SEC Football Power Rankings: Week 9
The game formerly known as the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party may have wound up giving us a dud of a final score in Georgia's lopsided win over Florida, but the game was better than that would indicate.
Hopefully, next week will provide the fireworks we all want.
That's when perhaps both divisions will be decided when Georgia travels to Kentucky to take on the surprising No. 11 Wildcats, with a trip to Atlanta for the championship game on the line. Meanwhile, Alabama heads to Death Valley to play LSU in a game that looks like the only potential roadblock in its way.
It's the biggest week of league play this year. But that's next week.
Week 9 gave us a few quality games as well. Kentucky continued its miracle season with a win on an untimed down against Missouri, South Carolina stormed back to beat Tennessee at home, and Mississippi State shocked Texas A&M.
Where did all that leave the power rankings? Well, in shambles like they've been all season. This league eats its own and beats up on itself. It's been that way for a while, and it will continue to be so.
We'll be left to sort out the carnage, so here are the SEC power rankings after the Week 9 slate.
14. Arkansas Razorbacks
One week, coach Chad Morris' offense plays OK, and the next it's the defense that carries the team.
But clunkers at this point of the season do nothing to foster goodwill with a fanbase trying to be patient with a first-year regime but needing to see some tangible proof that a turnaround could be coming.
Saturday's 45-31 loss to Vanderbilt did nothing to advance that narrative.
Not only did returning quarterback Ty Storey throw two interceptions and fail to trade offensive blows with VU, but the defense was shredded by running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn's 172 yards and three touchdowns. Quarterback Kyle Shurmur added a couple of scoring tosses of his own.
Coordinator John Chavis' group failed to put together back-to-back quality performances after a shutout of Tulsa last week. The latest two SEC games on the Razorbacks' resume on that side of the ball are a 37-33 loss to Ole Miss and a 45-31 setback to Vanderbilt.
That's two bad performances against teams in the lower quarter of the league.
It's not going to get any easier for the Hogs, either.
13. Vanderbilt Commodores
On the flipside, Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason needed something positive to happen. Nothing came on that front since leaving South Bend with a moral victory in a close early-season loss to the Fighting Irish.
Even when the Commodores stepped out of conference to play Tennessee State, they nearly loss, and the game's outcome was understandably overshadowed by the life-threatening injury of TSU linebacker Christion Abercrombie.
VU has been forced to deal with frustrating "almosts" against Florida, where the Commodores blew a second-half lead to lose by 10, and a 14-7 setback against Kentucky. The 4-5 'Dores got to leave the game happy Saturday thanks to Ke'Shawn Vaughn, who is an emerging, underappreciated star.
It's like Ralph Webb Part Two, and he showed out with a 172-yard performance that featured three touchdowns against the Hogs.
"I feel like he's had games like this all season," tight end Jared Pinkney told the Tennessean's Adam Sparks. "It's just when he gets 26 carries, the yards pile up. You've seen that he's averaged like (6.8) yards (per carry) all year. So give him more carries, and the yards will come. It's simple math."
With Missouri, Ole Miss and Tennessee remaining, Mason's team could absolutely get to a bowl. It's a matter of taking Saturday's win and building on it. Vaughn needs to be a big part of this offense moving forward.
12. Tennessee Volunteers
The improvement for Tennessee across the board in the first year of the Jeremy Pruitt era is obvious.
In a 27-24 road loss to South Carolina on Saturday night, quarterback Jarrett Guarantano executed the quick-strike offense, and coordinator Tyson Helton schemed around his offensive line's deficiencies after the team lost star Trey Smith to blood clots in his lungs.
The result was an 11-of-16 performance on third-down offense against a Gamecocks defense that came into the game ranked fourth nationally in that stat. The Vols scored enough points to win and even controlled the clock for much of the game with methodical drives.
But the little things piled up for UT, which had nine penalties for 75 yards, couldn't overcome a South Carolina fumble at the goal line that was botched by the officiating crew, and then failed to challenge it. There were dropped passes, misalignments and big plays allowed.
The biggest flaw for the Vols in a must-win game, however, was their inability to adjust to South Carolina's offense going uptempo. That's how the Gamecocks erased a 21-9 lead.
Tennessee has done some good things this season, and it can still make a bowl game, needing to win three of the final four against Charlotte, Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt. But the Vols' backs are against the wall after a frustrating setback to South Carolina in a game they could have won.
11. Ole Miss Rebels
Ole Miss is a tough team to figure out.
