Three weeks into the college football season, and the concerns for SEC schools range from the trivial to the severe. Can Vanderbilt get back on track? Will Ole Miss manage to hang on to a lead? How much better will Alabama get as Jalen Hurts gains more reps?
Let’s get into all of that, and more, in the Week 4 storylines for each SEC team.
Exhale: After wiping out a 24-3 deficit against Ole Miss last week, the Crimson Tide will welcome Kent State into Bryant-Denny Stadium this week (noon ET, SECN). Nick Saban and his staff would never say so, but the Golden Flashes, a 43-point underdog, make for a fine diversion from SEC play.
Don’t look for Alabama to run up the score, though. Saban played and coached at Kent State, which means his bench will be empty if the game gets out of hand.
Getting defensive: The annual tussle between Arkansas and Texas A&M (9 p.m. ET, ESPN) features a pair of unbeaten teams crossing swords at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. And it’s safe to say that Texas A&M has the best receiving corps the Razorbacks have faced so far this season.
Kevin Richardon II’s season-ending injury in Week 1 forced some shuffling in the secondary, and that unit will be tested against Christian Kirk, Josh Reynolds and the rest of the A&M receivers.
Feeling the pain: SEC Country’s Justin Ferguson noted the change in tone for Gus Malzahn’s weekly press conference. No doubt Tiger fans are frustrated with the team’s loss to Texas A&M and its 1-2 start, and he shouldered much of the blame for it in his comments.
The SEC doesn’t care about their feelings, though, as LSU comes calling on Saturday (6 p.m. ET, ESPN).
“We’ve got to coach (the players) better and that starts with me, and that’s what’s going to get done,” Malzahn said. “We’ve got to take that next step. We’re going to get this thing turned around. There’s no doubt in my mind.”
Life without Luke: One could argue about whether or not North Texas defensive end Joshua Wheeler’s hit on Luke Del Rio’s knee was dirty or accidental, but the result is the same. Florida’s starting quarterback won’t be available for its biggest game of the year at Tennessee (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS).
Another transfer, Austin Appleby, will get the nod against the Volunteers. He made 11 starts and played in six more games for Purdue in his career, so at least he has some experience on which to draw.
Running the football, shortening the game and leaning on the SEC’s top-ranked defense seems like an ideal game plan for this situation.
A near miss, or a glimpse of greatness?: A friend wrote this on my Facebook feed this week: “When is a win not a win? When you’re stupid.” That’s the approach most Georgia partisans are taking from the 28-27 win over Missouri last week.
Jacob Eason’s fourth-down dart to Isaiah McKenzie won the game late in the fourth quarter, but one could argue that, without five Missouri turnovers, that pass may not have mattered. The Bulldogs will get the chance to build on that win this week when they visit Ole Miss (noon ET, SECN).
More questions than answers: A 62-point outburst against New Mexico State would normally be cause for celebration, but for Kentucky, that Week 3 win raised as many doubts as it soothed.
Starting quarterback Drew Barker went down with a back injury, and is doubtful for this week’s home date with South Carolina (7:30 p.m. SECN). His replacement, Stephen Johnson II, put up impressive numbers, but New Mexico State isn’t exactly a defensive powerhouse.
For that matter, neither is Kentucky. After allowing 42 points and 500 yards to the Aggies, the Wildcats rank last in the league in both total and scoring defense.
All about the quarterback: Both LSU and Auburn will be working through quarterback issues when the two schools clash Saturday. Danny Etling was solid, if unspectacular, in the Tigers’ win against Mississippi State last week.
With a healthy Leonard Fournette a few feet behind him, solid is all Etling needs to be.
“I think Danny Etling did a great job of doing what we asked him to do,” coach Les Miles said. “Should this offense come to play for 60 minutes, I think we’d be happy about it.”
Heading north: After nearly rallying from a 20-point halftime deficit against LSU, Mississippi State will try its luck at Gillette Stadium against UMass this week (3:30 p.m. ET, American Sports Network/ESPN3).
As a 22-point favorite, this game figures to be little more than a diversion for coach Dan Mullen, a New Hampshire native. Of course, that was the prevailing thought when South Alabama visited Starkville back in Week 1.
On the field, look for Nick Fitzgerald to try to tighten his hold on the starting quarterback job with a big day against the Minutemen.
Taking out some frustration: As noted earlier, Missouri has five turnovers to blame for its narrow loss to Georgia. Carelessness with the football negated some good work from quarterback Drew Lock and the offense and spoiled a solid effort from the defense, which kept the Bulldogs’ run game largely in check.
Delaware State is the opponent this week (4 p.m. ET, SECN), and it seems like the perfect opportunity for coordinator Josh Heupel to fine tune his offense in advance of the greater challenges that lie ahead.
Picking up the pieces: There aren’t many 1-2 teams in college football that can reasonably argue that they should be 3-0 and ranked inside the top five, but Ole Miss can make such a claim.
The Rebels led Florida State, 28-6, in the first half of the season opener and lost. They repeated that dubious trick last week, wasting a 24-3 first-half edge in a home defeat against Alabama.
One day, Hugh Freeze’s team will string four quarters of good football together. Perhaps it will be Saturday, when Georgia visits Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
What gives?: The Gamecocks, fresh off a hard-fought 20-15 win over East Carolina, will pack their bags for the third time this season for a road SEC game, this time against Kentucky.
What’s interesting is that both team’s weaker units will be squaring off. Kentucky’s defense is, as noted above, the worst statistically in the SEC. South Carolina is last in the league in scoring offense and next-to-last in total offense.
No matter what happens, one team’s biggest trouble spot in the young season will come out of this game looking brighter.
Facing its destiny: A string of defensive injuries is an unwelcome burden for the Volunteers as they face the game against Florida that’s been circled on the schedule for, oh, about a year or so.
Florida has beaten Tennessee in five straight trips to Knoxville and owns 11 consecutive wins in the series dating back to 2004.
Injuries or no, Tennessee is the consensus favorite to win the SEC East this year, and a seven-point favorite to win a home game against a team playing with its backup quarterback. There really aren’t many excuses not to snap this streak.
One more for four: Texas A&M entered the 2016 season with its share of questions marks, but three wins in as many games have the Aggies flying high in advance of their game against Arkansas.
Coach Kevin Sumlin’s seat has cooled a bit with his early-season success, and a 4-0 start overall — and a 2-0 SEC mark — would endear him to his fan base even more.
Texas A&M owns four straight wins in this series, but will have to find a way to contain Rawleigh Williams III, the SEC’s third-leading rusher (357 yards, 3 TDs) to make it five.
Flipping the script: Western Kentucky couldn’t be more different from Vanderbilt’s last opponent, Georgia Tech. Considering how things went in a 38-7 loss to the Yellow Jackets, that probably isn’t a bad thing.
Instead of three-running-back looks and a steady dose of dives and inside traps, the Hilltoppers will offer up plenty of shotgun and spread formations when they host the Commodores (4:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network).
Making that sort of adjustment in a two-week span will be a challenge for Derek Mason and his staff, and it will make avenging last year’s 14-12 loss in Nashville even tougher.