Butch Dill/Getty Images
Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen's defense balled out Saturday in front of the home crowd.

Mississippi State’s sleeping monster defense just woke up, and the SEC should be nervous

Alec Shirkey

Welcome to The Crock Pot, your one-stop shop for all the SEC football news, notes, quotes and mishaps you might have missed over the weekend. Here’s what we’re stewing over …

1. Dan Mullen has always had an eye for defensive coaching talent

It goes without saying that when Dan Mullen hired former USC linebackers coach Peter Sirmon, who had only eight years of coaching experience and none of the coordinator level, he was taking a risk. This was a move based on potential, and in his lone year at Mississippi State, Sirmon watched a previously-decent unit devolve into a disaster.

To be fair, these were big shoes to fill. Sirmon was taking over a position previously held by Manny Diaz (now at Miami), Geoff Collins (now the coach at Temple) and experienced defensive coach Chris Wilson. On the other hand, there’s no denying that MSU’s defense had wildly underperformed based on its talent level.

The Bulldogs have recruited well in recent seasons, signing blue-chippers like Jeffery Simmons, Leo Lewis and Marquiss Spencer. And, for Sirmon’s on-field flaws, he added to that haul this past December by securing a handful of the country’s top JUCO signees, including safety Jonathan Abram and Montez Sweat.

Enter veteran defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, who has immediately brought stability and ferocity to a stacked unit. The whole nation saw that much Saturday night. LSU might not have the most dynamic passing attack, but to hold that offense to 133 yards rushing? Huge statement.

Look at Mississippi State’s remaining schedule. There are maybe two offenses dynamic enough to challenge this defense, providing the Bulldogs play with the same discipline they displayed this weekend: Alabama and Ole Miss. Auburn? Still plenty of problems. Arkansas and Texas A&M? A mess. Georgia and Kentucky? They can be stopped.

Three years removed from MSU’s climb to No. 1, Mullen has this program on a potentially similar trajectory in 2017. Nick Fitzgerald was already a Heisman Trophy contender, and now he has support. Watch out.

2. Tennessee has problems; is Butch Jones the guy to fix them?

More than anything else, the story of Tennessee football in 2017 is about change.

Gone are quarterback Josh Dobbs, running backs Alvin Kamara and Jalen Hurd, receiver Josh Malone, defensive end Derek Barnett, linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin and defensive back Cam Sutton.

Gone, too, are offensive coordinator Mike DeBord, receivers coach Zach Azzanni, offensive line coach Don Mahoney and defensive backs coach Willie Martinez. A slew of staff changes that occurred this offseason left Butch Jones with a completely retooled staff.

So, those with a reasonable read on the situation probably didn’t expect a great year from the Vols. The problem is what happened last year: Jones whiffing on the best chance he had to win the East by losing to South Carolina and Vanderbilt. The sluggishness has carried over into this season, with a narrow win against a Georgia Tech team that outplayed the Vols and a loss against a Florida team they should’ve beaten.

Tennessee is now 6-5 in its last 11 games; that’s worse than Kentucky, Georgia, Vanderbilt and Florida.

I repeat: Tennessee has been the fifth-best team in the SEC East for nearly the equivalent of a full season.

Jones has time to right the ship. A 2-1 start will not spell his end by any means, and there’s no evidence that athletic director John Currie would even consider making a change this offseason.

But if Jones doesn’t fix this? You’re looking at a coach that is 14-19 in the SEC. That’s worse than Kevin Sumlin’s mark of 21-19, by the way. Fans don’t give a flying you-know-what about bowl wins or beating middle-tier ACC teams when there’s no meat between the buns; they want a division championship, and through five years, Jones has yet to deliver much besides NFL talent and a bunch of laughable metaphors.

3. It’s only Week 3 and the seats are already hot

Barry Odom, Missouri: 5 flames

Could the ‘Zou be off to a worse start? The Tigers did beat Missouri State, but not before allowing 43 points to an FCS offense. That performance was followed up an 18-point home loss to South Carolina and an absolute beatdown by Purdue.

Yes, Purdue rolled into CoMo and turned Barry Odom’s defense into a punching bag. And we can call it Odom’s defense, because he fired his defensive coordinator two games into the season. Succeeding program legend Gary Pinkel was never going to be easy, especially given the political climate at Missouri, but this team won the SEC East just three years ago. Has the talent really evaporated so quickly? This has gotten real bad, real fast.

Kevin Sumlin: 4.5 flames

The Aggies are 2-1, but the manner of those losses has to have fans concerned. A loss to Arkansas this weekend almost certainly would seal Kevin Sumlin’s fate, given the increasingly vocal pressure mounting around the program.

Butch Jones: 3.5 flames

See above. Jones has time to get his 2017 offense figured out and, of course, reassess how his staff calls plays in the red zone. John Kelly and Marquez Callaway are real weapons, and this is a veteran offensive line. There’s no excuse, and Jones knows this.

Bret Bielema: 3.5 flames

Is Bret Bielema really 10-22 in the SEC? Much of that came during an 0-8 showing in 2013, his first year on campus, but that’s still surprising. The Hogs are 3-7 against their last 10 Power 5 opponents, including Missouri, with an average loss margin of… 22.4 points. No bueno, Bret.