The defensive issues are obvious, and they've consistently hounded the Rebels all season. Yes, Jordan Ta'amu is an exciting playmaker at quarterback, but you almost want to see him distribute the ball to all those receiving weapons more rather than run the ball.
There are coaching deficiencies in developing game plans, but is that because Matt Luke is just in his second full year of being a head coach, or is that because of some deeper-rooted issues?
It's hard to figure out, but the Rebels are still 5-3 and have games coming up against South Carolina, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State. All of those games are winnable. Of course, the Rebels could find a way to lose them, too.
It may be a career-defining stretch for Luke, as Ole Miss is about to possibly exit the sanctions-riddled era and go into a time when the roster is set up offensively to win games. Luke needs to prove he's the right man to usher his alma mater into the next few years.
To do that, the Rebels have to fix the defense and diversify the offense. They aren't far away from being a good team, even if they're an inconsistent one. But this is a crossroads, and the bye week came at the right time to reassess the situation.
10. Missouri Tigers
Missouri seemingly had a win in hand against the No. 11 Kentucky Wildcats on Saturday, but then wackiness happened.
The Tigers defense played perhaps its best game of the year for more than three quarters, taking a 14-3 advantage into the fourth quarter. But after Kentucky scored, the 'Cats got the ball again late needing a touchdown to win.
When it looked like Mizzou stopped UK deep in its territory, DeMarkus Acy instead was called for a pass interference in the end zone when Terry Wilson tried to find Ahmad Wagner in the corner of the end zone. The ball looked uncatchable, but the official threw the flag, leading to an untimed down.
Wilson hit tight end C.J. Conrad for the 2-yard touchdown to give UK a 15-14 win.
"No comment," Acy tweeted after the game on top of a video of the play, according to RockMNation.com's Pete Scantlebury.
It's hard to quantify just how huge that call was. Everybody knows the impact for Kentucky, which plays Georgia for a berth in the SEC championship game next week. For the 4-4 Tigers, though, it could mean bowl eligibility, with Florida, Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Arkansas upcoming.
Again, all of those games are winnable, but none besides perhaps the rivalry game against the Hogs are a guarantee. Mizzou did everything but win the Kentucky game on paper.
That one stings big time.
9. South Carolina Gamecocks
South Carolina exorcised a few demons from a frustrating start to the season Saturday night in a comeback 27-24 win over Tennessee.
The Gamecocks still aren't perfect (even though coach Will Muschamp is in his career against the Vols), but there were a lot of things to build offensively for a team that had scuffled with quarterback Jake Bentley at the helm.
Bentley was strong against UT, and the Gamecocks enjoyed a resurgent run game led by Rico Dowdle's career game. The Vols had no answers for the uptempo pace of play, and it's going to be interesting to see if offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon has found something late in the season that can separate his team.
South Carolina must play Florida and Clemson still, so it's going to be a tough road to make a bowl game. That's why the victory over the Vols was so huge for a team that entered the season expected to finish second in the SEC East behind Georgia.
The defense still has issues, as Tennessee chipped away the yards all night, but the Gamecocks enjoyed a bit of an improved pass rush. Partly, that's because the Vols' offensive line is awful, but the return of D.J. Wonnum helped, too.
It's too late in the year for the Gamecocks to realize all their 2018 goals, but they can still salvage the season. Maybe that started Saturday night.
8. Auburn Tigers
Auburn entered its bye week with a big road win against Ole Miss, where quarterback Jarrett Stidham threw his way out of a season-long slump and running back JaTarvious Whitlow had a breakout game.
But the rest of this season is rife with landmines for the Tigers, who have been dealing with internal issues for much of the year.
Can Gus Malzahn right the ship? Auburn certainly expects him to after giving him a massive contract extension in the offseason.
The Tigers have games remaining against Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama to go along with a certain win against Liberty. Things could get much better with a resounding win over rivals Bama or UGA, or off the rails. The start to the year has led to columns like this one from Yahoo Sports' Pete Thamel.
Thamel has a history of slamming Auburn, dating back to Cam Newton during his year on the Plains, but this one has some legitimacy after the irritation around Auburn in a season where things were supposed to be much better and started out promisingly with a win over Washington.
"He's safe, as Auburn shies away from becoming the laughing stock of college sports under new athletic director Allen Greene. Expect Malzahn to lead all the hot seats next season. Auburn will make staff changes, as offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey appears vulnerable. Perhaps Malzahn needs some introspection, as his offense looks stale."
