After one month of a college football season, sample sizes aren't definitive and realities are subject to change. Nevertheless, while Missouri is awful and teams 5 through 13 in the SEC represent one very big jumble of uncertainty, the top tier of the SEC has affirmed conventional thinking. It's not sexy, it's not fascinating, but by cracky, it's the world we live in.
There's no sense trying to insist that the earth is flat -- not until evidence emerges. Could the SEC be a different and highly destabilized place one month from now? Sure... but that's not the conference we have now, entering the first Saturday of October.
MISSOURI -- The Tigers had a bye last week, their most successful week of the season thus far. Mizzou committed no mistakes... but it is still the worst team in the SEC, and no one else is particularly close.
KENTUCKY -- Can a 4-1 team look worse than the Wildcats do? Just wait -- Big Blue, after playing Missouri, could be the worst 5-1 team in the country.
It sure beats being the best 2-4 team in the country.
SOUTH CAROLINA -- Did the close loss at Texas A&M say more about the Gamecocks' limitations or Texas A&M's flaws?
It's true that injuries have cut into what the Gamecocks are able to do on offense. Jake Bentley needed help, and he is not in a position to receive it. Nevertheless, the overarching truth about this team is that with a defense which has played well -- Will Muschamp knows how to deliver on that side of the ball -- the offense depended far too much on one man and one man alone: Deebo Samuel. Every offense needs a Plan B, and South Carolina doesn't have one. That's on Muschamp and the man he chose to call his offensive plays, Kurt Roper.
(Side note: The lousy quality of offensive coordinators is almost as big a reason for the downward shift in the SEC as the lousy quality of head coaches.)
VANDERBILT -- Plenty of people anticipated a blowout loss to Alabama, but that's a commentary on how good the Tide are, not how limited the Commodores might be. The Florida game was supposed to mark the return of the Vanderbilt defense, a re-establishment of the ball skills in the secondary and the strength in the front seven which fueled the win over Kansas State. Instead, VU defenders appeared to be moving in sludge on the thick, wet turf of The Swamp. They lost track of receivers, didn't set the edge, and failed to make tackles at the first point of contact. The offense played a strong half but surely expected the defense to have its back, and it couldn't play a full 60 minutes.
The Commodores are thankful for LSU, because the Bayou Bengals prevented Vanderbilt from suffering the most disappointing SEC loss of Week 5. This week's game against Georgia is Vanderbilt's last chance to make a supremely resonant national statement. No other remaining opponent on the schedule will be able to boost VU's reputation as much.
TENNESSEE -- Burn it all down. My personal opinion -- which isn't worth a warm bucket of spit on many occasions -- is that athletic director John Currie will take a few weeks to work behind the scenes, fortify relationships with people in the program, map out a plan, and then fire Butch Jones after a bloodbath suffered at the hands of Alabama.
If Tennessee wants to wait until mid-November to make the move, that's perfectly understandable. It could be the way to secure recruits or at least avoid a mass exodus. However, discontent in Knoxville is pronounced right now -- and rightly so. Not acting more promptly to assure the fan base of impending change -- and not clearing a space on the coaching market sooner, giving candidates more of a chance to consider the job -- could carry a cost.
Peripheral details aren't irrelevant, but they will never be as important as this one: Currie has to nail this hire if anyone in Tennessee will trust his stewardship of the UT program. There's no way the Vols should go 10 years without an SEC East title, especially not when the East has endured several lean years following the final Urban Meyer-Tim Tebow season at Florida in 2009. If this next hire doesn't return Tennessee to a lofty place on Rocky Top, why should Currie get a chance to make a second hire in a few years? He has to worry about his hire a lot more than when he ultimately decides to send Jones packing.
FLORIDA -- The Gators, for all their flaws and suspensions and injuries, got lucky against the Vols and Big Blue. Given multiple reprieves by poorly-coached teams, Jim McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier achieved (what seemed like) a breakthrough against Vanderbilt. Florida's offensive line played by far the best game of its season. The play-calling mix from Nussmeier hit the sweet spot. Mac and Nussmeier clearly outflanked Vanderbilt's Derek Mason, which was not expected. A win over Vanderbilt was not surprising, but 38-24 certainly was. A 16-13 result would have made a lot more sense.
The Gators are clearly the fourth-best team in the SEC behind Alabama, Georgia (2), and Auburn (3). Even if they lose once in the next few weeks, they can be confident that the Cocktail Party will be the most important remaining game in the SEC East race. That's what most people anticipated before the season, and that's what it will be, barring a few crazy plot twists.
