Run-pass balance. Offense-defense balance. Competitive balance.
Those terms all sound good, but they can easily be bad... and they ARE in the 2017 SEC.
Run-pass balance means little if neither the run nor the pass are imposing. Offense-defense balance is bad if neither the offense nor the defense are particularly impressive. Competitive balance is not something to be proud of if the balance in a conference is the product of a lot of mediocrity. Yet, that's the SEC this year. Alabama and Georgia are exceptions, not representative examples of the majority of the league. What happened in Week 8 did not change or reverse these dynamics, either.
To the exchange!
MISSOURI -- A large win over a team about to move to the FCS does nothing to change the Tigers' outlook. They need to win a few SEC games. Then they can ask for more respect.
VANDERBILT -- Did a bye week change the Commodores? It will need to if Derek Mason is to feel good about his own position and his program's standing when 2018 rolls around. Mason can't afford to miss a bowl game, period.
SOUTH CAROLINA -- The Gamecocks are in better position than the Vanderbilt team they will host in Week 9, but if they lose, they will have a hard time finishing better than 6-6, which would be a profound disappointment after the early win over North Carolina State, which is still in the hunt for a College Football Playoff berth. The Gamecocks better lock up the Commodores and not look ahead to Georgia.
TENNESSEE -- There's little left to say about the Vols and Butch Jones. The body lies dead in Tuscaloosa, and the vultures are dining out. I personally don't understand not firing Jones -- a change might fire up the players for their remaining games. Keeping Jones seems to be a show of resignation, which will only mean more losses in the coming weeks. Why not try to win? It's not as though college football provides 4-8 teams with higher draft picks.
KENTUCKY -- The Wildcats got exposed, as many thought they would be in Starkville. Kentucky finally paid a price for playing mediocre football. Previous opponents weren't good enough to make UK wake up and perform at a higher level. Georgia and Louisville remain on the schedule, so Kentucky needs to win every other game to finish 8-4. If it can't attain that result, this season will be as empty as last season felt successful. Mark Stoops won't have much to celebrate, though a bowl bid is obviously better than nothing at all for Big Blue.
GEORGIA -- This is where the SEC gets interesting. Georgia could very easily lay a massive beatdown on Florida in the Cocktail Party this coming weekend in Jacksonville, but much as UGA bedeviled Florida for a very long time in the 1970s and 1980s, the Gators have done the same thing to the Bulldogs over the past 27 years, since Steve Spurrier arrived at the start of the 1990s.
No game in that 27-year span frustrates Georgia fans more than 2002. The Gators -- struggling through Year 1 under Ron Zook after Spurrier's move to the NFL -- summoned up an inspired effort. Meanwhile, Georgia tripped over its shoelaces. Receiver Terrence Edwards memorably dropped a touchdown pass. The Bulldogs' offense kept getting in its own way. Florida's offense wasn't even that great, posting a modest 20 points, but Georgia managed only 13.
That was UGA's only loss in 2002. The setback ruined the Bulldogs' chances of playing for the national championship. Even a great Georgia team couldn't handle a mediocre Florida side led by one of the more spectacular coaching failures of the century. Zook inherited Rex Grossman and a full cupboard of Spurrier-recruited talent... and did absolutely nothing with it...
... except beat Georgia. Zook was able to do that.
It's an indication of how much Florida has hounded and haunted Georgia over the years.
It is up to the Bulldogs to avoid a 2002 trap, and all the misery which would accompany it.
What makes the Cocktail Party even more fascinating? The disordered, stormy state of the team Georgia will face...
FLORIDA -- Oh, my.
Jim McElwain is feeling the strain of being in the spotlight. The Gators could be a .500 team this year... if they catch a few breaks. They could very easily enter their game with Florida State at 5-6. Both the Gators and Seminoles could enter that game playing for the right to go to a bowl, with the loser's season ending then and there.
