SEC Football Power Rankings: Week 3

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistSeptember 18, 2018

SEC Football Power Rankings: Week 3

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    While the top two teams in the SEC flexed their muscles with convincing victories Saturday—one against a divisional foe—there was a bit of a power shift in conference bragging rights toward the top.

    LSU went on the road to Auburn and kicked a last-second field goal to stun the other Tigers at Jordan-Hare Stadium by the final score of 22-21 to surge up the power rankings. Auburn didn't fall too far, though.

    Alabama embarrassed Ole Miss 62-7, and Georgia took care of cupcake Middle Tennessee a week after its first test of the year against South Carolina.

    With the Big Ten's Saturday stumble and the Pac-12's continued futility, it looks like it's a three-conference race for national prominence between the SEC, ACC and Big 12. There have been no early indications that the SEC is anything but the top group again this year.

    The early returns indicate that the coaching overhaul this offseason boosted play. But we're about to get into the conference slate where teams beat up on one another, so it will be interesting to see how things shake out.

    Let's take a look at the SEC's power rankings following the Week 3 games.

14. Arkansas Razorbacks

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    Michael Woods/Associated Press

    This has all the trappings to be a nightmare season in Chad Morris' first season as Arkansas' head coach.

    Following back-to-back losses to "Group of Five" conference programs, the Razorbacks must travel to Auburn before hosting Texas A&M and Alabama. Unless something drastic changes, all three of those games are looking like probable losses. It doesn't get much better from there.

    Week 2's loss to Colorado State was especially bad since the Hogs had the game in hand and let it slip away. But a shocking 44-17 loss to North Texas at home Saturday won't do Morris any favors with a proud and frustrated fanbase.

    Even more worrisome is the Mean Green embarrassed Arkansas with an early college football play of the season, deeking Hogs special teamers into thinking a fair catch was called, only to return it 90 yards for a touchdown.

    Then, they embarrassed Arkansas on the scoreboard.

    "We took a punch today, especially in the first half ..." Morris told the Associated Press (h/t the Dallas Morning News). "I think they scored 17 points in 16 plays in the first half and just stunned us right there. We never could rally back."

    The punches are only going to get harder from here.

13. Ole Miss Rebels

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    There were warning signs throughout last weekend's 76-41 win over Southern Illinois, which was far too close for three quarters before quarterback Jordan Ta'amu and the Rebels pulled away.

    But Saturday night's dismantling at the hands of Alabama showed that defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff's unit has deep-rooted issues. 

    The Crimson Tide are going to make a lot of teams look awful this year, but there was no excuse for a 62-7 home loss to anybody in the conference, including Nick Saban's team. It isn't just a talent issue either. The Rebels had no idea where to be, where to go or who to cover.

    They looked lost.

    That's a problem.

    An even greater worry is that the Crimson Tide held Ole Miss' vaunted receiving corps of A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf and DaMarkus Lodge to just seven catches all night.

    Alabama is a different animal in the SEC. The Tide are the defending national champions and have looked far and away like the nation's best team in the early season. But if the Rebels don't fix some things, they aren't going to win many games in Matt Luke's first full season as full-time head coach in Oxford.

    The Rebels get a reprieve against Kent State next week before playing hated rival LSU in Baton Rouge.

12. Tennessee Volunteers

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    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    After a style-points victory over East Tennessee State in Week 2, the Tennessee Volunteers needed to show their fans they'd continued growth in every area in another "gimme game" against the UTEP Miners on Saturday.

    Instead, they looked flat and lifeless in a 24-0 win.

    Freshman running back Jeremy Banks fumbled on the goal line, and UT dealt with drive-killing penalties all day. Though the offensive line looked better at times opening running lanes, the Vols struggled to put the ball in the end zone against arguably one of the worst FBS teams in the nation.

    One bright spot is the defense continues to look much-improved, harassing Texas transfer quarterback Kai Locksley (the son of Alabama offensive coordinator Mike Locksley) and keeping the Miners off the scoreboard.

