Gus Malzahn knows how to mess things up.
He messed up Alabama's plans in 2013. He messed up Auburn for a few years. He messed up the LSU game earlier this season. He messed up Georgia's national championship dreams. He messed up the minds of Auburn fans who very understandably and reasonably wanted him fired earlier this year, but who now have no choice but to get back on the Gus Bus... and won't mind the fact that they HAVE no choice. Auburn fans were wise to lose faith in Gus, but darned if Mad Scientist Malzahn didn't win back that trust, putting Auburn in position to compete for the SEC West, the SEC, and the whole enchilada.
It smells like 2013 in here.
To the rest of the Stock Exchange, with SEC rankings 1-14.
1: ALABAMA - The Crimson Tide looked vulnerable, which should not come as a surprise given the amount of injuries their linebackers have suffered. Mississippi State was patient and probing in its attack, converting third downs at a reasonable rate and forcing a shorthanded Alabama defense to play many more plays than it would have liked to. Dan Mullen had a great game plan, and the Bulldogs pushed the Tide to the brink. Yet, Alabama did what it had to do whenever it had to respond.
Let's say a few words about Jalen Hurts: He is not a polished passer, and in most games of a season, his presence is largely peripheral to what the Tide want to do... and to what the team ultimately achieves. Defense, more defense, field position, and the running game get the work done. Hurts manages the game and largely (and successfully) gets out of the way.
Yet, when Hurts has to lead a drive late in a game with his team trailing, he has answered the call in consecutive seasons. He did against Clemson in last season's national championship game, and he did against Mississippi State this past Saturday, calmly standing in the pocket and delivering the throws his team needed. Hurts is a baller, one who recalls a player cut from a similar cloth (just not as fast), Jay Barker, the quarterback on Alabama's 1992 national championship team.
Many college football teams -- consider the Washington Huskies as a relevant example this year -- win a lot of home games comfortably but then get stuck in a road game which just doesn't flow smoothly and doesn't involve a generally strong performance... and lose. The team which enjoys so many decisive home wins is unable to adjust and respond when Murphy's Law hits on the road. Washington could not overcome the two bad games it played this season. Alabama did overcome, against an opponent good enough to beat LSU and Texas A&M. This was not an impressive performance by Alabama in terms of a 60-minute body of work, but it was a supremely impressive display in terms of resilience, focus under fire, and crunch-time composure. Hurts embodies those qualities as much as anyone on the Alabama roster. Great teams win precisely when they play average or even slightly below-average ball. Alabama did that in Week 11.
2: AUBURN - The idea that Auburn could contain Georgia's offense and win a physical game in the trenches was hardly absurd. Auburn has some beasts at the line of scrimmage. The Tigers held Clemson to just 14 points on the road earlier this year. They are no joke on defense. However, the idea that Auburn's offense would fully click into place and and expose Kirby Smart's defense, one year after getting utterly embarrassed by Smart in Athens? That notion seemed to hold no legitimacy heading into this past Saturday's Georgia-Auburn contest. Yet, after so many false starts and teases and half-played games (the LSU game being a particularly good example of that last category), Auburn put together a complete offensive game against a strong defense headlined by Roquan Smith, who is quite possibly the best linebacker in America. Auburn's offensive front delivered a hefty, substantial performance, much as it did when scoring 43 points against Georgia in 2013.
It is jarring -- Malzahn and offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey appeared to be out of ideas, smothered by their own minimalist playbook in their losses to Clemson and LSU. Even when they smoked Texas A&M, the result seemed to be as much a product of the Aggies' weakness as their own strength. Georgia represented a different -- and far more legitimate -- test of Auburn's resources. The offense could not have passed the test much more fully than it did.
Auburn now moves into the Iron Bowl as the second-best team in the SEC. It has not been a linear journey, but the Tigers have to be rated ahead of Georgia after Week 11.
3: GEORGIA - Georgia Tech isn't until next week, but that game holds an enormous amount of weight. We'll talk more about that game in the course of time, but the Auburn loss makes Georgia Tech a must-have for reasons which go beyond an in-state rivalry.
What is fascinating about Georgia getting blitzed by Auburn -- and specifically, dominated by AU's offensive line -- is that a few hours after this loss, Notre Dame's offensive line got obliterated by Miami. Apparently, Georgia holding down Notre Dame's offensive front, while certainly a credit to the Dawgs, was in part a reflection of Notre Dame's offensive line not being the be-all and end-all. (The contrary argument: Georgia won at Notre Dame, not in Athens -- the Bulldogs should have been ready to play on the road in Jordan-Hare Stadium, in part because they had already won a huge road contest this season.)