Maybe the Tigers can turn it around, but the schedule isn't helping.
7. Texas A&M Aggies
The thing about young, blossoming programs is they can revert back to old ways and do frustrating things when you least expect it.
Coach Jimbo Fisher had rejuvenated Texas A&M and gotten things headed in the right direction on offense and defense for the first part of the season. The only losses came against No. 2 Clemson and No. 1 Alabama, and the Aggies were so close to beating the Tigers at Kyle Field.
But Saturday night, they came off a bye week hoping to be rested and resurgent and instead laid an egg in a 28-13 loss to the Bulldogs in Starkville, Mississippi. It looked like they regressed against coordinator Bob Shoop's aggressive defense.
On the other side of the ball, Mike Elko's A&M D had no answer for MSU quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, who responded to all the criticism with a 329-yard performance.
"That guy's been around too long," said Fisher, a first-year coach who sounded like one game against Fitzgerald was one too many, in his postgame comments to Dallas Morning News reporter Ben Baby.
It's going to be easy to pile on A&M now after the loss, especially considering this is around the time during the Kevin Sumlin era where the Aggies began to take steps back, lose games and close the season with a thud.
Fisher is getting paid a lot of money to make sure that doesn't happen. This is a young team that still has the talent to make it back to winning ways; it just needs to find a way to recapture the momentum.
6. Mississippi State Bulldogs
Don't look now, but the 5-3 Mississippi State Bulldogs many left for dead are back and look like they can close the season with some thunder.
Even though the Bulldogs still must play Alabama, a team nobody wants to see on its schedule, the other three games against Louisiana Tech, Arkansas and Ole Miss look winnable. As a matter of fact, the Bulldogs should be favored in all of them.
Things are looking up after the 28-13 win over Texas A&M in Starkville on Saturday night, where senior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald returned to the dual-threat form that makes him a matchup nightmare for most anybody when he's on.
The defense continued its incredible season under first-year coordinator Bob Shoop, who is finding life much easier again away from the dysfunctional regime of Butch Jones at Tennessee. He was a brilliant defensive mind at Vanderbilt and Penn State before his time in Knoxville, and he is back to that again, it appears.
Mississippi State is fourth nationally in scoring defense and sixth nationally in total defense, and that side of the ball consistently has carried the team through its offensive struggles.
If Fitzgerald can build off Saturday's performance, the Bulldogs could make some noise in the division before the end of the year and make a quality bowl game.
5. Florida Gators
Is it possible to win style points in a 36-17 loss to your biggest SEC rival?
Apparently so when it's the Florida Gators in the game formerly known as the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.
Georgia pulled away late using superior talent. However, Orlando Sentinel columnist Mike Bianchi couldn't sing enough praises for Florida first-year coach Dan Mullen. He also wrote:
"Enjoy this, Georgia. Savor this second consecutive victory over the Florid Gators. Relish your clear superiority over your rivals during Saturday’s 36-17 victory in the World's Largest Outdoor Talent Discrepancy Party. Every Dog has its day. But your Dog days aren't going to last as long as you once thought."
The way Kirby Smart is recruiting at Georgia, it doesn't appear the Bulldogs are going anywhere anytime soon. But the Gators are going to get Mullen's guys in there before long, and this has been a solid first step this season.
Mullen always has been a good coach, and he's proved it again this year. It's imperative the Gators continue to play well and close the way they started to keep those good vibes going. Right now, the only losses this year came to Georgia and Kentucky, the top two teams in the East.
The Gators also have a huge home upset of LSU on their resume.
Feleipe Franks got better all year until a struggling effort against the Dawgs, and the defense has thrived with Todd Grantham coordinating them. But the Gators are not an elite team or even a very good one yet. That should give Gators fans hope for the future when Mullen gets guys in that he wants.
Still, a 19-point loss in a rivalry game is not an optimal result.
4. Kentucky Wildcats
You can argue all day that Kentucky didn't deserve to win Saturday's game against Missouri or that the Tigers got hosed.
The Wildcats will still scream, "Scoreboard!"
They've been doing it all season. They're 7-1 and ranked 11th in the nation, and all they have done is surprise everybody all season. To be honest, coach Mark Stoops should win the Coach of the Year award if the season ended today.
But the season doesn't. There are still a few important games remaining for the 'Cats, like rivalry games against Tennessee and Louisville, even though those look like contests UK should be favored in.