Highlight of the week: It ain’t over ’til it’s over

Feleipe Franks’ Hail Mary touchdown pass to beat Tennessee surely will earn a lasting place in Florida football lore. But the game was only close in the first place because Tennessee’s Justin Martin raced down the field to strip Gators tailback Malik Davis at the UF 1-yard line. While Tennessee blew for reasons already discussed, Martin’s play should not be overlooked: it was an extraordinary individual effort.

Interesting SEC stats from Week 3

  1. Vanderbilt hasn’t started 3-0 since 2011, when it played and won three straight home games against Elon, UConn and Ole Miss. Yes, that was the year the Rebels finished 2-10. Through three weeks, the Commodores lead the SEC in total defense (198.3 yards per game), tackles for loss (28) and passer rating (182.5). They’re also tied for the league lead in sacks and interceptions. Junior quarterback Kyle Shurmur has thrown 8 touchdowns in three games; the program’s single-season record is 22, set by Whit Taylor in 1982.
  2. Florida’s Feleipe Franks registered a passer rating of 144.3 against Tennessee. Going by that metric, it was the fourth-best performance by a Gators quarterback since the school suspended Will Grier — a span of 22 games. The other three: Luke Del Rio vs. Kentucky, Austin Appleby vs. South Carolina and, incredibly, Treon Harris vs. LSU.
  3. For those of you that like your #CollegeKicker jokes: The SEC’s qualified kickers (i.e. those that have attempted at least 1 field goal per game played) are a collective 43 of 62 on field goal attempts this year (69.3 percent). Six teams have already had a kicker miss 2 tries, and perhaps shockingly, Auburn’s Daniel Carlson is among them (5 of 8). For context, only five of the SEC’s regular kickers missed more than 4 attempts through the entire 2016 season.

SEC power rankings after Week 3

  1. Alabama: Colorado State kept it closer than Vegas expected, but you know what? It doesn’t matter. That we consider a mere 18-point win surprising just underscores how far ahead of the pack Nick Saban has his Crimson Tide. (Last week: 1)
  2. Auburn: The Tigers offense still looked like it needed work against Mercer, which surely doesn’t bode well for Gus Malzahn once his team faces the meat of its SEC schedule. The real concern is the offensive line, behind which the Tigers are averaging just 3.9 yards per rush. But that unit still has time to find his groove, with a pitiful Missouri defense on deck. The talent is there for Auburn to make it happen. (Last week: 2).
  3. Georgia: The Bulldogs took care of biz against Samford, and the fans who still recall the Nicholls State scare from last year are thankful. As Jake Fromm and the offensive line continue to gain experience, this team’s ceiling will only get higher. (Last week: 4)
  4. Mississippi State: Talk about a butt-whooping. MSU has the tools to do damage in the SEC West, and the LSU beatdown is an excellent start. (Last week: 8)
  5. Florida: Not perfect by any means, and the offensive line still has kinks to work out, but the Gators can build off this win and what they got out of Franks. The eventual returns of Antonio Callaway and Jordan Scarlett will only make that easier. (Last week: 6)
  6. LSU: What the heck was that? New coordinator Matt Canada clearly has quite an offensive rebuild on his hands. You have to wonder when Myles Brennan will get his shot, given Danny Etling’s limits. (Last week: 3)
  7. Vanderbilt: Middle Tennessee and Kansas State are quality programs. Kyle Shurmur and Derek Mason’s defensive line look better than ever. Let’s see if the ‘Dores can give ‘Bama a fight. (Last week: 9)
  8. Kentucky: For how spotty this offense looked through the first two weeks, a win at South Carolina was pretty shocking. Chalk it up as one of the bigger UK victories under Mark Stoops, who has a quality quarterback, a beast of a running back and, finally, a flourishing defense. (Last week: 11)
  9. Tennessee: OK, so the Florida game was clearly a coaching flub, but you could argue the Vols looked like the better team overall in that game. Some of those issues are fixable, and all is not lost if Butch Jones addresses them. (Last week: 7)
  10. South Carolina: A big-time disappointment against Kentucky, to say the least, and the injury to Deebo Samuel makes this loss even more gut-wrenching. (Last week: 5)
  11. Texas A&M: Since the UCLA debacle, both Nicholls State and Louisiana have given the Aggies trouble. Kellen Mond looked better in his latest start, but this offense still looks all kinds of disjointed. (Last week: 10)
  12. Arkansas: The Hogs got a bye, and boy did they need it after the TCU stomping. A&M is a must-win game if Bret Bielema wants to keep this season from spiraling into a very bad place. (Last week: 12)
  13. Ole Miss: The Rebels can pass it a whole bunch with Shea Patterson, but when he’s not on point, they’re not going to beat many teams. (Last week: 13)
  14. Missouri: Disaster. Barry Odom seems in over his head. (Last week: 14)

Hittin’ the links: SEC Country coverage you don’t want to miss

Boneheaded move of the week

Entering halftime of the Louisiana game, Texas A&M freshman wide receiver Will Gunnell said hello to the home crowd by flipping them the double-bird. We know this, because it was caught on the SEC Network broadcast. Sad!