    Still, it was hardly an effort to inspire confidence. The Vols don't look ready for SEC action, as offensive coordinator Tyson Helton can't get in a play-calling groove, and the difference-making turnover plays on defense weren't there for UT like a week ago.

    Warm-up time is over. The Vols host the rival Florida Gators in a crucial divisional matchup Saturday night in Neyland Stadium. The early-season game looks like a must-win for bowl eligibility, or at least for good feelings about making one in Jeremy Pruitt's first season as head coach.

    After that, UT goes to Georgia and Auburn before hosting Alabama in a grueling three-game stretch. The Vols better get the Gators, or 2-5 looks probable before another big game at South Carolina.

11. Florida Gators

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    There weren't many feelings of happiness after Kentucky ended 31 years of frustration and futility against Florida with a win in the Swamp last weekend, but the Gators responded about as well as could be hoped.

    That loss and the fallout afterward was ugly, as running back Adarius Lemons announced his intent to transfer on Twitter.

    But Florida shook off all the distractions and rebounded with a convincing 48-10 victory over Colorado State at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Saturday.

    The Rams outgained the Gators by more than 100 yards through the air, but Florida's sound defense and special teams proved to be the difference. CSU has a high-octane offensive attack, but UF lived in the backfield, pressuring quarterback K.J. Carta-Samuels for much of the game.

    The Gators' special teams were brilliant as well. Tyrie Cleveland recovered a blocked punt for a touchdown, and Freddie Swain raced for an 85-yard punt-return touchdown.

    Though they won the game, the Gators still had to pay for it. Literally. According to the Associated Press (h/t ESPN.com), "the Gators will pay the Rams a whopping $2 million for the game, part of [former head coach Jim] McElwain's $7 million buyout to leave Fort Collins for Gainesville late in the 2014 season."

    More importantly, though, UF looked like it got a proper tune-up before heading to Knoxville to play a team it has owned in recent years.

10. Vanderbilt Commodores

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    When Vanderbilt's last-gasp drive failed to produce points in Saturday's heartbreaking 22-17 loss at No. 8 Notre Dame, there was true dejection on the field. Perhaps that's the best illustration of how far head coach Derek Mason's program has come.

    Now, the Commodores must pick up the pieces and respond to losing to a Top 10 team much differently than a season ago. 

    Last year, after upsetting No. 18 Kansas State, VU got dismantled by No. 1 Alabama and never regrouped, finishing the season 5-7 and only winning one game in the SEC (against Tennessee) despite its 3-0 start. The Commodores were much more respectable in their trip to South Bend.

    Quarterback Kyle Shurmur had some bright glimmers against the Fighting Irish's strong secondary, and VU's defense made things difficult on Notre Dame quarterbacks Brandon Wimbush and Ian Book. The rugged slugfest was indicative of some of Mason's games against the Irish from his days as Stanford defensive coordinator.

    Vanderbilt must make sure that toughness translates in the SEC. The 'Dores play South Carolina, Georgia and Florida (along with Tennessee State) in the coming four games. It's a tough stretch that could wear out the best of teams.

    Mason's squad isn't there yet, but it looks much-improved from a season ago and poised to battle for bowl contention. It's just a matter of how much better the Commodores play after a game that had to sap tons of energy and enthusiasm from a team that believed it could pull off an upset.

9. Kentucky Wildcats

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    Bryan Woolston/Associated Press

    Thankfully, with Murray State on Kentucky's schedule, the dreaded "hangover game" never came for the Wildcats.

    A week after an emotional 27-16 victory over then-No. 25 Florida, the 'Cats hosted the Racers at Commonwealth Stadium and got off to a slow start before responding in the second half with what turned into a 48-10 win.

    Now, the difficulty really begins, as the Wildcats host Mississippi State and South Carolina before traveling to Texas A&M. That's a division rival and two difficult draws out of a loaded SEC West, and head coach Mark Stoops needs to go at least 1-2 in that stretch to keep the good vibes in Lexington.

