Not including recent arrival Texas A&M, only three SEC schools have never made an SEC Championship Game appearance. One is Ole Miss, ineligible for postseason play in 2017 and not a good team this year.
The other two: Kentucky and Vanderbilt. Both programs scored massive victories in Week 3.
Not counting the four schools which have joined the league since 1992 (Arkansas, South Carolina, A&M and Mizzou), the triumvirate of Kentucky (2), Mississippi State (1), and Vanderbilt (0) sits at the bottom of the SEC on the all-time football championships list. No three long-term SEC members have struggled more than these.
In Week 3, they all made loud statements.
No, that statement isn't "We Want Bama," even though Vanderbilt plays Alabama next and Mississippi State will get its shot.
The statement is this: "We are top-five SEC teams at the moment and have chance to dramatically exceed expectations this year."
Let's go to the Stock Exchange:
ALABAMA -- A relatively ordinary win over Colorado State -- not a squeaker, but not a flex-your-muscles demolition job -- does nothing good or bad for the Tide. Let's see how this road trip to Nashville for a CBS game unfolds. Then we'll begin to have more to say about this team. We'll save the more extended evaluations for the newsmakers from Week 3.
AUBURN -- Scoring just 24 at home versus Mercer? You mean Gus Malzahn can't even unload on a tomato can? With Jarrett Stidham at quarterback? The failure of Auburn's offense since 2013 is a massive surprise and yet a cause of the SEC's diminished state. SEC coaches simply haven't been able to carry the freight, making Nick Saban's task that much easier.
If Gus and coordinator Chip Lindsey -- who get Missouri this week -- can't get their house in order by October, what can AU fans possibly expect from this coaching staff in the future? (Hint: There won't be much of a future.)
ARKANSAS -- Bret Bielema is probably safe this year... only because Arkansas is raising money to expand its stadium in the face of a large buyout. Bielema is therefore the equivalent of 2016 Butch Jones at Tennessee in that outside circumstances will (likely) prevent him from being fired, even though he should be fired on the raw merits of his work. Arkansas was idle this past week. Beating Texas A&M in Week 4 is a must for Bielema -- not for 2017, but to enter 2018 with a lot less heat on his back. He hasn't beaten Kevin Sumlin in the JerryWorld matchup with A&M. This would be a great time to start.
TEXAS A&M -- The Aggies avoided the kind of loss which would have effectively ended Sumlin's stay in College Station. Losing to Arkansas, though, will push Sumlin toward that same fate.
There is one glimmer of hope for Sumlin: The non-Alabama SEC West is so shaky that he might win games the Aggies were probably expected to lose before the start of the season. His team isn't playing well right now, but finding a way to beat Arkansas -- even if it's ugly -- could buy Sumlin time and give him the ability to orchestrate a deathbed revival. He is also fortunate in that while his guys are in bad shape, Arkansas just might be worse at the moment.
OLE MISS -- Give California's new staff -- especially head coach Justin Wilcox and defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter -- ample and deserved credit for making the Golden Bears a lot better than many thought they would be this quickly. Nevertheless, Ole Miss looks every inch a team with an interim coach who will not be a head coach or coordinator next year (not even at the Group of 5 level). The Rebels are worse than A&M or Arkansas, which says everything anyone needs to know. The misery is just beginning to roll through Oxford this autumn.
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Beating LSU seemed possible. Thumping LSU by 30 did not. Naturally, Nick Fitzgerald was supremely prepared to play, and Dan Mullen gave him great plays. Mississippi State consistently got receivers open and outflanked a very good defensive coordinator, Dave Aranda. The Bulldogs deserved high marks on offense.
Yet, for all that MSU achieved on that side of the ball, the bigger story was the Bulldogs' ability to smother the LSU offense. As the Bulldogs prepare to visit Georgia -- where No. 1 quarterback Jacob Eason does not appear ready to return from his Week 1 injury -- they will have to contain UGA's skill players in order to be taken seriously. If Georgia's offense -- with backup Jake Fromm in the saddle -- rings up big numbers against MSU's defense, it will be obvious that this 37-7 win over LSU was more a product of the Tigers' offensive flaws than MSU's defensive excellence. Yes, Mississippi State could realistically be viewed as the second-best team in the SEC. (It seems quite apparent than Dan Mullen IS indeed the league's best non-Saban head coach.) This game at Georgia will either affirm or revoke that status.
LSU -- Joe Alleva really did hire Ed Orgeron to lead his football program. He really did.
Here's the important point to make about the LSU coaching staff: It is one thing for two star coordinators to lead a team, with one holding the head coaching duties. (Think of Lincoln Riley being both the head coach and the offensive play-caller at Oklahoma, or Steve Spurrier having done the same at Florida and South Carolina, or Pete Carroll taking care of the USC defense while various coordinators handled the offense.)
This setup at LSU is NOT that.
Dave Aranda would probably make more sense as a head coach than Matt Canada, but regardless of that point, one man could lead the program while the other handles his side of the ball. In the locker room, players would listen to one of them as the voice of the team. This arrangement means Orgeron is the voice in the locker room, the vehicle of communications to players about the identity of the team. If the head coach is not competent, players won't listen to the voice.
