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Early Returns in the SEC

It goes without saying that the first two weeks of the season is a pretty small sample size, and thus we shouldn't necessarily expect to be able to draw any overly concrete conclusions just yet. Nevertheless, after a couple of games we know a lot more about teams than we did before, and at the very least we should be able to get a fairly decent overview of teams, and at least make some educated guesses about how they should fair going forward. To that end, here are a few thoughts on some SEC teams I've seen a pretty good bit of in the first couple of weeks:

Alabama: Coming into the season Alabama was picked to win the SEC West, and so far we've really done nothing to justify a downgrade in that projection. The win over Virginia Tech is the most impressive win any SEC team has posted to date, Greg McElroy has practically exceeded all expectations to date, and the passing game has been much less dependent on Julio Jones. The defense has proven to be as good as expected, and the pass rush is much improved. Nevertheless, despite generally looking good early on, things aren't exactly all well in Tuscaloosa. We have shown great promise and we have had great individual performances, but we haven't really came all that close to firing on all cylinders just yet, and all of the promise has at times been negated by a tendency to shoot ourselves in the foot with critical dropped passes, major breakdowns in the kick coverage game, costly penalties, middling safety play, and an inability to convert in short-yardage situations on offense. To be sure, the schedule does set up pretty nicely for the Tide and this team ought to at least win nine games or so and be in contention to get to Atlanta. We have the ability to be a very good team and one that could return to Atlanta in a re-match with a potential berth in the national championship game on the line, but if the mistakes continue we are going to lose a few games and perhaps watch another SEC West team reap the spoils of playing in the SEC Championship Game. The raw foundation is there, but ultimately it's a question of distinction that will be determined by the amount of progress we can make from this point moving forward.

Auburn: For all the outrage and criticism directed at Auburn over the Gene Chizik hire, the opening of the Chizik era has gone surprisingly well. Wins over Louisiana Tech and Mississippi State came with relative ease, and the offense has been surprisingly successful, racking up over 1,100 yards and 86 points in the first two games. And, frankly, judging by their early performance, I actually expect they will move to a 4-0 start with wins over West Virginia and Ball State. So, the early returns look pretty good for Aubie. On the other hand, though, despite the quick start, there are still plenty of reasons to be skeptical moving forward. Lack of quality depth is so bad that Auburn cannot afford any injuries anywhere, and it's hard to see them getting that kind of injury luck. Likewise, the first two wins of the season are really suspect -- Louisiana Tech was completely dominated on Saturday by Navy, and Mississippi State is the worst team in the SEC by a wide margin -- and for all of the feel good nature of Chris Todd's resurgence, he was only 10-23 for 188 yards and 0 touchdowns against a Mississippi State secondary that is rebuilding and is probably the worst in the conference. Given those considerations, I'm really not sure I see anything yet to move this team above the top six or seven in the conference, and they are still likely to have some major struggles once the meat of the schedule hits. Nevertheless, Chizik and company have clearly avoided the train wreck that many feared, and if Auburn can get out to the 4-0 start (with Furman remaining on the schedule), they suddenly only need to find one more win somewhere else on the schedule to make it back to a bowl game.

Georgia: The shellacking that UGA took in Stillwater in the season opener against Oklahoma State was disheartening enough to begin with, but things looked even worse the follow week when Houston took it to the Cowboys. Georgia did rebound on Saturday to win a thriller with South Carolina, but problem areas are seemingly everywhere. Joe Cox hasn't exactly done anything special yet -- plus he's fighting through an injury to his throwing arm -- Trinton Sturdivant is gone for the year with another knee injury, and the offense as a whole hasn't been particularly impressive. Only ten points went on the board against Oklahoma State, and while the 41 points against the South Carolina defense looks very impressive on paper, a closer examination reveals many flaws. Specifically, the Dawgs racked up only about 300 yards of offense, turned the ball over three times, had an interception returned for a touchdown, had a fumble deep in their own territory lead to another South Carolina touchdown, and seven of their points came on a kick return for a touchdown. Again, as far as "good" performances go, it wasn't overly impressive. Moreover, they've killed themselves with penalties to date, and while the defense looked decent against Oklahoma State, the 30+ points and 400+ yards of offense allowed to that South Carolina offense is simply inexcusable. All in all, this just isn't a team that looks very strong right now, and there are holes everywhere. And making matters worse, of course, is that the schedule is incredibly tough from here on out. If this team does not turn out to have the worst record of the Richt era since his debut campaign, it will come as a surprise.

