SEC Football Power Rankings: Week 7

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistOctober 16, 2018

SEC Football Power Rankings: Week 7

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    On a day when top-ranked Alabama cruised again, the SEC saw two of its powerhouse programs battle in Baton Rouge, and one of the two undefeated teams in the league suffered its first loss.

    That happened in the Tigers' 36-16 trouncing of Georgia in Death Valley, a game that saw the Bulldogs' youth and inefficiency of quarterback Jake Fromm exposed. 

    Tennessee upset Auburn at Jordan-Hare Stadium to earn its first SEC win in 12 tries, Texas A&M traveled to South Carolina and used a late rally to surge forward, Florida needed a fourth-quarter score to beat Vanderbilt, and Ole Miss was fortunate to survive Arkansas.

    If you don't know the pecking order in the league after the Crimson Tide, well, join the club. The SEC is back to eating its own, and it's a meat grinder every week.

    Saturday saw a lot of in-conference action, and it left the power rankings all over the place.

14. Arkansas Razorbacks

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    Things are going badly in Arkansas, and it seems the Razorbacks just can't get a win.

    On Saturday night, the John Chavis-led defense let the team down in a 37-33 loss after it had been the one bright spot for much of the season. The Hogs had Ole Miss pinned at its own 3-yard line with 2:02 remaining, but they allowed pass plays of 20 and 48 yards to move into Arkansas territory.

    The rest of the way, they had no answer for Rebels quarterback Jordan Ta'amu, who torched the Hogs on the go-ahead drive to cap a 13-point fourth quarter that gave them the win.

    Arkansas' offense looked much better playing against Ole Miss' hapless defense, but a few strong drives ended in field goals, and that's one of the reasons why the Razorbacks couldn't put the Rebels away in a home game.

    This was an opportunity to win a league game, and it slipped through the Hogs' fingers. 

    In his postgame press conference, Arkansas coach Chad Morris told reporters his program was going to be built his way. Though these are difficult times, he is going to keep the same blueprint he believes will be successful in Fayetteville.

    "We're not going to change the formula," Morris said.

    It's going to be a grueling season for Arkansas, which already lost to Colorado State and North Texas. Saturday was the latest in a long line of frustrations, and it's clear Morris has a long way to go to build his program.

13. Vanderbilt Commodores

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    Another team that had a victory in its grasp only to watch it crumble in a flurry of miscues was the Vanderbilt Commodores, who looked like they were going to pull off one of the SEC's biggest upsets of the early season against Florida.

    Instead, a 21-3 lead was erased in a discouraging second half as the Gators left Nashville with a 37-27 win. They seemed to respond after a shouting match between UF coach Dan Mullen and Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason just before halftime.

    "That kinda motivated us, especially coach [Nick] Savage and all the strength coaches," receiver Van Jefferson told the Orlando Sentinel's Edgar Thompson. "They were turning us up."

    Running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn had a 43-yard run and a 75-yard touchdown grab before leaving with an unspecified injury, and once he exited, so did Vanderbilt's threat of winning. The Commodores defense collapsed afterward, too.

    Now, the team that nearly went into South Bend and beat Notre Dame seems a thing of the past. Since then, the Commodores suffered a lackluster loss to South Carolina, nearly got upset by Tennessee State, got blown out by Georgia and blew the lead to Florida.

    It's similar to last season's frustrating collapse, and now Mason's team must win three of its final five games to reach bowl eligibility. The Commodores must also travel to Kentucky next week.

    Vanderbilt needs to find a way to keep the same intensity throughout the game and not let it lull. Saturday is the latest example of that.

12. Tennessee Volunteers

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    It has been a long, frustrating and embarrassing stretch of football for the proud Tennessee program. Saturday provided a glimmer of hope.

    First-year coach Jeremy Pruitt got a signature win, heading on the road and leading the Vols to a 30-24 upset over No. 21 Auburn. It gave the Vols their first road win over an SEC West foe in more than a decade, their first victory over the Tigers since 1999 and their first SEC win in 12 tries.

    Yes, it's been that long a stretch of futility for Tennessee.

    Now, the 3-3 Vols can see a bit of light at the end of the tunnel, even if it may look like a train is coming at them next week when No. 1 Alabama comes to Knoxville. Tennessee needs to split games against South Carolina, Missouri, Vanderbilt and Kentucky to reach a bowl game. (If the Vols beat Charlotte, that is.)

    Making it to the postseason would be a huge step for this program, which has shown slow but steady improvement.

    Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano enjoyed his career game against the Tigers. The sophomore threw for 328 yards and two touchdowns, and UT's underutilized receiving corps came up big. The defense held Auburn to just seven second-half points, and the Vols completed the comeback.