4: MISSISSIPPI STATE - The Bulldogs' immensely bold and valiant effort against Alabama keeps them No. 4. Mississippi State knew that Alabama had to go several spots into its depth chart at linebacker and sought to play an attritional game by not going for big plays, but by trying to peck and poke and prod the Bama defense with a series of incisive runs and short passes. The plan intended to keep the Bama defense on the field, not necessarily the Bama offense OFF the field. There is a difference. Mississippi State wanted to tire out the Alabama defense and did just that.
The Bulldogs fell short because their head coach lost his nerve. Dan Mullen punted on 4th and 2 just outside the Alabama 40 late in the fourth quarter. It goes without question that failure meant Alabama would have been in position to win the game, but that is only one half of the equation. Success on that play would have put Mississippi State on the periphery of field goal range, with a chance to drain clock and win the game without giving the ball back to Alabama. Mullen's Xs and Os are excellent, which makes his unwillingness to trust his offense that much more disappointing.
Alabama is glad he lost his nerve. Nevertheless, Mississippi State should be very proud of its performance. The Bulldogs won a lot of respect despite the loss.
5 and 6: LSU and SOUTH CAROLINA - The top of the SEC was very interesting this past week. The rest of the SEC was not particularly exciting or revealing. LSU and SOUTH CAROLINA were hardly convincing against inferior opponents at home. LSU at least made a strong finishing kick in the fourth quarter, but the Bayou Bengals were fortunate Arkansas couldn't make more (available) big plays on offense, especially in the third quarter. LSU still has to win out to think that it salvaged its season to a reasonable degree. South Carolina will have a very tough time solving Clemson.
7 and 8: TEXAS A&M and KENTUCKY - A&M had this spot to itself a week ago, but Kentucky's blowout of Vanderbilt gives the Wildcats a tie at No. 7. Kentucky got mad and put an end to its pattern of playing down to the level of competition and -- accordingly -- playing a very close game which went down to the last few seconds. When a wobbly team finds some backbone and noticeably improves its level of play, it deserves a rankings bump, even if the caliber of opponent is not particularly impressive.
9: MISSOURI - If the Tigers keep messing around and scoring decisive victories, they could still pass Kentucky, possibly even A&M, in the SEC pecking order. Their rally under Barry Odom has been one of the more pleasant yet unlikely stories in college football for 2017. Related: Remember when some people thought Odom was out of his league? Good times. Odom always did deserve more of a chance to repair Mizzou, and now he'll certainly get it.
10: OLE MISS - The Rebels move up one spot because Vanderbilt played very poorly. Ole Miss did beat VU head-to-head, but Vanderbilt deserved a chance to make a statement against Kentucky before being given lower status. The Rebels being better than four SEC teams this year (and Missouri is not out of the question as a fifth possible team) is in itself remarkable.
11: VANDERBILT - Getting crushed at home by Kentucky, thanks to four Kyle Shurmur interceptions, is an impossible result to sugarcoat, sweep under the rug, or otherwise evade. The Commodores aren't very good and will stay in this spot if they can't win one of their remaining two games (and the teams below them don't score surprising upset wins).
12: ARKANSAS - Athletic Director Jeff Long will not get to hire the next UA football coach. That makes sense. It is time for a reset button in Fayetteville. Long -- who hired Bobby Petrino in December of 2007 (as the man in charge of the search for Houston Nutt's replacement, though he wasn't formally installed as AD until 2008) - then had to fire Petrino after the Jessica Dorrell affair and Petrino's many abuses of his power and access as a state employee. The hire of Bret Bielema made sense on paper. It is impossible to say that Long made a poor hire in terms of resume and track record. Nevertheless, the hire didn't work out, and it is easier for Arkansas to find a new voice unconnected to the turmoil of the Petrino years, followed by a stadium expansion push in recent years. Once again, an incoming athletic director will hire a football coach... or at least, that is the reasonable presumption.
Will Arkansas look for a new AD and head coach in 2027? This 10-year interval from 2007 to 2017 was quite a wild ride. Now Arkansas needs more stability... and the right coach to lead the program to a higher plateau.
13: FLORIDA - The Gators did not completely embarrass themselves in South Carolina! Progress... but had they not fumbled on the South Carolina 1-yard line, they might have been able to do more damage. It's a very bleak time to be a Gator... until the program hires an elite head coach, IF new AD Scott Stricklin can pull it off.
14: TENNESSEE - Will Brady Hoke give the Vols an interim boost against LSU? While you think about that question, the Vols are in a battle with Florida for the better coach. Tennessee AD John Currie better hope that his decision to refrain from firing Butch Jones until this past weekend doesn't make the difference in the coaching competition with Florida. If Florida gets a better coach because it had more of a head start, Currie won't hear the end of it in Knoxville... and the seeds of a failed tenure will be sown.