    The best news for UK continues to be junior college transfer quarterback Terry Wilson, who looks like one of the most dynamic new stars in the SEC. He's only a sophomore, and he followed his elite performance against Florida with a 42-yard scoring run early against Murray.

    He also completed 19 of 25 passes for 163 yards, and he's completed nearly 70 percent of his passes so far this season.

    Benny Snell Jr. is one of the best runners in the conference as well, and he doesn't get enough headlines.

    Next weekend's game against the Bulldogs is huge for UK's defense, which will face its stiffest challenge yet against dual-threat signal-caller Nick Fitzgerald. If the Wildcats can somehow come away with a win, they will be for real and shoot up the power rankings.

8. South Carolina Gamecocks

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    With Hurricane Florence bearing down on the Carolinas, the Gamecocks' contest against the Marshall Thundering Herd on Saturday was cancelled. That kept head coach Will Muschamp's team from getting a feel-good game under its belt before conference play continued.

    Obviously, safety is much bigger than football, so that's just one of the minor frustrations that came with the epic storm. The Gamecocks will be glad to get back to football.

    That will happen next week, when they travel to Nashville to take on Vanderbilt before heading to Lexington to pay against Kentucky. Both of those games are winnable, and Muschamp's program has reached the point where it will be a major disappointment if it loses either.

    It's going to be interesting to see how the team responds now that its goals have shifted a little. Georgia doesn't look like it's going to lose two games in the conference, and the Bulldogs' victory in Williams-Brice Stadium in Week 2 was essentially good for a two-game lead in the SEC East.

    But with quarterback Jake Bentley and a bunch of offensive weapons, the Gamecocks have high aspirations for 2018, and a strong season and a big bowl are still in reach. South Carolina needs to fix some defensive gaps. But UGA is going to make a lot of teams look bad this year, so those may not be as bad as they seem.

    How Muschamp's program responds these next few weeks and throughout the remainder of the season will tell a lot about South Carolina's ceiling in his tenure. Bentley is one of the best signal-callers in the league, and Carolina needs to capitalize while Tennessee and Florida are down.

    If the Gamecocks can take care of business, they'll move up this list.

7. Missouri Tigers

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    It's hard to decide whether Missouri or South Carolina is the second-best team in the SEC East or if a squad that hasn't shown everything yet, such as Florida or Kentucky, could creep up the list.

    One thing is certain: The Mizzou offense is the truth.

    The Tigers again threw up a ton of points in Saturday night's last-second 40-37 win over the Purdue Boilermakers in West Lafayette, Indiana. Heisman Trophy hopeful Drew Lock threw for 375 yards and three touchdowns.

    Though Purdue quarterback David Blough (572 yards) outdueled him, it was encouraging for Mizzou that an up-and-down running game was strong in a matchup that called for balance and clock management, as the Boilermakers can put up points in a hurry.

    The Tigers finished with 233 rushing yards, led by Larry Rountree III's 168. As Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm's team roared back, Mizzou found traction running the ball to give its beleaguered defense breaks.

    Now, about that defense. Though head coach Barry Odom is a defensive-minded coach, the Tigers have struggled on that side of the ball in his tenure, and Purdue shredded their secondary Saturday. They have to fix those issues, or it's going to be a long SEC season.

    With conference play heating up, the Tigers are looking squarely at a gauntlet as they host No. 2 Georgia next week. Then after a bye, they travel to South Carolina and No. 1 Alabama.

    If they can somehow salvage one win in that stretch, it could be another exciting year in Columbia after some down cycles. They need to stay healthy and keep putting up tons of points.

6. Texas A&M Aggies

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    Sam Craft/Associated Press

    This was the week of 48-10 wins for SEC teams playing cupcake opponents. Florida beat Colorado State by that tally, Kentucky beat Murray State by the same score, and Texas A&M followed its upstart performance against Clemson by defeating Louisiana-Monroe 48-10 at Kyle Field.