    It's a young team that is still lacking in speed and talent, but Pruitt is getting the most out of the Vols, who are beginning to believe they can win SEC games. Saturday will go a long way in helping foster that attitude throughout the program.

11. Ole Miss Rebels

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    Quarterback Jordan Ta'amu is one of the biggest stars in the SEC that you don't hear too much about. He proved that again Saturday night, racking up 528 total yards in the comeback win over Arkansas that will go a long way in saving Ole Miss' season.

    Coach Matt Luke didn't downplay anything about how great Ta'amu was in the 37-33 comeback.

    "For him to lead a comeback this year and have that many yards rushing and passing, that's a pretty special night," he told the Associated Press.

    With all the frustrating hubbub around the Rebels' awful defense, it's easy to forget they're still 5-2 on the season. The only losses came against No. 1 Alabama and one-loss LSU. Yes, they were lopsided losses, but those aren't bad on the resume.

    There have been ugly wins, too, but wins are wins in the SEC. Next weekend, the Rebels get to play against a struggling Auburn team. Win that one, and you'll see them head upward on this list.

    When it comes to offense, there aren't any issues in Oxford. Running back Scottie Phillips and one of the top two receiving corps in the league complement Ta'amu well. It seems former quarterback Shea Patterson's departure to Michigan has benefitted all parties.

    But, oh, that defense. The Rebels must find a way to patch things up on that side of the ball and continue to get better. If they do, it will provide Ole Miss with a quality season exiting this two-year era of sanctions and set the program up well for the Matt Corral era that begins next year.

10. Missouri Tigers

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    It's hard to feel good about a 39-10 loss, but the Missouri defense actually came out after halftime and did some positive things, allowing just nine second-half points to Alabama.

    It helped that Tua Tagovailoa missed much of the half with a leg injury, but that doesn't diminish that Mizzou's defense kept the team from getting embarrassed in Tuscaloosa. The Tigers did what five other teams failed to: hold Alabama under 50 points.

    Unfortunately for quarterback Drew Lock, his stock kept plummeting, as a disappointing performance led to Mizzou's third consecutive loss. With Emanuel Hall and Nate Brown out, Lock's number have dipped significantly.

    It gets easier from here because anybody is easier than the Crimson Tide, but Mizzou has a bunch of difficult tests remaining. The Tigers start against high-flying Memphis, which can put up points in a hurry. After the Tigers, Missouri plays two ranked teams in Kentucky and Florida, followed by Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Arkansas.

    Those last three games could get them back right, but Mizzou wants to win a couple of those games it isn't supposed to. To do that, Lock and the offense must get going, and the defense has to build off the second half against the Tide.

    Offensive lineman Paul Adams said Mizzou must get over the past three games and move ahead.

    "South Carolina could have gone a different way," he told the Kansas City Star's Alex Schiffer. "Georgia could have gone a different way. It hurts. You have to keep looking forward."

9. South Carolina Gamecocks

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    There may be a quarterback controversy brewing in Columbia.

    After backup Michael Scarnecchia led the Gamecocks to a comeback win over Missouri a week ago, Jake Bentley was back this week and started against Texas A&M at home.

    They lost, 26-23. At halftime, Bentley was just 6-of-17 for 46 yards and an interception. Though South Carolina battled back to tie the game at 16, A&M's big day from Kellen Mond ultimately won the game.

    South Carolina coach Will Muschamp and the Gamecocks had to address the chorus of boos that focused on Bentley as he left the field in the first half, according to The State's Josh Kendall.

    "He's a battler. He's a competitor. He's competing in front of 80,000 people. That position is going to be criticized, just like my position. He understands it. He battled his (butt) off and put us in position to win the football game. That's his mental makeup. That's why he has a lot of respect from his teammates and has the respect of his coaching staff. We need to play better around him."

    Bentley is now 15-10 as a starter at Carolina, and there have been times where he's dazzling. But it's going to be interesting moving forward to see just how long Muschamp sticks with him.

    There are other issues, such as a defense and running game that are inconsistent. The Gamecocks can be a very good team when they play up to their abilities, but right now they are 3-3 and having to answer a lot of difficult questions.

    This is a turning point of their season.

8. Auburn Tigers

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    Speaking of crossroads, Auburn is at one not only for its season but also in the Gus Malzahn era.

    Last week, anonymous sources in the locker room made headlines. Receiver Nate Craig-Myers left the program earlier this year. And now the Tigers are having to recover from back-to-back losses to a struggling Mississippi State team and a Tennessee squad that hadn't won an SEC game in 12 tries.

    The defense that carried the team all of last season and in the early part of this year had no answers for the Vols' lanky receivers, and the offense has been mistake-riddled, starting with quarterback Jarrett Stidham.

    Nothing is going right on the Plains.

    After getting a big contract extension this offseason, Malzahn is getting plenty of heat and criticism from all corners. Nobody is denying there are issues.

