The SEC’s Big Picture: Florida is an instant contender out of the East
Florida has emerged as a surprise contender for the SEC Championship game after a dramatic last-minute win over Tennessee. Things have not always been pretty under first-year coach Jim McElwain, but the Gators are 4-0 and riding high ahead of a pivotal game against Ole Miss. Over in the mighty SEC West, the Rebels survived a scare from Vanderbilt to remain in control of their hopes to reach Atlanta for the conference championship.
Here’s a breakdown of the SEC title race after Week 4:
Chomped in The Swamp
After four years of frustrating mediocrity under Will Muschamp, Florida looks like a team replenished following a wild 28-27 win over Tennessee at home. Maybe the Florida players are simply afraid to lose after seeing the jaw-dropping sideline rant coach Jim McElwain directed at Kelvin Taylor. Whether you agree or not, it’s hard to criticize the man when the Gators are playing such an inspired brand of football in close conference games.
And then we have Tennessee (2-2, 0-1 SEC), which blew another second-half lead in spectacular fashion. The “brick by brick” approach might make the Vols winners when it comes to recruiting stars, but whether it’s enough to keep Butch Jones around as coach will be an interesting question for the athletic association to answer. Failing to break the seven-win mark in season three sounds like a hard sell to me.
Stoops so low-scoring
Basketball season hasn’t quite arrived, so you might wonder: Why are we discussing Kentucky athletics? The win Kentucky notched against Missouri may not have been pretty to watch, but the Wildcats (3-1, 2-1 SEC) are no joke on defense under coach Mark Stoops. The Wildcats are only a touchdown away against Florida from being (yikes) undefeated. Although Kentucky did not draw the recruiting attention that Tennessee did with Jones, Stoops is the one with a legitimate chance at the Eastern crown in his third season at the helm. Looking ahead at the Kentucky schedule –which still includes Vanderbilt, Auburn and a couple of FCS schools — the Wildcats even have an outside shot at reaching nine wins. That’s heights the program hasn’t reached since 1984.
For Missouri (3-1, 0-1 SEC), this loss wasn’t exactly unforeseen after a sloppily-played win over UConn fell into its hands. The Tigers’ place in the SEC has been strange since their arrival. For the past two years, they’ve represented the SEC East in Atlanta only to be blown out by an Alabama power school. Where Missouri fits this season is a tough question, and quarterback Maty Mauk (51.8 completion percentage, four interceptions) might not be part of the answer.
Kingsbury called it
Poor Bret Bielema. For the second year in a row, his team gave up a fourth-quarter lead and lost to Texas A&M in overtime, proving Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury’s pregame prediction correct. For the Aggies, they survived and remain a contender in the re-balanced West, while third-year coach Bielema finds himself in a Jones-esque win-or-walk situation.
Some of the individual talent on Texas A&M’s roster is outstanding. In a conference light on quarterback talent this season, Kyle Allen looked poised and precise while setting a career-high in passing yards. Wide receiver Christian Kirk looks to be among the top five freshman in the nation. And Myles Garrett should contend for SEC Defensive Player of the Year. If the Aggies can survive a brutal gauntlet of Mississippi State, Alabama and Ole Miss over the next three weeks, they could do some serious damage to whoever escapes the East.
Projected SEC Championship game, Week 4:
UGA (10-2, 6-2 SEC) vs. LSU (10-1, 7-1 SEC)
For all of the good mojo surrounding Florida and Kentucky right now, betting against the Bulldogs would seem unwise at this point. LSU looked sluggish on the road, but Syracuse could well be an underrated team this season, and the Tigers have as much raw talent as anyone in the SEC. Hopefully, this rematch of the 2011 title game would be a more competitive contest.