    That was a nice response after the Aggies barely lost to Clemson a week ago in quarterback Kellen Mond's breakout party. The sophomore quarterback was solid against the Warhawks, throwing for 210 yards and a score. He added 67 rushing yards and a couple of touchdowns on the ground.

    Running back Trayveon Williams was stout too, gaining 128 yards and running in a touchdown.

    Perhaps the best thing for A&M is that coordinator Mike Elko's defense continues to grow. There aren't many questions that head coach Jimbo Fisher will get the most out of his offense, and the Aggies already are responding to his philosophy.

    But Elko had a tougher job, and the biggest encouragement for fans should be the progress of the defense. Despite all the positive vibes that are going around College Station, the Aggies travel to Tuscaloosa next weekend to take on an Alabama team that looks like it has few weaknesses.

    They have a history of playing the Crimson Tide tough, and if they can come up with another strong performance, in a win or a loss, it will be a strong building block for Fisher's program moving forward.

    It's also going to be interesting to see how the dual-threat Mond looks against Alabama's elite athletes. This weekend will tell us a lot about the growth of A&M's program, but it can lose and still wind up having a strong season.

5. Mississippi State Bulldogs

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    Remember all that talk about winning 48-10? The Mississippi State Bulldogs scored even more in their 56-10 thrashing of Louisiana-Lafayette at Davis Wade Stadium on Saturday.

    It's obvious that Nick Fitzgerald is shaking off the rust after his season-ending injury in 2017 and opening-game suspension this year. Against the Ragin' Cajuns, he looked like one of the SEC's top players, throwing for 243 yards and two touchdowns while running for 107 yards and four more scores.

    Head coach Joe Moorhead has been the perfect fit in Starkville. Just how good? According to MSU associate athletic director/communications Bill Martin, the program has seven games in its history in which it has eclipsed 600 total yards. Two of those came in Moorhead's first three games.

    Sure, the Bulldogs should give a major assist to current Florida head coach Dan Mullen, who recruited a lot of these stars. But they've thrived under Moorhead, the former offensive coordinator at Penn State.

    Moorhead also hired former Tennessee and PSU defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, who struggled mightily with Butch Jones in Knoxville before being fired with that staff. He's back to his old ways in Starkville, though, coaching a fast, athletic and opportunistic defense.

    Next week's showdown with Kentucky is an intriguing matchup for both teams. Everybody wants to know just how good the Bulldogs are. They have so much upperclassman talent, but are they good enough to compete with Alabama, Auburn and LSU?

    We won't know that until later in the season, but right now, they look stout.

4. Auburn Tigers

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    There's no question that Saturday's last-second 22-21 loss to LSU at home is a major blow to the Tigers, who led most of the game, played solid defense and controlled the contest until late in the fourth quarter.

    But quarterback Jarrett Stidham made two crucial mistakes, and though the AU defense controlled much of the game, it had a couple of major busts and a huge final-drive penalty that crushed the team's chances of winning.

    That's the bad news.

    The good news is this happened to Gus Malzahn's squad last year in Baton Rouge, as LSU head coach Ed Orgeron got his biggest victory in a 27-23 result. The Tigers from the Plains rebounded and went on an incredible run that included wins over Georgia and Alabama before succumbing in the second game against the Dawgs.

    Can Malzahn dial up the same magic this season?

    Sure, the defense is just as strong, and Stidham has all the tools, even if he has been far from consistent. But the Tigers don't have the same weapons in the running game as a season ago, and the SEC West is much better with the emergence of Mississippi State and Texas A&M.

    Auburn isn't dynamic enough on offense to make the kinds of mistakes it did Saturday. It has to rebound and realize it has a lot of opportunities to rectify the early-season setback. And the Tigers must improve dramatically before Georgia and Alabama loom in November.

    They should handle Arkansas and Southern Miss before heading to Starkville on Oct. 6 for a huge tilt.

3. LSU Tigers

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    The LSU Tigers are a flawed football team. But that 3-0 record to start the season is flawless, and that's all that matters.

