Spots 1 and 2 in the SEC have been forcefully claimed through six weeks. The East will come down to the Cocktail Party. Week 7 is significant because it will begin to sort out teams 2 through 6 in the West Division. This is not a buyer's market for stocks unless you live in Tuscaloosa or Athens.
MISSOURI -- The Tigers get points for competing well, and they get sympathy points for the careless, unprofessional way the referees handled the end of the proceedings, but a loss to Kentucky is still a loss to Kentucky. This is the saddest non-Ole Miss ballad in the SEC.
KENTUCKY -- Another unimpressive win. Mark Stoops would love to have the worst 11-1 team in the country. In all seriousness, nine wins are not out of the question, and if Stoops can achieve that, he'll have the last laugh against his critics. The tough part: If UK does want to win nine, it will likely need to win its next four, because the Georgia-Louisville two-game finish will be tough. (Louisville, however, is playing poorly enough that there's little separation between the two teams at the moment.)
The big-picture point with Kentucky is the obvious but necessary point to make: A team cannot continue to live on the edge. Ultimately, it will fall off. Kentucky needs a few authoritative performances to get where it wants to go. It can't continue to narrowly avoid landmines.
Continuing to tempt fate worked out terribly for Florida this past weekend. Kentucky knows it can't maintain this same level of play and get away with it.
Speaking of the Gators...
FLORIDA -- Though shorthanded, with injuries on top of all the suspensions which have limited Jim McElwain's options, the Gators still gave away points on defensive penalties and botched PATs. In a game against LSU which (everyone knew) would be a "which team can screw up less" test case, Florida screwed up more than the Bayou Bengals. Florida's defensive front got shoved around in the second half by LSU's young offensive line. The Gators played poorly and lost by one, a deserved counterbalance to their lucky-as-heck escapes against Tennessee and Kentucky.
Florida is no longer the fourth-best team in the SEC behind Bama, Georgia and Auburn... but if the Gators beat Texas A&M (which I would be inclined to rate fourth at the moment), they would reclaim that distinction.
SOUTH CAROLINA -- The blowout of Arkansas says more about the state of the Razorbacks than the Gamecocks. However, it was logical to doubt the ability of the South Carolina offense to score without Deebo Samuel. That weakness was forcefully addressed against the Hogs. If Jake Bentley and coordinator Kurt Roper can build off this performance, South Carolina might become the one team which still has something to say about the SEC East other than Georgia or Florida.
It is natural to distrust the Gamecocks against UGA and Florida, but good short-term news comes from the next opponent for Will Muschamp's team:
TENNESSEE -- The move to a redshirt freshman quarterback, Jarrett Guarantano, for Saturday's upcoming game against South Carolina is a desperate move, but it also reinforces the idea that Butch Jones will not survive in Knxoville once the 2017 season ends. It does represent an attempt to punt the season and gain a chance to evaluate other players at important positions, the kind of thing a team does when realistic championship aspirations are forcefully and fully smashed.
The bigger problem with the Vols (who, along with Mississippi State, were idle in Week 6) is that their level of quarterback coaching is poor. Butch Jones has never handled quarterback situations well because he doesn't develop quarterbacks well. He has made awful coordinator hires and did not react well to Mike DeBord leaving for Indiana this past offseason (a move which gave him the opportunity to deliver a massive upgrade).
This is pure speculation, but what's SEC football without a little speculation: The Alabama game -- which figures to be bloody -- could mark the moment when UT athletic director John Currie decides to announce Jones's termination. We shall see.
VANDERBILT -- There's no shame in losing to Georgia. The Dawgs might not be great, but they certainly are very, very good. Vanderbilt simply did not have the horses to keep up with a vastly superior opponent. Now comes the softer part of the VU schedule, which the Dores need to handle well in order for this season to hit various targets. A 5-1 finish against their remaining opponents will produce an 8-4 record, which would be James Franklin territory. If Vanderbilt can hit that mark, it can say it is headed in the right direction. Anything less would make this year feel like a missed opportunity to take a step forward in the SEC East, which is still not a very good division from top to bottom.
GEORGIA -- The Dawgs continue to feast on a lot of weak teams. The key point: UGA is not merely winning, but dominating. Really good teams do that against inferior opponents. The biggest games of the year -- Florida, Auburn and Georgia Tech -- still lie ahead, but for now, Georgia is doing everything that can reasonably be expected of the program.
OLE MISS -- Not one bit of this season is surprising. The program has collapsed. The big question is the next head coaching hire -- can the Rebels find a strong candidate who is willing to endure a few years of losing, akin to Matt Rhule right now at Baylor?
Everything else is peripheral in importance and urgency.
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- After a bye, the Bulldogs host BYU, a terrible team which will probably not offer any indication of MSU's condition. Tests later in the season against Kentucky, A&M, and Arkansas will take the measure of Dan Mullen's young men.
ALABAMA -- A lot of people freaked out or made too big a deal of a game which, though technically decided by eight points against Texas A&M, was never seriously -- or remotely -- in doubt. Alabama was in danger of losing last year against Ole Miss, because the Rebels knew how to score against the Bama defense. Such was not the case against the Aggies, who might be the most mysterious team in the SEC at the moment. Alabama gained a 21-point lead and then coasted with a quarterback (Jalen Hurts) who is far from a finished product as a passer. The time to re-evaluate Alabama is when it encounters a moment of genuine difficulty in a game. That did not happen against Texas A&M, if people are intellectually honest with themselves. There's no need to drop Alabama's stock price.
TEXAS A&M -- The Aggies put up a fight. Given how bad they looked in September, that's a step forward for Kevin Sumlin, whose seat has gotten colder over the past few weeks. However, the coming stretch of games will decide Sumlin's fate, beginning with a Week 7 trip to Florida. If the Aggies drop that one, the word "crisis" will once again flow to the forefront, and without hyperbole. A&M has to prove that its effort against Alabama is something it can replicate and then carry through the rest of the season. If the Aggies can indeed do that, they will supplant Auburn as the No. 3 team in the SEC and dramatically change the status of the program relative to the Week 1 aftermath against UCLA.
ARKANSAS -- With each new embarrassment, the likelihood that Bret Bielema will stay in Fayetteville beyond the 2018 season decreases. The finances are not in line to sack Bielema this year, but a big 2018 is the only thing which will keep the former Wisconsin coach on the job as the Boss Hog. Bielema will start 2018 in much the same way Butch Jones started this season in Tennessee: needing to be great, but not having a roster or situation which give him a good chance of being great.
LSU and AUBURN -- LSU did not play well at Florida; the Bayou Bengals gained a lot of players on their roster while Florida was playing without a lot of its most important players, and LSU won by one point, courtesy of a botched PAT. No, LSU did not play well, but it certainly played a lot better than it did versus Troy. That's considerable progress. If LSU can continue to develop and round into form, it will force Auburn -- in the SEC game of the week -- to play at a reasonably high level in Baton Rouge. LSU has given itself a chance to salvage its season.
Auburn can't salvage its season because the Plainsmen haven't experienced a hard fall since their loss to Clemson. They did look bad against Mercer but got through that game. In recent weeks, they have looked a lot better, but let's be real: Auburn beat Mizzou, Mississippi State, and Ole Miss, three of the weakest teams in the SEC.
A road trip to Red Stick begins the true proving-ground portion of the season for Auburn, and for the SEC West. Auburn, LSU, Mississippi State, and Arkansas will fight for real estate in the middle of the division. The teams that not only win road games, but emphatically take care of business on the road, will likely emerge as second and third in the division, behind Alabama.
We'll know a lot more about Auburn and LSU in the coming weeks, starting with this Saturday.