    "We're going to have to stick together in the locker room," Malzahn told AL.com's Sam Blum, "and we're going to have to fix it."

    Added linebacker Deshaun Davis: "You got to fight to keep everybody together, but first, I got to make sure I'm together, before I help someone else. This is a tough loss, man."

    Three turnovers led to two UT touchdowns, and those costly mistakes can't happen when things are snowballing like they are for Auburn. The Tigers must find a way to rally with games upcoming against Ole Miss, Georgia, Texas A&M, Alabama and others.

7. Mississippi State Bulldogs

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    A well-placed bye week will prove important for Mississippi State coach Joe Moorhead, who gets an extra few days to prepare for a roaring LSU Tigers team.

    The Bulldogs are coming off a resounding home win over Auburn that got things heading back in the right direction. Now, they have to beat a one-loss surging Tigers team to keep it going.

    With quarterback Nick Fitzgerald and his dual-threat capabilities, that is possible. But the Bulldogs need everybody to play well, including an up-and-down running game and coordinator Bob Shoop's defense.

    Frustrating losses to Kentucky (28-7) and Florida (13-6) didn't hurt the overall statistics of Shoop's group, which has been very good.

    They lead the nation, allowing 12.7 points per game, and are No. 1 in the SEC in total defense (289.7 YPG).

    Future probable first-round picks Montez Sweat and Jeffrey Simmons continue to thrive. Sweat is second in the FBS with 7.5 sacks and has 10 tackles for loss. Simmons has 8.5 tackles for loss. They are going to make things difficult on LSU signal-caller Joe Burrow.

    Will it be enough to pull off yet another major upset? If so, State can move into the top five on this list, and, more importantly, continue to position itself for a quality bowl game. 

    It's unclear whether MSU is going to be a force in the SEC West or just a middle-tier program this year, but this game will go a long way in putting the Bulldogs in position to be the former.

6. Kentucky Wildcats

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    After such a brilliant start that made Kentucky one of the most surprising, refreshing stories in the country, the Wildcats went to College Station and suffered a heartbreaking overtime loss to Texas A&M last week.

    So, an off week was good to get over the emotions of the first loss.

    Now, UK needs to dismantle Vanderbilt to keep things moving forward. The Wildcats have been effective running the ball with SEC star Benny Snell Jr., and the defense has been a catalyst for coach Mark Stoops.

    But sophomore quarterback and JUCO transfer Terry Wilson needs to do a better job of moving the ball vertically. Until he does, Kentucky will be a one-dimensional team susceptible to a loss here and there.

    That's why Stoops said changing quarterbacks to Gunnar Hoak was "discussed" during the A&M game, per SB Nation's Jason Marcum. The down time gave the coaching staff time to reassess things.

    "We're going to hit the reset button and look at all things we did to get it to 5-1, and we'll look at the things where we need to improve," Stoops said. "Work on those issues and get back to work. I don't anticipate any issues there with this team."

    There are so many positives for the Wildcats that when you're nitpicking, it's only because this has the ability to be a great team with a few tweaks. With only Vanderbilt, Missouri, Georgia, Tennessee, MTSU and Louisville remaining, a program-changing season is within reach.

5. Texas A&M Aggies

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    Last week, Texas A&M was ranked third on this list, and the Aggies went on the road and wound up beating South Carolina 26-23. Now, they dropped two spots.

    What gives?

    This is a team exceeding expectations under first-year coach Jimbo Fisher. It has found a budding star in quarterback Kellen Mond, is getting exceptional support from running back Trayveon Williams and is getting quality play from the Mike Elko-led defense.

    But it is still a team that is young with limitations, even if its only two losses this year came against No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Clemson.

    Alabama, Georgia, LSU and even Florida have looked better on the field than A&M. All those teams have either one or no losses, so that's why the Aggies fell a couple of spots. Still, they have a big game against LSU remaining.

    Right now, they need a much-deserved bye week before playing Mississippi State, Auburn, Ole Miss, UAB and LSU to close the season. It's going to be a difficult stretch to win out, but even if they can go 4-1, that's major progress.

    The Aggies paid big money to Fisher to turn around the program, and he's doing just that. The evidence is not only in the win-loss column but also in player development and attitude. This is a team capable of winning out.

    This is one of the fun upstart programs in the league, and it's one to watch going forward.

4. Florida Gators

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    With all due respect to Kentucky (which actually beat Florida), the Gators are right up there with their SEC East rivals as being the best story in the SEC this year.

    They have offensive limitations with Feleipe Franks at quarterback, but coach Dan Mullen is working his wizardry, developing his signal-caller, masking the things he doesn't do well and getting quality support around him. The defense is also doing what it has done over the past few years.