    When you go to Auburn, you don't win pretty football games. But if you win, you get to keep plugging away while moving up the rankings. Coach Ed Orgeron's team earned that right when a last-second 42-yard field goal propelled it to a win over the other Tigers in the SEC West.

    In the process, LSU found a leader in Joe Burrow, who transferred from Ohio State after losing the quarterback battle to Dwayne Haskins. Much like his team, Burrow is flawed, having completed less than 50 percent of his passes this season.

    The Tigers also don't have elite running backs to lean on like they did during the last few years with Leonard Fournette and Derrius Guice. But senior Nick Brossette waited his turn, and he's clearly LSU's top runner right now. He's doing a nice job with 60 rushing attempts for 331 yards and two scores.

    The offense needs to improve dramatically to continue LSU's success against teams like Mississippi State, Florida, Texas A&M and especially Alabama. But it was good enough to get through AU.

    Coordinator Dave Aranda's unit, on the other hand, is as strong as it's ever been, with the kind of athletes you're used to seeing on the Bayou. Players such as Devin White, Breiden Fehoko, Jacob Phillips, Grant Delpit and Greedy Williams make this a fearsome defense.

    They should be able to keep LSU in most games. How Burrow and the offense develop is what can determine whether this is a formidable team that can win the West.

2. Georgia Bulldogs

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    Mike Stewart/Associated Press

    Nobody in the country has looked as stout as Alabama this season, but the Georgia Bulldogs may be the second-most impressive team that has played consistently so far.

    They've looked better than Clemson, Penn State, Notre Dame, Oklahoma and, arguably, Ohio State—all after losing 31 seniors a year ago.

    Head coach Kirby Smart's program kept rolling Saturday, when it dominated Middle Tennessee 49-7 to go to 3-0 on the young season. Those three wins, of course, include a handling of division rival South Carolina. 

    Quarterbacks Jake Fromm and Justin Fields were both sharp against the Blue Raiders, and the Dawgs' running back stable of D'Andre Swift, Elijah Holyfield, Brian Herrien and others are as good as any besides Alabama's. Swift had just four carries against MTSU, and it didn't matter.

    Perhaps the most exciting and encouraging thing for UGA fans is the young defense, which has played strong football despite not generating much of a pass rush. Smart is infusing those players—acquired in recruiting victories—into the scheme on both sides of the ball and not missing a beat.

    The Bulldogs don't play a strong schedule, so it should give these kids ample time to grow into their roles. When the end of the year rolls around with games against Florida, Auburn and a possible showdown with Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, they'll be ready.

    It looks like UGA is going to be just fine.

1. Alabama Crimson Tide

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    Even Saban had a hard time finding bones to pick after his team's 62-7 annihilation of Ole Miss in Oxford on Saturday night, per Charlie Potter of Bama Online:

    "I was very pleased with the way we did a lot of things tonight, especially the fact that we gave up a big play, a 75-yard bomb on the first play of the game and I think it showed tremendous resiliency to take the ball right down the field and score as if nothing happened. And then the defense didn't give up any points the rest of the game."

    And what's he going to say about an offense that was dominant at every turn, scoring at will against a deflated Rebels defense? Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa looks like a Heisman Trophy front-runner in limited snaps, backup Jalen Hurts had strong moments as well and UA's running backs are the best in the nation.

    There's an embarrassment of riches at receiver, and it doesn't matter what class the players are in; whether freshmen or seniors, they're playing first-class football.

    That's what happens when you consistently recruit the best players in the nation, and Alabama looks the part.

    As a matter of fact, it looks like everybody else is playing for second, not only in the SEC but also in the nation.

    The Crimson Tide hired six new coaches for 2018, and the fresh life has injected excitement into a program that didn't need to be any better after winning the national championship last season. Right now, love them or hate them, Saban and the Tide are the undisputed kings of college football.

    It may change, but if you can definitively say who's going to knock them off, you may be the only one.

                     

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of Sports Reference and CFBStats.com and recruiting data courtesy of 247Sports. Odds provided by OddsShark.

    Brad Shepard covers college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.