The winner of Saturday's SEC Championship Game becomes No. 1 in the final SEC Stock Exchange. The No. 2 and No. 3 spots remain fluid and will depend on the outcome of Saturday's contest. Let's start this finale at the bottom and work to the top.
14: TENNESSEE -- The Volunteers finished 0-8 in the SEC and lost eight games in a season for the first time ever. That's how bad this year was. Given the considerable loss of talent, a 2-6 SEC record seemed like a very reasonable prediction. Butch Jones "overachieved" at last!
13: VANDERBILT -- Blowing out Tennessee doesn't make VU better than any other SEC team. Arkansas very likely would have scored a healthy amount of points against VU's defense, which certainly suffered from injuries to the secondary in late September but should have been able to play reasonably well in the back half of the season... but did not. Derek Mason will certainly coach for his job in 2018. There should be no more ambiguity on that point.
12: FLORIDA -- This is the team that barely beat Tennessee at home, was down 13 to Kentucky, and got crushed by Missouri. This is the team with a sputtering offense... which Malik Zaire could not start for at quarterback. This is the team whose head coach did not want the spotlight or the pressure that came with the job. This is the team which had several players suspended for the season. It all showed in the Gators' performances.
11: ARKANSAS -- Bret Bielema never could beat Kevin Sumlin, a coach who also got fired. Bielema's teams were soft, especially on defense. That's the exact opposite of the identity he and his teams cultivated at Wisconsin. The hire by Jeff Long (who is now gone himself) made complete sense on paper. It just didn't work out. That will happen.
10: KENTUCKY -- Ole Miss became a better team by the time the season ended. So did Missouri, which -- remember -- was wronged by lazy and incompetent officiating at the end of its narrow loss to the Wildcats in Lexington. Bowl games should not be taken for granted at UK, but there is very little upside for this program. It is hard to imagine Kentucky ever being better than 8-4 overall, 5-3 in the SEC, under Mark Stoops... and now Florida has a better coach, with Tennessee's search still able to potentially land a gem. (At the time you read this, the Vols might have officially found their new coach. We'll see.) This year gave Kentucky a great chance to win nine games. One wonders when UK's next big opportunity will come.
It probably won't come anytime soon.
9 and 8: MISSOURI and OLE MISS -- It seems hard to separate these two teams from each other. They both had every reason to quit in the middle of the season but instead played their guts out in late October and early November. Missouri was rewarded with a bowl bid, Ole Miss players were rewarded with the retention of a head coach, Matt Luke, they clearly loved and cared for. These are two very unexpected stories of success -- who imagined both having non-losing regular seasons? -- and two of the better yet more unheralded coaching performances in the nation this season. Barry Odom and Matt Luke turned in remarkable work this year.
7: TEXAS A&M -- Anyone saying Kevin Sumlin was wrongly fired is trying too hard. Sumlin is, I think, a very talented coach, but it just didn't work out in College Station after a very bright start with Johnny Manziel.
Here are the two biggest reasons Sumlin had to go, which explain why A&M needed a new voice and a new staff:
A) Sumlin won one SEC West home game the past four seasons, against Mississippi State in 2015. That's a staggering record of underachievement.
B ) Mediocre (at best) LSU offenses hung 99 points -- 54 last year, 45 this year -- on A&M the past two seasons.
If those two reasons don't make the case, you'll never be convinced... but you are a reasonable person.
6: SOUTH CAROLINA -- The Gamecocks lost at Texas A&M, but they did achieve more than the Aggies. They defeated a highly talented North Carolina State team on a neutral field. They finished 5-3 in the conference. They also lost their best offensive player, Deebo Samuel, early in the season and did what they did in spite of that injury. Yes, they deserve the No. 6 spot over A&M. Will Muschamp will have a very rough time with Dan Mullen at Florida, and he still is not "The Answer" for the Gamecocks -- at least, he hasn't proven as much -- but he and his staff definitely did well this year and finished second in a bad division. Full credit is deserved for that.