    The result is a 6-1 Gators team that looks like a potential threat to dethrone Georgia in the SEC East.

    Though they fell behind 21-3 to Vanderbilt this weekend in what looked like the 2017 version of the team, the Gators broke out some big plays in the second half. It was the first time in 26 tries that Florida came back from an 18-point deficit.

    Jordan Scarlett finished with 113 yards rushing with a score, and Lamical Perine added 121 yards and a touchdown run. In fact, it was the first time the Gators had a 100-yard runner this year.

    It's just the kind of heroics that have led to this start. Last week, it was a Perine trick play and quality secondary play that helped Florida beat LSU. Against Tennessee, it was forcing six turnovers. What's it going to be next week?

    Whatever it is, you have to give credit to Mullen, who continues to win no matter where he is. He's ahead of schedule in Gainesville.

3. Georgia Bulldogs

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    When you recruit great players, it leads to big win totals. But it can also lead to roster questions, and that's what coach Kirby Smart is facing after a day of ineptitude and inefficiency led to an embarrassing loss at LSU.

    You can't turn your back on quarterback Jake Fromm now after one bad game, especially since it came on the heels of his best game of the season in last week's win over Vanderbilt. But you also can't watch him struggle the way he did against LSU on Saturday.

    That especially can't happen when you have elite freshman Justin Fields on the sideline.

    There are no questions about Fields' skill set, but Smart is using him as basically a Wildcat quarterback. What can he do when he passes the football? What would the Bulldogs offense look like with him at the helm? Would he add another dimension, or would there be struggles?

    Those are the questions Smart gets paid to answer, and they've risen to the surface after a tough weekend.

    Georgia is still a one-loss team with a path to the College Football Playoff, but the Bulldogs have to play a tough Florida team. If they get past the Gators, they will likely have to play Alabama in the SEC Championship Game.

    Fromm has to play better to win those games, and though UGA is young and inexperienced, it has aspirations of getting back to college football's final four like it did a season ago.

    With a fast, aggressive defense and a bunch of elite running backs, the Bulldogs have the horses to be a force down the stretch. But they must get better play from Fromm or have the guts to make the switch if they don't.

2. LSU Tigers

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    You can't look back, but how much is LSU going to regret losing that road game to Florida a couple of weeks ago? The Tigers rebounded nicely in a home domination of Georgia that had coach Ed Orgeron and defensive coordinator Dave Aranda's fingerprints all over it.

    The defense was swarming, making plays all over the field and swallowing up the Bulldogs offensive playmakers. Quarterback Joe Burrow again struggled with his efficiency but was a great game manager, and LSU got quality play from its running backs.

    For the first time all year, the Tigers got some style points in the win. It looked like LSU was one of the best teams in the league, and if it can build on this, the game against Alabama may be interesting.

    Coach O summed up the game succinctly afterward: "Great LSU football—just the way it's supposed to be," he said, according to USA Today's George Schroeder

    The Tigers ran 51 times for 275 yards, helping carry Burrow. They were all over the field on defense, and it looked like some of those old Les Miles-coached teams, even if the product on the field didn't reach the level of Nick Saban's tenure on the Bayou.

    But this team is nowhere near as good as it can be, and that speaks volumes to just what the Tigers can be once the Alabama game rolls around. This looks like the second-best team in the league right now. There may be a wide gulf between them and the Tide, but they get the opportunity to prove that false.

    The Tigers have to keep playing well between now and then, though. Mississippi State looms next.

1. Alabama Crimson Tide

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    Alabama got off to its customary quick start against Missouri on Saturday night, scoring on the second play from scrimmage on an 81-yard scoring strike from Tua Tagovailoa to Jerry Jeudy.

    The defense overcame a lull in the middle of the game to shut out the Tigers in the second half. And while the Crimson Tide didn't score more than 50 points again, they still came away with a dominant 39-10 win.

    Now, they will travel to rival Tennessee next weekend to face a Vols team that got a signature win over Auburn this past weekend. Playing the Crimson Tide is a different animal, though.

    If you're wondering how coach Nick Saban will manage Tagovailoa with his injured knee against the Vols, so is everybody else. The Tide have a bye week before facing the LSU Tigers afterward, and they'll need a healthy Tua to beat LSU.

    Though Tennessee is improving, the Vols can't put up the kind of fight that will threaten the Tide, so it may make sense for Tagovailoa to rest. Will Alabama gamble on that? 

    The defensive strides against Mizzou were promising as they continue to progress toward the College Football Playoff. The second-half schedule is going to be much tougher for UA, and the Tide need to continue to improve, even if there's no question they're the top team in the nation.

    Saban continues to recruit the best players and develop the best team, and the scary thing for the rest of the country is this Alabama team isn't as good as it can be yet. 

                    

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of Sports Reference and CFBStats.com.

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