General thoughts around the SEC after week four:
Alabama: Four weeks into the season, the Tide stands at 3-1 and is playing relatively well. The overtime loss to Georgia, while disappointing, is not particularly bad considering that the Bulldogs seem to be the toughest team on the schedule aside from LSU. The potential is there to reel off nine or ten regular season wins, but improvement is the key. Under Shula, Alabama peaked early and continuously went downhill from there, and if that continues in the first year of the Saban era, we'll likely fall to 7-5 or so. If we can improve much like Saban's teams have traditionally done as the year progresses, nine or ten wins is possible.
Arkansas: After losing a heartbreaker to Alabama, Arkansas again had a fourth quarter meltdown in a loss at home to Kentucky. With back-to-back conference losses, Arkansas is effectively eliminated from the race for the SEC West. I was impressed with Arkansas when we played them, but then again I naturally wanted them to be good considering we beat them, so it may have been bias on my part. Let us be not ignorant of our own prejudices. At this point, Arkansas seems to be in a bit of trouble. With Auburn, South Carolina, Tennessee, and LSU left on the table, 8-4 seems about as good as this team can do. At the rate they are going, you have to figure that South Carolina and LSU will be losses, and there could possibly be an upset along the way. It seems that the Hogs look destined for a return to mediocrity under Nutt.
Auburn: New Mexico State provided at least a temporary breather for the Tigers, but the same concerns are still there as NMSU racked up almost 400 yards of offense, the Auburn passing game was relatively non-existent, and it was a very close game at halftime. It's not that Auburn played any better, they just played a much easier team. A trip to Gainesville this week will likely yield a loss and a 2-3 overall record, and at this point even Vanderbilt could very well be a loss. LSU will likely hammer the Tigers, and they will be underdogs against Arkansas, Georgia, and Alabama. Again, let us be not ignorant of our own prejudices so it may be bias talking here, but it looks like anything better than 6-6 for the Plainsmen is unlikely.
Florida: Though the Gators had a close one against Ole Miss, that was a trap game for them -- sandwiched between Tennessee and Auburn / LSU -- and this still looks to be a very solid team. Tim Tebow is currently a dual-threat at quarterback like this conference has never seen, and they are easily the favorites to win the SEC East. They will probably lose to LSU in Baton Rouge, but a re-match is almost certain in Atlanta, and their odds are probably higher there. Either way, this is a very good football team that is likely to get at least ten regular season wins and guarantee themselves a second straight trip to Atlanta.
Georgia: I'll be honest, this Georgia team was better than I expected them to be, and they are looking good. Given how Tennessee and Auburn have struggled thus far, the Dawgs could very well win every other game on the schedule. Except Florida. Unfortunately for UGA, beating the Gators has been a monumental event for almost the past two decades, and that's highly unlikely to change this year. If they could do that, which is highly unlikely, they could very well win the SEC East, but considering how unlikely that is, they are nonetheless likely to win nine or ten games this season and end up in a good bowl game.
Kentucky: The Wildcats are 4-0, and will move to 5-0 with a win over one of the Sisters of the Poor this week. Nonetheless, I don't buy the notion that this team is a truly elite team. Yes they are a good team, and yes they are going to make a second straight bowl game, but they aren't on the level of LSU and Florida, and they won't seriously compete for the SEC. They squeezed by Louisville -- who suddenly doesn't look good at all after a squeaker against MTSU and a loss to Syracuse -- and beat a pretty good Arkansas team. They are definitely good, but a three game stretch against South Carolina, LSU, and Florida will likely hurt them quite badly. If they lose all three, no one should be surprised. An 8-4 season or so should be expected, but talks of a championship run are unrealistic.
LSU: The Bayou Bengals are still looking good, and likely the class of the SEC. Injuries though are a concern at the moment, and the road is very tough considering they have to go through Florida, most likely, twice. Nonetheless, this is a very good football team, and they are playing quite well. As I've stated before, their season -- barring an unforeseen upset -- is going to come down to two match-ups against Florida.
Mississippi State: The Bulldogs are 3-1, and will likely be 4-2 in a couple of weeks after a win over UAB. Still though, this isn't a particularly good team, despite a good start. They beat Auburn, but honestly that was more about Auburn -- a very mediocre at best team in their own right -- beating themselves with turnovers. Again, they'll likely start 4-2, but they are still likely to lose five consecutive games after the UAB contest to Tennessee, West Virginia, Kentucky, Alabama, and Arkansas. The Bulldogs will get four wins, but perhaps not five. They aren't as bad as they have been the past six years -- as if they could really get any worse -- but they still aren't very good, despite a surprising early season start.
Ole Miss: Johnny Reb again played well in a loss to a clearly superior opponent, but unfortunately they have dropped to 1-3, and at the moment the only guaranteed win left on the schedule is Northwestern State. They have a couple of more games where they have a shot, but all in all this is just a team that has to make a lot of improvement in a very short period of time if it wants to finish with more than three or four wins. Unless significant improvement comes soon, the Mississippi State game could be it for Ed Orgeron. A loss there and he may be fired, just being brutally honest. Recruiting successes aside, coaches who have three straight losing seasons usually don't return for a fourth campaign.
Tennessee: The Vols beat Arkansas State, but that's about all you can say. Once again, they didn't play particularly well, and this team doesn't seem to be particularly good. Unless they make a good deal of improvement over the off week, they are likely to fall to 2-3 with a loss to Georgia, and that's with games against Alabama, Arkansas, South Carolina, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt remaining. I'm not sure that this will be a repeat of 2005, but at the moment 7-5 seems to be about a best-case scenario for the Vols, and it could get worse. The Arkansas State win was much like Auburn's win over New Mexico State, it goes up in the win column, but it really did nothing to dispel all of the concerns that people have about them.
Vanderbilt: The Commodores are 2-1, and will move to 3-1 with a win over Eastern Michigan this week. After that, it's a brutal three game stretch against Auburn, Georgia, and South Carolina. While the latter two are likely losses, the Auburn game is very winnable, and a win there would put them in great shape. With Wake Forest and Miami (Ohio) still on the schedule -- both a good chance at wins -- not to mention the aforementioned Eastern Michigan, Vanderbilt could be a win away from a possible bowl appearance. This is a decent team, and a 6-6 season with a bowl appearance is very much a legitimate possibility.
[editor's note, by outsidethesidelines]
I wrote the bit for South Carolina, but due to a couple of major issues that have come up, I decided to re-write their section. And since it's a special edit, I'll give them a bit more space, so here goes:
South Carolina: I said earlier that the Gamecocks weren't quite ready for the big-time, and the LSU game showed us that. Without doubt, they could have won this game, but they really let it get away with a lot of their own mistakes and some that was just bad luck. They had a fluke interception in their own territory, dropped a sure-fire interception return for a touchdown, gave up a touchdown on a fake field goal, and failed to convert a fourth and short early in the third quarter deep in their own territory that led to an LSU touchdown. And now they have more turmoil, as Steve Spurrier has named Chris Smelley as the starting quarterback, and star linebacker Jasper Brinkley is out for the year with a knee injury. Smelley looked good against LSU, but with Brinkley and Nathan Pepper now out for the year with knee injuries, the defense is a concern. Those two absences hurt them a lot against LSU in terms of defending the run, and it's a concern on down the stretch. If anything, this really helps Florida, as the Gamecocks seem to be the only legitimate contender for them in the East. With little doubt, this is still a pretty good football team, but given the uncertainty at quarterback combined with the injuries on defense, it's future is relatively uncertain at the moment.