LSU: After two middling-at-best wins over some not exactly impressive opponents, LSU has not made a definite statement to date that they have overcame the issues of a year ago. Truth be told, in their performances against Washington and Vanderbilt, LSU has looked a lot more like their 2008 team than their 2003-2007 teams. The offense has generally been pretty good, but the defense hasn't exactly regained its dominant form yet with John Chavis at the helm, the defensive end play has been poor, the defensive backfield has remained shaky, and the interior of the offensive line has struggled to replace Herman Johnson and Brett Helms, and have thus struggled to establish the run for Charles Scott and Keiland Williams. To date, LSU has been heavily reliant on superior skill position play on the outside and a bit of luck -- specifically a dropped Vandy pass, trailing 16-9, which turned into an interception, that other would have given Vandy (probably) a first and goal late in the third quarter -- but luck is a fickle element and the edge with skill position players will be much smaller once the meat of the schedule hits. On the other hand, though, LSU is guaranteed to win a lot of games this year just because of a soft schedule, and frankly they are effectively guaranteed a 4-0 start regardless of how good or bad they may be. They really do not face a legitimate test until the fifth week of the season (Georgia), and arguably the sixth week of the season when Florida comes to town, so in many ways it really does not matter how impressive LSU is right now because their early season games are effectively glorified scrimmages. At the beginning of the season I said LSU was the most difficult prediction of any SEC team, and through two weeks I really haven't seen anything to make me feel like we really know anything more about this team.

Mississippi State: In my SEC West preview before the season, I speculated that MSU would be the worst team in the conference this year, and quite frankly not only have the first two games proven that speculation to be true, it has shown us that the gap between them and the second worst team in the conference is a pretty wide one. After opening the season in Starkville against Jackson State -- a mediocre Division 1-AA team -- MSU struggled through the first half and only racked up points after the Bullies wore them down in the second half with better conditioning and depth. The following week at Auburn, which is probably at most the third worst team on MSU's conference schedule, they gave up 49 points and over 500 yards of offense. Not only could they not win, they couldn't even get within a country mile of contending for a win. And things aren't going to get any better from here. Georgia Tech will thump them in non-conference play, and after watching Houston beat Oklahoma State, there's no reason to think they won't beat the Bulldogs easily as well. In conference play, their best chance for a win likely comes this weekend in Nashville against Vanderbilt, and even there they opened as ten point underdogs. The best chance for a win the rest of way is clearly against Middle Tennessee State, but that too will be a tough game, and a win is far from guaranteed. This is just a really bad team right now, and frankly even three wins may very well be a stretch at this point.

South Carolina: Year five of the Spurrier era in Columbia began with what was quite possibly one of the ugliest season opening games in ages, and it looked like the offensive incompetence was going to continue for yet another year. Then, out of nowhere, the Gamecocks offense put up 31 points on the road against Georgia and over 400 yards of total offense. Perhaps that game was an anomaly, but at least it does provide some hope moving forward. The defense will generally be a good one, but it's a thin unit that can be really hammered hard by a key injury. If the defense can stay healthy and offense can find a way to consistently do whatever it was that they did against Georgia, then this South Carolina team can become a very dangerous one. Unfortunately for Gamecock fans, though, I really haven't seen anything to date that would make me feel any better about the brutal schedule they have before them. They are 1-1 now, and they still have games remaining against Alabama, Florida, Ole Miss, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Clemson. If South Carolina can continue to play like they did against Georgia they will be a dangerous team, but it's hard to see them breaking out of their middling-at-best funk with the murderer's row slate of games they have ahead of them.

Tennessee: So Lane Kiffin is not Lord and Savior of all things puke orange after all. The 63-7 blowout win in the season opener against Western Kentucky was just a sham, and one that was fueled largely by simply running up the score with 28 points in the fourth quarter on arguably the worst Division 1-A team in the country. Just like Kiffin's off-season comments, it was nothing more than sheer histrionics. UCLA revealed the sham for what it was, and it didn't even take long at that. Jonathon Crompton may have looked great when he had all day to throw the football to his wide open receivers, but in reality he is still the inaccurate, poor decision-maker that he has always been. And the damning thing of it is, UCLA isn't even that good of a team. The Tennessee defense, of course, looks to be one of the best in the country, and much like last year the Vols will effectively go as far as that defense can take them. And in that sense, it seems that nothing major has changed with Tennessee. They will probably get beat by the usual suspects, and at the end of the day they will likely end up around 6-6, give or take a game one way or the other, and fighting the whole way for every inch.