Ten weeks into this college football season, it seemed we’d identified the SEC’s two best teams and they were on a collision course to face each other in the Iron Bowl. And then Auburn spit the bit against Georgia.
So now here’s what we have: No. 1 Alabama (10-0, 7-0) is the only team in the league with more than 7 wins. The Crimson Tide are clearly the class of the SEC, but who has the second-best team?
A panel of experts in our weekly power poll says it’s LSU (6-3, 4-2), and The Tuck Rules agrees. Consider: The Tigers are 4-1 since Les Miles was fired – after losing to Auburn on an overturned touchdown at the end – and Ed Orgeron took over as interim head coach. Their only loss in the last five games? A 10-0 rock fight that was Alabama’s closest call all season.
With Orgeron, LSU has played to its strengths offensively, producing three 300-plus-yard rushing games, and dominated defensively. Since the ragin’ Cajun took over, the Tigers have allowed an average of 289 yards and 11.6 points per game, a number that would’ve led the nation in each of the past three seasons.
(Let’s see how Orgeron finishes this thing, but we’re getting mighty close to seriously entertaining the idea of him as the permanent answer in Baton Rouge, which seemed unfathomable six weeks ago.)
LSU has arguably the best running-back tandem – Derrius Guice and Leonard Fournette each have more than 800 yards – and second-best defense in the country. If that doesn’t sound like the SEC’s best team not named Alabama, what does? The Tigers get a chance to prove it the next two weeks against Florida (7-2, 5-2) and Texas A&M (7-3, 4-3).
The Gators, who sit atop the awful Eastern Division, come to town Saturday for a showdown that was rescheduled and relocated because of Hurricane Matthew in October, leading to lots of silly finger-pointing. All that matters now, though, is this: Florida will either clinch the East with a win or open the door for Tennessee (7-3, 3-3) with a loss.
Recent results do not favor the Gators. Arkansas, which blasted them 31-10 two weeks ago, just got throttled 38-10 by LSU last week in Fayetteville. So suddenly the Volunteers, after so many injuries and so much disappointment, have to like their chances to end up exactly where everyone expected them to be: playing Alabama (gulp) in the SEC title game.
Even if that happens, we can say with some certainty that Tennessee is not the second-best team in this league. Not after giving up more than 600 total yards and 400 rushing yards in a win – which absolutely defies all logic – against Kentucky last week. But Butch Jones will take a division title over all his team’s turmoil any day.
With Missouri (3-7, 1-5) and Vanderbilt (4-6, 1-5) left, the Vols have no excuse not to get the job done if LSU comes through with an assist against Florida. That’s the top storyline of Cupcake Saturday in the SEC – league teams play Louisiana Lafayette, Texas San Antonio, Western Carolina, Austin Peay, Chattanooga and Alabama A&M – but not the only thing worth watching.
Bowl Bid Alert: Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU, Tennessee and Texas A&M already have reached the requisite 6 wins for postseason eligibility. Three more can punch their ticket Saturday: Kentucky, Ole Miss and South Carolina are each 5-5.
The Wildcats and Gamecocks are almost sure things, facing abysmal FCS programs Austin Peay (0-10) and Western Carolina (2-8), respectively. All Kentucky has to do to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2010 is show up on time. The Governors have lost 26 in a row and 44 of their last 45 games.
The Rebels are at Vanderbilt, which needs 2 wins to scratch out a bowl berth of its own. The Commodores’ chances took a big hit last week when they lost to miserable Missouri, which had lost 11 consecutive conference games. Those Tigers are the only team in the league with no shot at a bowl.
Vandy needs to beat Ole Miss and Tennessee to get there. Mississippi State (4-6) would have to win at home against Arkansas this week and at the rival Rebels next week to join the postseason party.
Tip of the cap: To Mark Stoops, in advance, for qualifying for his first bowl game as a head coach. Sure, Kentucky has lost two in a row and whiffed on a real opportunity to stay in the muddled SEC East race, but the Wildcats have made progress in Year 4 of his challenging rebuild. Almost every significant contributor will be back next season. … To Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze for burning Shea Patterson’s redshirt (which we thought was unfair to the kid, at first) and to Patterson for burning Texas A&M’s defense (402 total yards) in his Week 11 college debut. It seems unfair to so seamlessly transition from the Chad Kelly era to this, but Patterson looks every bit like the nation’s No. 1 QB recruit that he was. … To Derek Barnett for being consistently excellent. The Tennessee junior has hit 10 sacks for the third consecutive season, including 1 in every SEC game this season. He’s up to 49 career tackles for loss and 30 sacks, and it feels like we don’t appreciate his greatness nearly enough.