles provide an avenue for A&M to sneak into the top two or three in the West and reach a major bowl. But there needs to be major improvements on offense.
10. Ole Miss
All things considered, there were a bunch of positives to take out of the 51-35 loss to Florida, all on the offensive side. While it’s hard to see rival Mississippi State actually pull off the upset as the underdog, the Rebels showed enough punch to imagine knocking off a ranked team at some point in the next few months.
11. South Carolina
Hanging tight with Tennessee is a positive sign for South Carolina’s chances against teams outside the top quarter of the SEC. Another good omen is the play of quarterback Collin Hill, who transferred from Colorado State to be reunited with former CSU coach Mike Bobo, the Gamecocks’ new offensive coordinator.
The competitive loss to Texas A&M suggests that Vanderbilt won’t be the pushover most expected heading into 2020. Could the Commodores stay out of the bottom of the East division? It’s too early to tell. But they might have found something in freshman quarterback Ken Seals.
It’s going to be a tough season for Missouri, which gets few breathers (outside of Vanderbilt) and must try to cobble wins in any way possible under first-year coach Eli Drinkwitz. Starting with Alabama wasn’t kind. As with all new coaches, Drinkwitz will be better judged in 2021 and 2022 after not being able to spend the entire spring and summer breaking in his schemes.
Hey, after losing 20 games in a row in the SEC, heading into halftime up 7-5 against Georgia is pretty exciting. Losing is bad, though.
Follow USA TODAY Sports colleges reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg