Early Grades for Every SEC Team in the 2020 College Football Season
Pretend, for a moment, that the 2020 SEC season is a school year. Right about now, it's time for parent-teacher conferences.
Three games are a large enough sample to put together an early progress report. Success is not guaranteed to continue, but there's still time to correct some issues, too.
Well, most of them.
Heading into mid-October, two programs—Alabama and Georgia—are top of the class with undefeated records. Two others—South Carolina and Vanderbilt—are at the opposite end, while the other 10 teams are jostling for position in what is naturally a crowded middle of the 14-team SEC.
The grades are based on overall performance this season but also factor in preseason expectations. The curve for a loss is far friendlier to Arkansas than Auburn or LSU, for example.
The "Y'all Have Fun This Year" Tier
Football and fresh air; what a great combination! Also, temper your expectations for this pairing in 2020.
South Carolina Gamecocks
Not awful, just extremely inefficient. In losses to Tennessee and Florida, the Gamecocks mustered just 4.5 yards per snap. They averaged a terrific 7.7 while thumping Vanderbilt, but—well, it's Vanderbilt. Sustaining that offensive burst will be challenging with Auburn, LSU and Texas A&M up next on the schedule.
After nearly upsetting Texas A&M in the opener, Vanderbilt crashed back to reality with consecutive 41-7 losses to LSU and South Carolina. The former wasn't terribly surprising; the latter was disastrous. Basically, the only positive for Vandy is that freshman quarterback Ken Seals will collect valuable experience this season.
The "Take Us Seriously, But..." Tier
These teams are slipping from SEC title contention, but any one of them is capable of pulling off an upset.
Last year, Arkansas surrendered 6.5 yards per snap—the second-worst mark in the SEC. Through three games, the Razorbacks have ceded the third-fewest yards per play (5.1). That improvement has keyed what should be a 2-1 start; only a botched spike/fumble call prevented Arkansas from upsetting Auburn.
Yes, the Razorbacks are officially 1-2, and a moral victory of "you should have won!" is not reassuring. Nevertheless, it's been an impressively quick turnaround for Arkansas under Sam Pittman.
After a couple of frustrating losses to Auburn and Mississippi, Kentucky finally got it together in Week 3. The Wildcats completely shut down Mississippi State, holding Mike Leach's team to 295 yards and only giving up a safety.
Kentucky is more talented than its 1-2 record suggests, and Kroger Field is a sneaky house of upsets. The problem, though, is UK's remaining marquee games include one at home (Georgia) and three on the road (Tennessee, Alabama, Florida).
Considering the transition on the roster, LSU faced a major challenge in 2020. We had mild expectations for Ed Orgeron's squad anyway, but losing to Mississippi State and Missouri is worse than anticipated. The defense is allowing a ghastly seven yards per play, and the offense has converted just 23.1 percent of its third-down tries.
LSU should improve as the year continues, and quarterback Myles Brennan is promising both now and for the future. But the Tigers aren't a contender this season.
Offense? Very fun. Defense? Very fun to play against.
Lane Kiffin has nudged an already excellent scoring attack to an elite level; the Rebels are averaging 41.7 points and an SEC-best 573 yards so far. They just hung 48 points on Alabama, which is the most an unranked team has ever scored on the Tide.
However, the defense has offered about as much resistance as you, me and nine volunteers would provide. The unit has allowed 641.3 yards and 51.7 points per game.
Mississippi State Bulldogs
In only two games, Mississippi State witnessed the full Mike Leach experience. Big upset of LSU, crushing loss to Arkansas. The Bulldogs followed up the letdown with a nightmare at Kentucky—then, Leach said the roster may need a purge of malcontents, according to Tyler Horka of the Clarion-Ledger.
Eccentric, as usual. Unaccountable, like always. It will get better. It will get worse. Buckle up for the ride, Starkville.
Opening the season with Alabama, Tennessee and LSU is incredibly unkind, and an 0-3 start wouldn't have been surprising. Still, the Tigers pulled out a 45-41 victory over LSU behind 406 yards and four touchdowns from Connor Bazelak.
New coach Eli Drinkwitz is known for his offense, and it's encouraging to see an upset so quickly. But a defense giving up 38 points per game is a reasonable concern amid the excitement.
The "Hopeful November Contenders" Tier
All four of these programs already have at least one loss but entered 2020 with expectations of competing for an SEC title.
When the offense is finally producing, the defense steps back. When the defense is performing well, the offense can't score. It's a discouraging cycle for Auburn so far in 2020, and Gus Malzahn's squad is fortunate not to hold a 1-2 record.
Auburn toppled Kentucky yet looked helpless at Georgia. Then, the Tigers coughed up a 17-point lead and needed an objectively bad call to escape Arkansas. You take every win—controversial or not—but Auburn's inconsistency is concerning.
Similar to Ole Miss, Florida has a superb offense and disastrous defense. The Gators are second in the SEC with 7.6 yards per play and 42.3 points per game but have ceded 6.3 and 33.3, respectively. Opponents have converted 58.7 percent of third downs, too.
Florida still controls its path to an SEC East title, but this defense isn't going to allow much margin for error.
After escaping South Carolina in the opener, Tennessee earned a comfortable win over Missouri. Neither result was surprising, but a halftime lead at Georgia turned a whole bunch of heads. Unfortunately for the Vols, they collapsed in the second half.
The first 30 minutes showed Tennessee can be a nuisance, and that's an important step following a few rough years. The next 30 minutes offered a reminder of how much further the Vols must climb to legitimately compete in the SEC.
Texas A&M Aggies
How quickly a narrative can shift. While trailing 28-17 in the second half, Texas A&M seemed destined for a loss to Florida. That would've followed an ugly win over Vanderbilt and a loss to Alabama in which the Aggies looked completely overwhelmed. Jimbo Fisher would've started to feel some serious pressure.
But a second-half comeback has reshaped the story—for now, at least. With a decently favorable stretch of Mississippi State, Arkansas and South Carolina coming up next, Texas A&M has a terrific opportunity to build a 5-1 record before a tough finish.
Although the road to 3-0 has included quite a few bumps, Georgia probably has the best individual unit in the SEC.
So far, the Bulldogs have surrendered a meager 3.7 yards per play and only 37 points. The defense bought time for the offense at Arkansas, shut down Auburn for 60 minutes and locked up Tennessee after halftime to spur a 44-21 win. Along with seven takeaways, Georgia has allowed a minimal 28.3 third-down rate.
To win an SEC and/or national championship, however, the Dawgs know the offense must be better.
Georgia has a 57.1 red-zone touchdown rate, which is 54th nationally among 76 active teams. Turnovers and failed short-yardage plays have plagued the offense at times, too.
This defense should always give Georgia a chance to win, but it is entirely foreseeable that elite competition could shut down the offense.
Alabama Crimson Tide
While it's too early to press the panic button, Alabama has to fix this defense. The sample size is small, sure, but the Crimson Tide have ceded 8.4 yards per pass attempt. During the last decade, Alabama finished every year at 6.6 or better.
And if total numbers are your thing: Texas A&M's Kellen Mond threw for 318 yards, and Mississippi's Matt Corral racked up 365.
On the bright side for Bama, if Georgia's defense isn't the SEC's premier unit, it's definitely this offense.
Mac Jones is averaging 367 passing yards. John Metchie III has emerged as a terrific complement to star receivers DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle. Running back Najee Harris has collected 423 scrimmage yards and an absurd 10 touchdowns.
If the Tide improve the defense to a top-25 level—and the talent is certainly there—this is every bit the championship contender we've come to expect.