Goodbye, Auburn. Thanks for playing in the "maybe you're a great SEC team in 2017" sweepstakes. Yes, Auburn will get the chance to play Georgia and Alabama later this season, but after that disaster in Baton Rouge in Week 7 (no, that's not too extreme a word), Gus Malzahn offers no credible evidence to suggest that his team will play in a New Year's Six bowl. If Auburn beats Georgia, chances are that will reflect negatively on the Dawgs more than positively on the Tigers.
Hence, the parenthetical "maybe" in the title. We're sure there are no more than two great teams in the 2017, but there might be only one. Georgia's dates with Florida, Auburn and Georgia Tech (then Alabama if the Dawgs make the SEC title game, which is highly likely at this point) will determine if the Dawgs are worthy of elite status. A loss in one of the non-Bama games will put a question mark over Kirby Smart's team, which -- let's face it -- has not beaten a particularly strong SEC team to this point. Notre Dame's upcoming USC-North Carolina State swing will show how good the Irish really are, which will tell us more about the quality of UGA's body of work.
Alabama's greatness is unquestioned, and fairly so. Georgia offers the appearance of a great team but must prove it.
Everyone else? Sit in the corner and contemplate what you've done -- yes, you too, Auburn. You brought this upon yourself.
To the full exchange trading floor:
MISSOURI -- The Tigers' offense keeps showing spunk, which is good. However, that spunk needs to translate into a decent SEC win for it to matter. This is still the No. 14 team in the SEC, which means last place.
KENTUCKY -- The Wildcats, coming off a bye, are 5-1. Their best win came against South Carolina. Suffice it to say, the Wildcats have a lot to prove. A casual glance at their remaining schedule suggests a 3-3 record for an 8-4 finish. Eight wins at Kentucky aren't bad, but eight wins in the SEC East with the crossover games being the two Mississippi schools is not an eye-popping feat on a larger level. Kentucky will gain substantial national respect if it can make 9-3. It will be yawned off the national stage if it finishes 7-5. The journey is just beginning for a team which beat Missouri, Southern Mississippi, and Eastern Michigan by one score. Stock assessments to come -- stay tuned.
VANDERBILT -- Crunch.
57 points allowed to Ole Miss? The bottom has fallen out for a team which desperately needs this upcoming bye week. After the win over Kansas State -- 47 years ago (or so it feels like) -- it was legitimate to think that Vanderbilt could be a top-four team in the SEC (Mississippi State, too!).
Again, that feels soooooooo long ago.
Now, Vanderbilt isn't even a top-10 team in the SEC. (Mizzou and Tennessee are the only teams which are clearly worse than the Dores at this point, and maybe Arkansas.)
Vanderbilt's immediate goal is to finish 6-6, but that would represent zero movement from 2016, not what Derek Mason needed to solidify his tenure in Nashville.
SOUTH CAROLINA -- This has been the SEC's most unpredictable team in 2017. If the logical opinion zigged in a Gamecock game this season, Will Muschamp's team has zagged.
South Carolina was expected to lose to North Carolina State. It won.
The Gamecocks were expected to beat Kentucky at home. They lost.
South Carolina had a chance to beat Arkansas, sure, but no one expected a 48-point tsunami of production against the Hogs.
They figured to beat Louisiana Tech convincingly at home. They barely survived on a last-play field goal.
They figured to then get drummed on the road by Texas A&M. They played the Aggies on even terms through four quarters.
They figured to rip Tennessee. They came within a few yards -- one play -- of losing to the Vols.
South Carolina's stock is a welp/shoulder shrug emoji. The Gamecocks will play a bye week this week. They will probably defy convention in that game, too.
GEORGIA -- This team's notable feature is not the quality of its opposition, but how smoothly it is winning by large margins. That's why the Dawgs can be viewed as an elite team. Notre Dame has to remain an elite win, however, and as said above, the season-defining games for this team still lie ahead. The stock is high, but trading analysts wonder if the value is inflated or real. We will find out in due time.