It sounded good in theory: Orgeron would perform the front-facing duties of a head coach -- media spokesman, lead recruiter, the visible and personable presence in public functions and contexts. His two stud coordinators could take care of the Xs and Os. It is early, and his coordinators are very good at what they do, but a head coach without X-and-O chops typically matters. Ask Ron Zook or Butch Jones about coaches who could recruit their butts off but couldn't coach a lick on game day. Even with star coordinators, head coaches need to provide X-and-O ballast and reinforcement. In film studies, the head coach has to provide strong input to guide the staff in its preparations.
Aranda and Canada could bounce ideas off each other, on a staff in which one of them is the head coach. With Orgeron, the process is more complicated and less insightful... at least, that's the inescapable reality early in the 2017 season. If LSU is not markedly different from the Mississippi State game by the end of the 2018 season, Orgeron will be out in two years. It would be foolish for LSU to think this arrangement can work if there's no substantial sign of progress.
Yes, LSU really did hire Ed Orgeron to be its head coach.
Now, to the East:
MISSOURI -- How was Mizzou favored over Purdue? While you ponder that question, think about how much Gary Pinkel meant to this program. The Tigers are worse than Ole Miss, at the bottom of the 14-team SEC... and it doesn't seem all that close.
TENNESSEE -- What hasn't already been said about Butch Jones which needs to be said? Not much, if anything. Had Florida not fumbled on the Tennessee 1-yard line when leading 13-3 -- and had Georgia Tech not made a truckload of mistakes in Week 1 -- the Vols would look a million times worse...
... and they look really bad, anyway.
It was music to the ears of other SEC East fan bases when Jones was not sacked last December. Tennessee's chancellor and athletic director positions were either unfilled or otherwise unresolved, which is why Jones avoided the ax. Vol fans are rightly fed up with what they're seeing. Beating Georgia (at home) in a few weeks will be an absolute must for Jones, who recruits so well but then wastes the talent of players such as John Kelly with frightening consistency.
SOUTH CAROLINA -- The Deebo Samuel injury was and is -- and will be -- devastating. That said, Kentucky didn't play well on offense in Week 3 -- not terribly, but not well. South Carolina lit up North Carolina State like a Christmas tree. Not being able to score a modest amount of points -- only 24 would have beaten the Wildcats -- reinforces the familiar limitations of head coach Will Muschamp and offensive coordinator Kurt Roper. South Carolina's offense depended a lot on one player. Now that said player (Samuel) is not in the mix, this coaching staff has to show it has a Plan B.
GEORGIA -- Mississippi State might not be a great team, but Georgia doesn't have its No. 1 quarterback (Jacob Eason) at full strength. If the Dawgs of the East beat the Bulldogs of the West in Week 4, it will be hard (maybe impossible) to view Georgia as anything other than the second-best team in the SEC behind Alabama.
FLORIDA -- The Gators did not look like a team which had more talent than Tennessee. The Vols kept marching the ball down the field and kept finding ways to slip on a banana peel or stumble onto a rake, snatching defeat from the (Gator) jaws of victory. Florida's best path to victory seems to be, "avoid mistakes and hope the opposition will make a lot of mistakes." That's not the worst plan against the SEC East, especially Tennessee, but as long as Kentucky can minimize its own errors in Week 4, the Gators are in trouble. This team does not look very good; the saving grace -- as has been the case the past few years -- might be that the rest of the SEC East does not seem to have improved.
KENTUCKY -- The Wildcats, in their two FBS games against Southern Mississippi and South Carolina, have failed to score as many as 25 points. Their defense has carried the day.
Sounds like a typical 2017 SEC East team.
In a division which seems to promise a lot of ugly 16-13 games over the next few months, Kentucky has a chance to go to Atlanta. The SEC East -- in a time when most of college football now depends on offenses to win games played in the 30s or low 40s -- could turn back the clock to 1981. This year's East could be a division where your grandfather's old-school admonitions about football, cut from the cloth of Vince Dooley and Pat Dye, hold more relevance than they have in some time.
Can Kentucky win one defensive grinder after another and take the East?
It's too early to say that it's likely, but the Wildcats do appear to be better than Florida, their Week 4 opponent. If they do break a 30-game losing streak to the Gators, they will at least stay in the conversation long enough to get their shots at Vanderbilt and Georgia. Everything (in the SEC East) seems possible and realistic for Kentucky at this point... which is more a commentary on how bad the East is than on the Wildcats. Nevertheless, who could have imagined that Mark Stoops would be in this good a position 12 months ago, when his career seemed to be at a dead end? It's quite a turnaround in Big Blue country.
VANDERBILT -- The Commodores' secondary played as well as a defensive backfield could possibly play against Kansas State. Time and time again, the Wildcats threw a pass to the boundary on 3rd and 8 or 3rd and 10. Relentlessly and unceasingly, Vanderbilt defenders busted up the pass attempt. Sometimes they deflected the pass before it arrived. Sometimes the ball was raked out of the KSU receiver's hands. Sometimes, a jarring hit separated the ball from the intended pass catcher. Once, a breakup led to an interception which set up VU's game-winning score.
The offense is not where it needs to be, but similar to Kentucky, there's no reason to think Vanderbilt can't win a series of defensive slugfests. No SEC East offense currently inspires that much confidence or respect. Vanderbilt, a top-five SEC team?
Yes -- at least right now.