5: MISSISSIPPI STATE -- The injury to Nick Fitzgerald loomed very large in an Egg Bowl disaster against Ole Miss -- that point cannot be ignored -- but Mississippi State could have at least not turned the ball over 397 times. The Bulldogs' defense played more than well enough to win, but the offense collapsed. That, more than the loss itself, is why MSU must fall to fifth behind LSU. Dan Mullen still did a solid job with this team... and what's great for Hail State fans is that Joe Moorhead -- at least on paper (famous last words in this business, I know) -- looks like a great replacement in Starkville. Life could be a lot worse for Mississippi State. It was a good year, just not great, after the Ole Miss loss.
4: LSU -- The Bayou Bengals are the best team outside of the top three in the conference. That is, on one hand, undeniably impressive given how bad the situation looked following the loss to Troy. Yet, let's not go overboard with this team. Texas A&M's defense is tissue-soft and has been for years. (LSU stunk on offense for much of last season but hung 54 points on the board in College Station.) Arkansas crumbled. Ole Miss overachieved but was still highly flawed and thin. LSU got torched by Mississippi State. The Tigers beat a bad Florida team by a single point.
The come-from-behind win over Auburn was a mystery and yet a magnificent achievement which will grow in stature if AU beats Georgia on Saturday. Ed Orgeron got his team to believe in that game. Special teams rose up. Dave Aranda bottled up Auburn's offense. The offense cobbled together just enough production to push the home team over the top in Baton Rouge. College football makes no sense, and that comeback makes even less sense in light of what Auburn has become, but confusion does not reduce the amount of credit Coach O deserves for rallying the boys this season.
(Will LSU rise to a higher plateau in the future? That's a separate question.)
Now to the top three, whose order will depend on Saturday's outcome.
IF GEORGIA WINS:
3 - ALABAMA
2 - AUBURN
1 - GEORGIA
Auburn smoked Alabama and already beat Georgia. Sure, the Tigers would have three losses compared to one for Alabama, and yes, the LSU collapse was embarrassing. Nevertheless, twin victories over Bama and UGA would count for a lot in my book. Furthermore, Auburn should not be penalized for losing a conference championship game, as many college football teams have been over the past 25 years. Moreover, Auburn playing Bama and Georgia in consecutive weeks is ridiculously difficult (Georgia twice and Bama once in a four-week span). Auburn is ravaged by injuries at running back. If Georgia wins, the Bulldogs would deserve all the credit they receive. The point of emphasis is that Auburn would not deserve to be seen as the third-best team in the SEC. Its wins argue otherwise, and the attritional element attached to Saturday's game further buttresses the Tigers' case. The postscript: Bama's best SEC win was at home against LSU. Not having either Georgia or Auburn on the list of victories justifies a No. 3 slotting for the Tide if Georgia prevails this Saturday.
IF AUBURN WINS:
3 - GEORGIA
2 - ALABAMA
1 - AUBURN
This would be the less complicated scenario. Auburn's Iron Bowl win was decisive, but Alabama lasted a full quarter longer than Georgia, which was done and dusted midway through the third quarter in Jordan-Hare Stadium. Auburn sweeping Georgia -- with one of the wins being on a neutral field in Atlanta -- would give UGA very little room to stand on in terms of topping Bama for a No. 2 slot. One could carve out a slight exception: Let's say this game is a classic, akin to the 2012 SEC title game between Alabama and Georgia. If the game is that memorable and Georgia puts up a tremendous fight but still loses in the final minutes, okay, the Dawgs could deserve No. 2. However, if Auburn wins in a more modest fashion -- in terms of a more comfortable point spread or a game not played at an elite level -- one should feel comfortable in saying that Alabama would likely beat Georgia on a neutral field, had the scenario ever occurred.
Postscript: If Georgia does win on Saturday and TCU and/or Ohio State win their conference championship games, the door would certainly be open for Georgia and Bama to meet in Atlanta after all...
... in the national championship game in January.
Thus ends the final SEC Stock Exchange of 2017. Thanks for reading -- enjoy coaching carousel season, followed by the bowls!