GEORGIA -- The Dawgs' shutout in Neyland Stadium was mostly a reflection of how far the Vols have fallen, but it is virtually impossible to ignore the prowess and consistency of Kirby Smart's defense. Holding Nick Fitzgerald and Mississippi State to three points was a more impressive performance, but it is clear that Georgia's defense has established itself as a relentless soul-crushing machine. Georgia is built with the same intent shared by Alabama and Clemson; the Dawgs merely aren't as strong or as developed, but the concept is certainly identical: Don't make mistakes. Leverage field position. Force the opposing offense to make big plays and take risks; feast on turnovers; lean on the opponent at the line of scrimmage for 60 minutes; see how it all works out.
No opponent has been able to throw the ball for big plays against Georgia (as has been the case for Alabama and Clemson). Offenses have not been able to be explosive or clean against this "Smart" defense. The UGA offense has not been spectacular; it has merely needed to minimize major gaffes, and it has. The results could not be better.
Georgia-Auburn later in the season matches the Dawgs against a formidable quarterback, which is why it is such a compelling matchup in the making (not to mention the game which will likely determine the second-best team in the SEC and possibly the league's non-playoff New Year's Six bowl team).
ALABAMA and OLE MISS -- Alabama wanted to put a beating on the Rebels after three frustrating encounters with Hugh Freeze. The Tide, to no one's surprise, delivered. Alabama is a beast, easily the best team in the conference and just as clearly on a collision course with Clemson for a third straight year in the national title game.
Ole Miss didn't become diminished by this loss, because Vanderbilt already ate a 59-point loss to the Tide, and Tennessee certainly seems capable of "doing" the same. The measure of the Rebels will be taken in the 50-50 games they'll play later in the SEC season.
ARKANSAS -- Cupcakes taste good, but contain little nutritional value. Enough of the preliminaries. A road trip to South Carolina is a must-win for UA to maintain any semblance of stability or competence heading into the teeth of the SEC West schedule.
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- The Bulldogs' win over LSU can very easily be seen as the product of how bad LSU is, not how good Hail State was. The result seemed -- at the time -- to suggest that MSU could overachieve to a significant extent this season, but a few weeks later, the meaning and context of that result have markedly changed... and the changed view is almost certainly the view which will remain in place for the rest of the season.
Mississippi State finished the 2016 regular season below .500. Reaching seven wins figured to be a good year for MSU, and Dan Mullen is on course to deliver that. He has already played two of the league's best three teams (Georgia, Auburn) and has to face only one more heavyweight (Alabama). The back end of the schedule will determine whether this season is a success. The past two weeks did not render it a failure.
AUBURN -- The Plainsmen are the most mysterious and significant team in the SEC. How they handle assorted challenges at LSU, at home against Georgia, and at home against Alabama will write the story of the SEC in 2017 -- the league champion, the West champion, possibly the East champion, and how formidable both Georgia and Auburn are. Auburn (especially when it plays Georgia) could decide a New Year's Six bowl slot (or two, depending on circumstances) and make some people forget how mediocre the SEC is after the top three or four teams.
Yes, this thumping of Mississippi State was impressive. Yes, Jarrett Stidham seems to be rounding into form. Yet, Mississippi State is not the team many thought it was after it crushed LSU. Auburn's stock price has temporarily risen, but it must forge bigger conquests to keep that stock price high and make the Tigers a must-buy commodity on the market.
TEXAS A&M -- Kentucky's 4-1 is clearly worse than A&M's 4-1, but barely beating a Deebo Samuel-less South Carolina team at home, coming from behind, is exactly why the Aggies are 24-point underdogs at home AT NIGHT against Alabama, a sign of how little the Aggies are respected. A&M is headed for a thumping there, but that game won't define the Aggies' season. The Auburn-LSU twin-tiger double will shape the season and, accordingly, Kevin Sumlin's future. A road trip to Florida will also loom very large.
LSU -- We know Ed Orgeron is unfit to be a head coach at a college football power. The big question off the field for LSU is how much longer the powers that be in Baton Rouge can tolerate the blunders of athletic director Joe Alleva, who mangled Les Miles' exit, sought Orgeron as his successor once Tom Herman predictably went to Texas, and handed Coach O a ridiculously large and indefensible buyout figure. LSU needs to shove Alleva out the door, make do with an interim athletic director to provide temporary cost savings, and gear up for a 2018 season which -- if not reasonably successful -- will lead to Coach O's exit after two seasons with a much smaller buyout hit.
On the field, a loss to Florida this week -- with Alabama, A&M, and Auburn all looming on the slate -- would invite the very realistic possibility of a 6-6 regular season, which is a complete disaster in Red Stick. A 7-5 mark would at least offer a bread crumb of hope that 2018 can lift this team into the nine-win range which should be the annual floor for LSU football.
Right now, nine wins don't even seem to represent the ceiling for the Tigers. Eight is as high as I'm willing to go for Coach O.