Nothing is bigger than next week's battle against the Georgia Bulldogs in Lexington, though. Win that game, and coach Stoops' team is going to Atlanta. It's hard to believe it's down to a one-game season, but Kentucky controls its own destiny.
"We're playing for the East next week, so it's a really big deal for our fanbase and for our team," Stoops told reporters. "These guys have worked hard. You've got a find way. If you're going to be a championship team, you've got to find a way to win games like this."
Whether Stoops was talking about the Mizzou game or the Georgia game is irrelevant. It applies in both cases, and the Wildcats continue to stun everybody around the nation.
The biggest jaw-dropper would come if UK can handle Georgia.
3. Georgia Bulldogs
After he struggled mightily against LSU, Jake Fromm needed to prove to the Georgia fanbase and probably to his teammates and coaches that he's still the quarterback that led his team to the College Football Playoff a season ago.
Following a bye week, he re-emerged against Florida in a huge way, leading the Bulldogs to a win that kept them in the national title conversation.
That's going to be difficult for UGA to attain after losing at LSU, because it means the Bulldogs must win out. The game against Kentucky next week is for the division, and the Auburn game looms, too. Even if the Bulldogs win those and make it to Atlanta, they'd have to knock off Alabama to make the playoff.
But Fromm and Co. can't worry about all that. They have to continue to build this young team to get back to where last year's was. Fromm's performance against Florida could be the start of another late-season rally.
He went 17-of-24 passing for 240 yards and three touchdowns, and he led UGA to 8-of-14 in third-down conversions.
"Jake understands what we're trying to do offensively," Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart told DawgNation's Mike Griffith, "and he did a good job of dealing out the ball when he had an opportunity, and he made some big throws tonight to some guys that were open and to some guys that were in tight coverage."
Because of the talent Smart has built, UGA has it all. It just needs to continue putting it together like Saturday, and the Bulldogs will remain in the playoff conversation.
2. LSU Tigers
Saturday night in Baton Rouge is going to be must-see TV when the Tigers host Alabama in a battle that could determine the SEC West.
While it looks like Alabama is invincible, the atmosphere in Death Valley is going to be electric, and the defense of coordinator Dave Aranda and head coach Ed Orgeron is capable of making things tougher on the Crimson Tide than any other team has this year.
But will it be enough? Also, can the Tigers control their emotions in such a huge game with so much backstory?
The Tigers need to jump out early, they need to take the emotion surrounding the game and channel it in a positive manner, and they need to pressure Tua Tagovailoa into mistakes, which is something that hasn't happened yet this season.
Most importantly, the Tigers must weather the first-half storm without defensive leader Devin White, who will miss the first half after getting called for a questionable targeting play against Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald in a play that has fueled anger at the league office for Alabama favoritism.
It also led to #FreeDevinWhite billboards.
Alabama linebacker Mack Wilson said White's hit on Fitzgerald "didn't look like targeting," according to the Advocate's Brooks Kubena. But it can't be taken back now. This is yet another obstacle LSU must overcome in a massive game that looks unbelievably difficult on paper.
If LSU wins, it will be a College Football Playoff favorite.
1. Alabama Crimson Tide
Alabama has so much talent and so many weapons that you can get so caught up in the Crimson Tide being the villains that you may not appreciate you could be watching the most dominant team in the modern college football era.
Coach Nick Saban has already built the most consistently dominant program of the era, and it doesn't look like a train that is stopping anytime soon.
With everything Alabama already has each season—a dominant defense, a quality running game and a stable of the best athletes in the sport—the Tide added Tua Tagovailoa as the starter this year, who just so happens to be the game's best player and one of the best deep-ball throwers in recent memory.
The results aren't fair.
LSU gets to try to topple the Tide next, and even though the Tigers are the top threat left on the schedule and a top-five team, they're still two-touchdown underdogs at home. That's how good Alabama is this year.
According to the Advocate's Scott Rabalais, Missouri coach Barry Odom said:
"I didn't have any answers at the end of the game. A couple of weeks later, I still don't. You have to eliminate the explosive plays when your defense is on the field. The turnover margin has to be in your favor, and you have to be really good on third down to extend drives. If you can do that, their offense won't be on the field. But they're really good in every area. The explosive plays set them apart."
It's just one thing that makes the '18 version of Alabama special. But can the Tide keep it up? We'll find out this week against the Bayou Bengals.
Brad Shepard covers college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @Brad_Shepard.