SEC football second impressions: Amid rough start, a vibe ranking of each team

Are the best days of SEC football behind it? Has the rest of the country caught up to the once-vaunted league, and should Greg Sankey salvage some respectability by frantically dialing up the ACC to see if it will agree to a merger?

Nah, it’s not time to panic. It’s still the SEC, home of the past four national champions, and the team that won the past two titles looks fine. But this also isn’t bowl season, when opt-outs, coaching changes and hangovers taint the results. These are tangible, meaningful results, and a league whose identity revolves around football should dominate, and it has not so far: 3-6 against other power conference teams, including 1-4 against the ACC.

The way things have gone, maybe Georgia is glad its trip to Oklahoma, which was supposed to be this weekend, was canceled.

Ah, but as many like to say: Thank goodness for the state of Mississippi and thank goodness for Lane Kiffin. Ole Miss won at a ranked Tulane, and Mississippi State eked out an overtime win against Arizona. When people ask why the SEC needs to keep its less marquee programs, Sankey can remind them about this weekend.

And also Auburn, which proved once and for all that you can go to the West Coast, turn the ball over four times, get sacked three times and only score 14 points but still win as long as you’re playing California.

Reminder: This is not a pure ranking of the SEC teams. This is a confidence ranking that takes into account preseason expectations, Week 1 performances and what we saw in Week 2. It’s a ranking of the vibes around each team, the psyche of its program and the fan base, as it enters Week 3. Let’s go:

1. Ole Miss

Won 37-20 at No. 24 Tulane

Is it a somewhat sad state of affairs that a win over a non-power conference team is the SEC’s marquee win of the week? Yeah, but that’s not Kiffin’s problem. He can be proud his team did what LSU in Week 1 and Texas A&M in Week 2 each failed to do: play well as the game went on. SEC depth took over in this one, after trailing much of the first three quarters. The Rebels can hope that foreshadows their season, unlike the late-season fade of last year. And with the SEC West suddenly looking very open for the taking, the vibes at Ole Miss have to be very good.

2. Mississippi State

Beat Arizona 31-24 in overtime

Hey, this was a decent win for the cowbell purveyors. Arizona was picked to finish eighth in the Pac-12 — not the top tier but better than four others — and Mississippi State was picked last in the SEC West. OK, so not a statement game, but it builds on the first week — an easy win over Southeastern Louisiana — and allows State and its fans to look at many of their SEC brethren and say: Hey, we did our part.


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3. Georgia

Beat Ball State 45-3

The defending champs have had two boring opponents and two boring wins. They’ve also been the most consistent, the only SEC program to score at least 40 points each week and hold the opponent to single digits each week. We’ll find out a lot more this week when South Carolina visits — but another 40-something to zero-something result is quite possible.

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Wide receiver Dillon Bell had a rushing touchdown in Georgia’s win over Ball State on Saturday. (Dale Zanine / USA Today)

4. Auburn

Won 14-10 at California

Not exactly the way Hugh Freeze or anyone on the Plains drew it up, but when you’re coming off a five-win season and you’re making a trek out west, you’ll take any kind of win and come home. The Tigers can return home and get the offense going again when they play Samford, then it’s the beginning of a stretch when we’ll find out what we need to know: at Texas A&M, Georgia, at LSU, Ole Miss.

5. Tennessee

Beat Austin Peay 30-13

What was that? I mean, a win is a win, and it was never really in doubt, but how does the Tennessee offense only manage 10 points in the first half against Austin Peay? The Volunteers at least earned themselves the benefit of the doubt by routing Virginia the first week. Consider this one a mulligan.

6. LSU

Beat Grambling 72-10

You know the SEC had a bad week when LSU’s vibe ranking is this high still only a week removed from the stench of the Florida State debacle. But LSU needed a reset, and this served that purpose. It won’t wash out the smell of the second half in Orlando, nor would getting a win this Saturday at Mississippi State. But with how wide open the SEC West looks, and no conference losses on its resume, there’s still a path for Brian Kelly’s team to have a very good season.

Beat Kent State 28-6

It wasn’t an offensive showcase for the Razorbacks (308 yards, no offensive touchdowns until late in the second quarter). Cause for concern or just a team sleep-walking after easily beating another opponent in Week 1? Let’s see how Sam Pittman’s team does when it hosts BYU on Saturday.

Beat Eastern Kentucky 28-17

My colleague Kyle Tucker with the quick summation: “It certainly could’ve been worse, but it should’ve been much better. You don’t want to barely hold off a team that lost by 53 last week. Defense was really an issue. Offense seemed to find itself a bit in the second half.”

I’ll add that the best thing we can say about the Wildcats is they’re 2-0. But they’re not showing themselves to be much of a threat to contend in the East.

Beat Middle Tennessee 23-19

Not a resounding win over a team that got routed the week before at Alabama. Missouri didn’t take a two-score lead until the fourth quarter, then had to hold on. This was after a “meh” win over South Dakota. That seems to be the continual vibe with Mizzou these days: Meh.

Beat McNeese 49-7

The Gators were in the bottom spot of these rankings last week. They climb out not just by doing what they should against an FCS opponent. It’s also what Utah did, going to Baylor and eking out a win, allowing the Gators to say they were embarrassed by a pretty good team. And it’s also Tennessee looking weaker as it prepares to come to Gainesville. Things are still bleak for Billy Napier’s team but not as bleak as last week. There’s a path back to respectability.

11. South Carolina

Beat Furman 47-21

South Carolina actually was trailing 14-7 early in the second quarter before restoring order to the Palmetto State universe. Spencer Rattler was sacked only once, eight fewer times than the opening week. Progress! But while the offense ultimately did what it should and the defense righted itself after the rough start, this does not look like a team that could give No. 1 Georgia a scare on Saturday.

12. Vanderbilt

Lost 36-20 at Wake Forest

It’s actually the third impression for Vanderbilt, which came in 2-0 after nondescript wins over Hawaii and Alabama A&M. There isn’t much shame in losing at Wake Forest … if you’re Vanderbilt. The disappointment here is the realization that with SEC play approaching, this was a chance to go in with some momentum, and this may have been a game the Commodores needed in order to make a bowl.



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13. Alabama

Lost 34-24 to Texas

Yeah, maybe we shouldn’t jump to conclusions after beating Middle Tennessee. Not only do the quarterback situation and offense return as concern points, but the defense didn’t look great either. This is still Nick Saban, this is still a roster with plenty of future NFL players, and the SEC West is wide open. But this is also teetering on really being the end of the dynasty.



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14. Texas A&M

Lost 48-33 at Miami

All that optimism after the Week 1 thrashing of (trying to remember which overmatched program)? Never mind. This was like LSU’s loss to Florida State: The SEC team was the one that seemed to have less speed, made more mistakes and wilted as the game went on. There’s still enough talent and coaching track record in College Station to rebound for SEC play. But this was quite discouraging.

(Top photo of Zamari Walton, left: Jonathan Bachman / Getty Images)

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