TENNESSEE -- I have said that Butch Jones will be fired after the Bama game. There's no reason to ditch that line of thought at this point. Alabama can hang 77 on the Vols, and then John Currie can gently tell Butch it's over. However, there's no sense spending time on a coaching hire until Currie makes his move official. We'll cross that bridge when the Volunteer Navy gets to it.
FLORIDA -- This is the most fascinating SEC East situation. A two-time defending division champion has a miserable fan base... and the fan base actually has reason to be miserable. It doesn't make linear sense, but this is a complicated world full of inconvenient truths.
The biggest argument Jim McElwain can make -- it's a very reasonable one -- is that he has been playing without a full deck of cards this year. Antonio Callaway, Jordan Scarlett, the list goes on -- Florida has been shorthanded on offense as a reflection of both key pieces and raw depth. That's not irrelevant in a larger context.
However: Florida, the producer of two Heisman quarterbacks in a 12-year span from 1996 through 2007, the school which redefined offense in the SEC in 1990 and then found new ways to thrive in the Tim Tebow years, should not struggle to find stud quarterbacks. Yes, Luke Del Rio got injured, but he was not lighting up the night sky. He made a few timely contributions, but he hardly took over the position and made Florida a revived juggernaut. Moreover, Malik Zaire -- good enough to earn some starts at Notre Dame -- is clearly not good enough to crack the QB rotation and beat out a first-year starter, Feleipe Franks.
Resources might be limited in several spots, but McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier have had ample chances to get it right at quarterback... and they haven't. How many more 17-16 or 19-17 pillow fights against flawed opponents can Florida fans take? Remember that while being 9-4 or 8-5 is not generally acceptable at Florida, it's far worse to be 9-4 or 8-5 while being boring than when being entertaining. Florida is ordinary and boring, which means that for all the good arguments Mac might have in his quiver, they don't mean much -- not enough to suggest that 2018 won't become a massively important season for him.
Point-blank: If Florida can't get its house in order in the Cocktail Party (following a bye this week), 2018 will need to be a productive season for Mac to feel safe in a long-term context. That's not necessarily a guaranteed hot seat, but certainly a potential one. If Florida gets smashed by both Georgia AND Florida State, 2018 will DEFINITELY be a hot seat year for McElwain... and Nussmeier will probably get fired at the end of 2017 so that Mac can appease the fan base and show that he's trying everything to fix the situation.
Let's move to the SEC West...
ALABAMA -- Nothing to see here, just another ho-hum drubbing for the clear No. 1 team in college football after Clemson's loss. Alabama is in line to make the Sugar Bowl, which means it will avoid the Rose Bowl and a cross-country trip. That matters -- ask Florida State after it lost to Oregon in the first-ever College Football Playoff game, the first semifinal at the end of the 2014 season.
MISSISSIPPI STATE-- A workmanlike win over BYU was expected. Now comes a home game against Kentucky which will boost the reputation of the winner and will damage the reputation of the loser. It's an off-the-radar game, but a highly important one for the teams involved.
OLE MISS -- I will admit that I did not consider the possibility that Ole Miss could be anything other than the worst team in the SEC West. That's my error. My stock went down. Ole Miss' stock is going up after thrashing Vanderbilt by 22 in a game which wasn't even that close. Matt Luke is bolstering his place on the college football job market. His players are showing no quit. A home game against LSU is, for one thing, very winnable. Second, if the Rebels can actually win it, they will humiliate Ed Orgeron and -- more important for them -- relegate Arkansas to the status of "worst SEC West team." Ole Miss can't be viewed as the worst the West has to offer if it handles LSU.
ARKANSAS -- Plenty of people in and around Fayetteville will say that Arkansas can't currently afford Bret Bielema's buyout, and they make a strong point. With each new lopsided loss, however, both the beleaguered coach and his athletic director -- Jeff Long -- might find it mutually beneficial to head to the negotiation table and work out an arrangement which gives the school a measure of financial relief in exchange for enabling Bielema to find a fresh start. Unless the Hogs start winning -- this Saturday against Auburn would be a great time to begin -- it's hard to see how or why Bielema would even want to continue at a job which has roughed up his career resume.
