College football, as dominated by a few programs as it tends to be, is quite fickle, our narratives teetering by the week, sometimes the drive: Alabama is done as a dynasty! No wait, maybe not! Lane Kiffin is a trolling genius! No, actually, he’s still the immature guy we thought he was! Florida is awful, terrible, the worst program in the … wait!
No, we did not mention the Prime Time narrative. Plenty of that discourse elsewhere. Let’s keep it to the SEC, where there’s plenty of material.
Behold, our weekly rankings based on the vibes emanating from each: not a pure ranking of how good each team is, rather the level of optimism, or lack thereof, taking into account expectations, performance and trend lines.
How you feeling, SEC?
Beat Memphis, 34-27
Mizzou is getting interesting. Let’s be careful as we type this, because we are not predicting the Tigers will do the same thing, but there’s almost a TCU-from-2022 vibe with this team. Finding ways to win, kicking an SEC-record field goal at the buzzer, then getting by previously unbeaten Memphis by a touchdown. This could still come crashing down fairly quickly and end up a 7-5-type season, and Brady Cook isn’t Max Duggan. But Luther Burden is very good, and it’s finally showing.
— Mizzou Football (@MizzouFootball) September 24, 2023
Beat Mississippi State, 37-30
OK, the Gamecocks are only 2-2. But the first loss was to North Carolina, which is still unbeaten, and the other one was a plucky performance where they had Georgia on the ropes for a half. And in their second SEC game, Shane Beamer’s bunch took care of business. Point being, if you’re a Gamecocks fan you have to feel pretty good right now, at least relative to how you felt after the opener. Next up: at Tennessee, where the bad feelings could return or Spencer Rattler could have a redux of what he did to that defense last year.
Won at Vanderbilt, 45-28
The Cats haven’t really impressed in any game this season, transfer quarterback Devin Leary has been underwhelming, and yet … they are unbeaten and no games have gone down to the wire. Three of their next four games at home, against Florida, Missouri and Tennessee. All winnable. (And who knows, maybe No. 1 Georgia putzes around at home against the wrong team when Kentucky visits in two weeks.)
It still doesn’t feel like this team is anything special. But neither is the SEC East, or even the SEC in general.
4. Alabama (3-1, 1-0)
Beat Ole Miss, 24-10
Alabama’s back! For now! And Alabama is back with old-school, Nick Saban-style man-ball: run game and defense. Quarterback play? Eh, take what you can at this point.
Watching that first half against Ole Miss, it just didn’t feel like you were watching two good teams. But the second half was a revelation, even if it was just doing what Alabama in past years was supposed to do at home to Ole Miss. Maybe the Tide have a way to go to say they are really back, but they do have a pulse.
Whisper voice: There’s still a path for this team to make the Playoff. Maybe it doesn’t look close to good enough now, but it’s still Saban. You gonna bet your mortgage against it? OK, this is too long to whisper.
5. LSU (3-1, 2-0)
Beat Arkansas, 34-31
We were all set to forget the opening loss to Florida State, chalk it up to not having a key defensive player and using another one in the wrong way, and re-anoint LSU. And then it had to claw at home to beat what appears to be an average Arkansas team. The next two are on the road — Ole Miss and Missouri — and both of them are suddenly pretty interesting.
6. Georgia (4-0, 1-0)
Beat UAB, 49-21
Ah, Georgia, the team that plays well once its given smelling salts. Every one of its games has been within one possession at some point in the second quarter. Every one of its games has ended up at least a two-possession win, all but one of them actual blowouts. As the longtime beat writer of this program, who knows it inside and out, I come to tell you in my expert opinion: I don’t have any how this is going to turn out.
7. Florida (3-1, 1-0)
Beat Charlotte, 22-10
What exactly happened here? For a while, the Gators seemed just fine, and even had a viral moment with Ricky Pearsall’s one-handed jumping grab. Then it became a litany of red zone issues, with even Pearsall’s great catch leading to only a field goal. Oh well, not enough to derail the good feelings from the win over Tennessee. But enough to make you think Florida should definitely be the underdog Saturday at Kentucky.
Ohio State’s finish, Iowa’s goose egg and Cameron Ward: Week 4 Saturday Superlatives
8. Tennessee (3-1, 0-1)
Beat UT San Antonio, 45-14
The Vols forgot to come out in the second half, but in the end they still achieved the correct result against a respectable Group of 5 program, which would make you feel good … then you remember what happened the week before. It’ll take a few more wins to erase the stain of The Swamp, but the next few weeks offer the opportunity: South Carolina and Texas A&M at home, then at Alabama and Kentucky. Of course, do we know enough about the Vols to bet on whether going 4-0 or 3-1 is more likely than going 1-3 or even 0-4?
9. Auburn (3-1, 0-1)
Lost at Texas A&M, 27-10
Recall how we assumed Hugh Freeze would at least make Auburn interesting on offense. Well maybe so, at least in the wrong way. Still, the honeymoon remains alive and well. It’s just that people on the Plains, in case any got too excited, can now reset expectations to preseason level.
10. Texas A&M (3-1, 1-0)
Beat Auburn, 27-10
Being behind the team it just beat is a useful reminder this isn’t a pure ranking of how good teams are at this point. A win over an average-at-best team doesn’t move the needle much for Jimbo Fisher and company. A win next week at Arkansas may, but would probably need to be followed by a home win over Alabama or road win at Tennessee.
By the way, let’s not go so far as to wonder if the Aggies were starting the wrong quarterback, but … well, Max Johnson is now averaging 7.3 yards per attempt the past two years, barely behind Connor Weigman (7.5). And Johnson’s numbers at LSU in 2021, when he was a sophomore, weren’t all that shabby (7.5 YPA, 27 TD, 6 INT).
11. Arkansas (2-2, 0-1)
Lost at LSU, 34-31
There was a first-year Sam Pittman vibe with this loss, playing unexpectedly well but not winning. Problem is this is Pittman’s fourth year, so he needs to pull out more of these. But this close loss at least generated more optimism than at home to BYU. Next week’s game against Texas A&M now sets up as survive-and-advance-from-the-doldrums.
12. Ole Miss (3-1, 0-1)
Lost at Alabama, 24-10
Lane, Lane, Lane …
It felt like the Rebels had a chance to deliver the kill shot to Alabama’s season — maybe even the Alabama dynasty — and then laid an egg. Kiffin’s mind games the week leading up to the game probably had a strategy behind them, but it was always hard to tell. Maybe it made his own team overconfident. Whatever it was, Kiffin’s team looked not ready for prime time, and whoever was calling Alabama’s defense on Saturday made Kiffin’s offense look mediocre.
13. Mississippi State (2-2, 0-2)
Lost at South Carolina, 38-31
The return of the Air Raid! Well in spirit at least, as Will Rogers passed for 487 yards, in one game moving from sixth to third on the SEC all-time passing list … and his team still lost. That win over Arizona in Week 2 already seems a long time ago — but Arizona is otherwise unbeaten. (Maybe it becomes the SEC’s marquee win!)
14. Vanderbilt (2-3, 0-1)
Lost to Kentucky, 45-28
Sigh. We’re all rooting for you, Commodores. We want you to get there. We think you can. You’ve got Missouri and all its good vibes. Maybe you’ll shock the world. Until then, we’re sorry to keep you here in the vibe basement.
(Photo of Missouri quarterback Brady Cook: Scott Kane / Getty Images)