On Tuesday night, five SEC teams appeared in the 2016 debut of the College Football Playoff rankings and reignited an often-debated topic as we approach the final few weeks of the regular season.
Whether because of slow starts, strength of schedule or a number of narrow wins, which teams aren’t getting the love they deserve?
SEC Country polled a handful of its writers and editors and asked them to name the SEC’s most overlooked team and explain their choice. Here are the responses:
Alec Shirkey (@AShirkey): Florida
There were several strong choices — Auburn and LSU are dangerous two-loss teams, Kentucky is getting hot and Ole Miss still has a potent offense — but for a 6-1 SEC team, the Gators aren’t getting much national love. The College Football Playoff committee slotted Florida at No. 11, lower than one-loss Texas A&M and two-loss Wisconsin and Auburn teams. ESPN’s FPI rating has Florida (No. 15) as the SEC’s sixth-best team, one spot behind 3-5 Ole Miss. And by virtue playing in the SEC East, pundits everywhere seem to be overlooking Jim McElwain’s squad.
Excluding one bad half at Tennessee, the Gators have only allowed 47 points in the other 26 quarters played this season. That’s less than 2 points per quarter. Opponents are averaging 4.01 yards per play, which is the second-best mark in the country. The offense has been out of sorts lately, sure, but overall the unit is scoring just as much as LSU this season. The schedule has been weak to this point, but upcoming road games against Arkansas, LSU and Florida State should quickly reveal this team’s true colors.
Alex Martin Smith (@asmiff): Florida
The Gators were my preseason pick to win the SEC East, but I momentarily gave up on them when they collapsed against Tennessee in late September. I also think they’re technically overrated in the AP poll this week (No. 10) because their offense is in a rut.
But Florida is underrated in terms of its ability to make noise over the final month of the season. If Luke Del Rio can get comfortable and lead two or three touchdown drives a game — while avoiding those ugly interceptions — the defense is strong enough to get Florida past LSU and Florida State. By then, the Gators might be ready to give Alabama a game in Atlanta. The cute story right now is Kentucky’s path to the title game, but that’s a very unlikely scenario. Florida is still alive and well in the College Football Playoff discussion.
Andrew Astleford (@aastleford): Auburn
Is it possible to consider Auburn underrated at this point? What the Tigers have done is nothing short of impressive after so many expected their season to be a smoldering mess by now. Gus Malzahn has revived his reputation, Sean White has proven capable behind center and the running game has caught fire. The defense has done a stellar job to keep Auburn’s momentum alive, too.
Alabama has been so dominant, and it’s only natural to assume the Crimson Tide will roll straight into the College Football Playoff, flattening their remaining foes along the way. But don’t write off Auburn in the Iron Bowl. The Tigers should handle Vanderbilt, Georgia and Alabama A&M before a delicious matchup at Bryant-Denny Stadium. After that 1-2 start, who would have guessed Auburn would be relevant in November? Props to Malzahn, a true magician.
Connor Smolensky (@ConnorSmo): Kentucky
When discussing the SEC’s most underrated team I think you have to go with Kentucky. You look at the top teams in each division and the Wildcats are the only ones not earning any national respect. Four SEC West teams are ranked, but I wouldn’t call any of them underrated. All are very good football teams.
The Wildcats have played to a 5-3 record with a bad loss to Southern Miss to open up the season. Their other two losses occurred against two of the nation’s top teams in Alabama and Florida. Should Kentucky beat Georgia this weekend, I think you will start to see it gaining some serious attention. Yes, the Bulldogs are down this season, but it would be a prominent win for Mark Stoops.
Ken Bradley (@KenBradleySEC): Auburn
It has to be Auburn. The defense was awful on third down last season. The quarterback situation was undecided after a horrible performance in 2015 which led to the worst offensive season of Gus Malzahn’s college coaching career.
But Auburn has corrected that. It’s holding opponents to 32 percent conversion on third downs (it was 45 percent last season) and Sean White has been stellar. White leads a consistent passing attack and a run-first offense that is averaging 137 yards and nearly 10 more points per game than a year ago. Malzahn’s gone from the perceived hot seat to coach of the year candidate.
Nick Cole (@NickColeSports): LSU
The Tigers may have been overrated to begin the season, but far too many people wrote this team off after road losses to Wisconsin and Auburn. The subsequent firing of Les Miles validated the discounting of the Tigers program in many minds. But as it turns out, those are two close losses to quality Top 15 opponents.
With one of the most athletic rosters in the nation, one of the best defensive coordinators in college football and a rejuvenated Leonard Fournette playing in an offense that no longer appears to be stuck in the mud, this team is capable of beating anyone on any given Saturday. Of course, that line of thought will be put to the test on Saturday against Alabama.
Pete Scantlebury (@PeteScantlebury): Kentucky
This is more based on the fact that the “underrated” teams in the SEC West still get plenty of attention. But Kentucky came into the year with a young (alleged) star at quarterback in Drew Barker, and a (supposedly) revamped defense. Instead, Barker struggled and was then injured, and the defense fell flat on its face in an 0-2 start. Instead of a lost season, though, Mark Stoops took over the defense and turned his offense into a rushing attack led by Boom Williams and Benny Snell. And now Kentucky has a shot at the SEC East title this late in the season.
Is it likely? No. But, Kentucky did hold Alabama to its second fewest points of the season in their earlier meeting, only bested by Texas A&M (by one point, to boot). Even going beyond this year, Kentucky could return its top two running backs, two quarterbacks with starting experience, its top four pass catchers, and the majority of its starting defense.
Shehan Jeyarajah (@ShehanJeyarajah): Kentucky
It’s easy to see how they fell out of favor early, but the Kentucky Wildcats have quickly become the SEC’s most underrated team. After collapsing against Southern Miss and getting pummeled by Florida, the Wildcats have surprisingly won five of six, with the only loss coming in a closer-than-expected loss to No. 1 Alabama.
Granted, the four conference wins came against the unquestioned four worst teams in the SEC (Mississippi State, Missouri, Vanderbilt, South Carolina), but taking care of business that consistently is still a feat, especially after losing starting QB Drew Barker early in the season. Running backs Benny Snell and Boom Williams have become one of the best pairings in college football. Kentucky can make a major statement on Saturday with a win over Georgia, which would break a six-game losing streak.