McElwain is not without reasons for complaint. Having a full team -- without suspended or injured players -- would certainly help, but this is football, where injuries are part of the deal. This is also Florida, where second-stringers are supposed to be good and player development is supposed to have an effect over the course of a long season. Yet, players do not appear to be developing at all -- certainly not on offense -- and Florida fans are understandably beside themselves.
The fact that Florida is 3-3 isn't the main problem. It's that Florida isn't improving -- THAT is the big source of concern. The program seems to be losing ground in Year 3 under Mac, which gives fans reason to claim that the past two ugly seasons -- despite SEC East championships -- were indicators of weakness more than manifestations of robust health in Gainesville.
If McElwain loses this game by 35, he won't be fired this year... but it would seem impossible to think that his job would be safe at the end of 2018. Getting blown out in this contest would put him on the hot seat next season.
Florida has a chance to use a bye week to refresh its performance and renew its outlook. McElwain can transform his world with an upset. He can stabilize his program with a good performance, even in a loss. He will fall into the tar pits of misery if his team gets swatted away like a housefly.
ALABAMA Yawn. No, really -- we're all waiting for this team to be challenged. Wake us up when that happens.
OLE MISS -- Thank God for Arkansas.
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- The Bulldogs are very much on schedule. They are about to notch a winning season. More winnable games lie ahead, but if they can win at Texas A&M, they will own victories over the Aggies and LSU this season, which would make them no worse than the third-best team in the SEC West this year. That would be a strong achievement.
MSU would be the second-best team in the SEC East right now -- that's not worthy of a ticker-tape parade, but it shows that in a mediocre conference, the Bulldogs are better than most.
TEXAS A&M -- Winning ugly sure beats losing pretty (UCLA). If the Aggies can do that again versus Mississippi State, their chances of a nine-win season will increase. They have been helped by the weakness of the league, but if they reach nine wins, they will deserve credit for fighting through a hellish September and withstanding all the grief that was thrown in their direction. Mark Stoops won the game show called "Survivor: Hot Seat" last year in Lexington. Kevin Sumlin is well on his way toward doing the same this year... but he needs to beat Mississippi State to truly begin to feel secure. LSU and Auburn remain on the slate, so a loss here to MSU would instantly cause fresh damage to his standing in College Station.
LSU -- Alabama is next. Don't overrate this Ed Orgeron mini-resurgence. LSU coaches are not paid to lose three games in a season, and LSU will have a hard time doing that well this year. Credit Coach O and his staff, however, for avoiding an implosion which seemed entirely possible a few weeks ago. Ole Miss is merely not a team which should measure an opponent's level of health.
AUBURN -- The Tigers defeated a cratering opponent this past week. The Tigers have A&M and Georgia coming up. Alabama is its own separate beast. A&M and UGA will define how we view the Plainsmen at the end of the season (in addition to the LSU disaster which will be hard for Gus Malzahn to overcome).
ARKANSAS -- As said before in previous Stock Exchanges, Arkansas is expanding its stadium and eating up a lot of dollars in fundraising. This and a large buyout have stood in the way of firing Bret Bielema this year...
... but can the Razorbacks endure one beatdown after another and expect to bring Bielema back?
It is harder to answer that question in the affirmative. Bielema is leaving the Hogs with little choice but to terminate him in the coming months.
The big problem is that the school might not be able to pay top dollar for a replacement. That becomes the new point of concern -- and intrigue -- in Fayetteville. Jeff Long has a headache on his hands. He surely hoped that Bielema -- though clearly not ready to make Arkansas a GREAT team -- could have at least made the Razorbacks tolerably good this season, enough to stomach through 2018, when Long could have made a change for a much more affordable buyout rate. Now, he has to choose between hiring a long-term replacement for what might not be good value, and going an interim route for one season (at a very cheap price, to save bucks) before going for a big-league coaching candidate in December of 2018. That is not an easy call -- no one should envy Long's position. It is the next big choice Long has to make... and it will go a Long way toward shaping the future of a program currently in tatters.