I hear the Nebraska job might open up... but if the Huskers want someone else, Bielema would make a natural one-year fit on ESPN. Then he could re-evaluate the market in 2019. He would have a lot more fun at ESPN in 2018 than in Fayetteville.
TEXAS A&M -- It wasn't pretty, it wasn't decisive, but it sure beats a loss. Texas A&M now has a realistic path to nine victories, which would simultaneously be incredible and unimpressive, a spectacular escape of the hot seat yet also nothing to write home about.
In an SEC with no more than two great teams (and Georgia still has to prove itself this next month), going 9-3 with a loss to Alabama is nothing special. Texas A&M won't play Georgia this year; that's too bad, because being able to play and beat the Dawgs would give Kevin Sumlin a chance to claim that his team is better than people think. Nevertheless, A&M seemed like a goner in September, possibly headed for 7-5. Sumlin has certainly righted the ship to a certain degree. A&M has to be viewed as one of the SEC's four best teams, as high as No. 3 behind Bama and Georgia. Yet, what would that mean? Probably not a New Year's Six bowl.
The Aggies won't mind continuing to collect one-point wins, but if they and Sumlin want to change perceptions, they will start winning games by larger margins. They are a top-four team in the league, but it's a soft ranking. A few blowouts would solidify A&M's place in the conference and feed into the idea that next year's team -- with a sharper Kellen Mond -- could become a genuine player on the college football scene.
LSU -- It's not as though the Tigers found sustained offense against Auburn. They needed a missed Auburn tackle on a long touchdown pitch-and-catch. They benefited from a kick return which created another seven points. A short field led to a go-ahead field goal, and an even shorter field led to a final field goal. Special teams and defense enabled this limited team to beat Auburn. Nevertheless, a 20-point comeback says a lot about a team which did not give up on its head coach or its coordinators. LSU still has a lot of work to do to merely reach an 8-4 record, but a loss to Auburn would have put a 6-6 season in play, so the Bayou Bengals displayed a considerable measure of damage control this past weekend.
AUBURN -- Alabama and Georgia are the only two SEC fan bases completely at peace with their head coaches. Gus Malzahn -- who might stay at Auburn in 2018 just because Auburn has to get its athletic director situation figured out first -- likely exhausted the last crucial piece of political capital against LSU. Blowing a 20-point lead against anyone is hard to take, but this was not an instance in which Danny Etling became Joe Freakin' Montana and donned his cape. This was a case of Auburn's offense completely shutting down after halftime, with 16 straight runs on first down (!!!) and a lot of long passes on 2nd and 4 or 2nd and 5. The Auburn offense was predictable and low-percentage. It was full of chuck-and-pray wishful thinking, and it offered no imagination.
Recall 2013, when Auburn put SEC defenses way off balance. Recall the 59-point explosion against Missouri in the SEC title game. Recall the impressive performance against Florida State in the BCS title game. It became virtually impossible to contain Auburn's offense for four full quarters.
Auburn played 20 great minutes against LSU to forge a 20-0 lead... and then the coaching staff simply stopped searching for answers. The unrelenting stream of first-down runs put the Plainsmen on auto pilot. LSU coaches kept coaching... and so it was that Ed Orgeron outcoached Gus. That's unforgivable for any Auburn fan.
The school budget and (more importantly, as noted before) the AD situation might keep Gus in 2018, but this game certainly feels like the moment when the Auburn fan base gave up on Gus for good... and rightly so. If Malzahn somehow manages to transcend this disappointment and beat both Georgia and Alabama this year, it will rate as a stunning turnaround. If Malzahn wins 10 games in a season even once more at Auburn, it will rate as a surprise. On January 1, 2019, I do not expect him to be employed by Auburn University.