We’re now just more than halfway through the 2016 regular season.
While most of the SEC’s contenders have separated themselves from the pack, a lot of settling still needs to take place over the remaining six weeks. Which teams are poised to start surging down the stretch? Which schools are at risk of suffering a November collapse, a la 2015 LSU?
Let’s take a broad look at the conference as it stands now and project how the standings should look once Rivalry Week wraps up:
14. Mississippi State (3-9, 1-7 SEC; 7th in the West)
The Bulldogs’ November schedule is brutal: Texas A&M, Arkansas, Ole Miss and at Alabama. Losing to Kentucky on the road this Saturday, which might well happen, would put Mississippi State on track for its worst finish since 2006, when it went 3-9 under Sylvester Croom. There are pieces to build off in coming seasons, including quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, but both offensive and defensive lines need a real retooling.
13. Vanderbilt (4-8, 1-7 SEC; 7th in the East)
Beating Georgia on homecoming week is something the players can feel good about, even though the game was quite ugly, but it doesn’t change the likelihood that coach Derek Mason is gone after this season. After a matchup with Tennessee State on Saturday, the Commodores have to play Auburn and Missouri on the road, followed by Ole Miss and Tennessee. Reasonably, five wins is the best-case scenario. Four seems much more likely given this team’s remarkable inconsistency and passing game woes.
12. Missouri (4-8, 1-7 SEC; 6th in the East)
The Tigers have been noncompetitive against three of their four Power 5 opponents thus far, and the Georgia loss looks worse by the week. Although the Tigers still haven’t gotten a crack at South Carolina, Vanderbilt or Kentucky, plus this week’s nonconference tilt with Middle Tennessee, a lot needs to change in order for me to have any confidence in this team. Drew Lock doesn’t look like the answer at quarterback, and Barry Odom’s defense has allowed 400-plus total yards in five of six games. Yuck.
11. South Carolina (5-7, 2-6 SEC; 5th in the East)
The Gamecocks beat Vanderbilt in Week 1 but have done very little since. The offensive line is a mess. The defense can’t stop the run. Florida, Tennessee and Clemson all remain on the schedule, but so do UMass and Western Carolina. It’s a toss-up whether USC will win its homecoming matchup with Missouri; for now, I’ll go with Will Muschamp’s squad, which has at least played closer games and better defense than the Tigers.
10. Georgia (7-5, 3-5 SEC; 4th in the East)
On one hand, two of Georgia’s losses have come on a ridiculous last-second Hail Mary (Tennessee) and by one point (Vanderbilt). On the other, the manner in which Georgia has lost those games is cause for concern. Special teams remains a sore spot, and it’s anyone’s guess how the offensive line will play on a given week. Beating Florida and Auburn now looks like a pipe dream; those two losses would leave the Bulldogs at 3-5 in conference play.
9. Kentucky (6-6, 4-4 SEC; 3rd in the East)
Kentucky, in a bowl game? Third in the East? As crazy as it sounds, the Wildcats have played much better in recent weeks — particularly on defense — and have three beatable opponents left in Mississippi State, Missouri and Austin Peay. It’s more the result of an incredibly weak SEC East than anything else.
8. Ole Miss (7-5, 4-4 SEC; 6th in the West)
Facing LSU in Death Valley will be tough for the Rebels, especially considering their inability to stop the run. Arkansas ran for 200 yards and held the ball for 40:38 last Saturday, and the Bayou Bengals need only follow that same formula for a win. Then Ole Miss has to play Auburn, and travel to Texas A&M two weeks after that. And it certainly doesn’t instill extra confidence when senior quarterback Chad Kelly, the team’s best player, is making headlines for his interest in the adult entertainment industry.
7. LSU (6-5, 4-4 SEC; 5th in the West)
I have the Tigers beating Ole Miss, and they can beat Florida at home on Nov. 19 as well. Their ceiling could be much higher, given that they also have remaining games against Alabama, Texas A&M and Arkansas. For now, though, we’ll go the conservative route on LSU: Coach O Edition.
6. Florida (7-4, 5-3 SEC; 2nd in the East)
What to make of the Gators? They’re 5-1, but none of their five wins are exactly resume-boosters. Beating up on Kentucky and Missouri at home is nice. But how will UF handle November road games against Arkansas, LSU and Florida State? Not well, if Luke Del Rio plays like he did on Saturday.
5. Arkansas (9-3, 5-3 SEC; 4th in the West)
Crazy that the Hogs could win nine games and only finish fourth in their division. But as the East is weak, the West is incredibly deep. Arkansas has typically played well down the stretch under Bret Bielema, and with a better quarterback than any of their remaining opponents, the Razorbacks could definitely win four of their last five games.
4. Auburn (8-4, 5-3 SEC; 3rd in the West)
Gus Malzahn’s squad gets the edge over Arkansas because I’m expecting Auburn to beat the Hogs in Jordan-Hare Stadium this weekend, then lose to Ole Miss and Alabama. So, while Arkansas might end up with a better bowl game, the Tigers are slotted ahead of them in the division standings. If the offense continues improving under the direction of Rhett Lashlee’s play-calling, watch out for this team. The defense is already spectacular.
3. Tennessee (10-2, 6-2 SEC; 1st in the East)
They might be bruised, battered and almost broken, but the Vols have a cakewalk through the last six weeks of the season: bye, South Carolina, Tennessee Tech, Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt. The mounting injuries and the brutal home loss to Alabama aren’t good signs for its postseason hopes, but even this walking-dead Tennessee team can manage that easy slate.
2. Texas A&M (11-1, 7-1 SEC; 2nd in the West)
Excluding Alabama, the Aggies have what it takes to win every game left on the schedule. Matchups with New Mexico State, UTSA and Mississippi State make 9-3 the worst-case scenario for this team, but with the way Trevor Knight, Trayveon Williams and that defense are clicking right now, we should expect much more out of Kevin Sumlin’s crew.
1. Alabama (12-0, 8-0 SEC; 1st in the West)
Who else would it be? The Crimson Tide will finish the regular season unbeaten and win its SEC championship rematch with Tennessee. Their likely College Football Playoff semifinal opponent — be it Clemson, Ohio State or Washington — could give this team a scare. But as far as the SEC is concerned, no one can stand in Nick Saban’s way this year.
Projected final SEC standings
|SEC WEST||SEC EAST|
|Alabama (12-0, 8-0)**||Tennessee (10-2, 6-2)|
|Texas A&M (11-1, 7-1)||Florida (7-4, 5-3)|
|Auburn (8-4, 5-3)||Kentucky (6-6, 4-4)|
|Arkansas (9-3, 5-3)||Georgia (7-5, 3-5)|
|LSU (6-5, 4-4)||South Carolina (5-7, 2-6)|
|Ole Miss (7-5, 4-4)||Missouri (4-8, 1-7)|
|Mississippi St (3-9, 1-7)||Vanderbilt (4-8, 1-7)|
|** = SEC champion|