SEC football fact or fiction: Slow start shows conference is down; Big Ten is a threat

By Kennington Smith, Kyle Tucker and Seth Emerson

Yeah, so … about the big, bad Southeastern Conference. Two weeks into the 2023 season, it already seems fair to wonder whether we are watching a rare “down year” for the league that has won four straight national championships and 13 of the past 17.

So far this fall, we’ve seen Florida get thumped by Utah, LSU get drilled by Florida State, South Carolina get whupped by a UNC team that nearly lost to Appalachian State the next week, Texas A&M get outclassed by Miami and mighty Alabama get straight-up outplayed by Texas. Not to mention Tennessee, Kentucky and Missouri struggled to put away the likes of Austin Peay, Eastern Kentucky and Middle Tennessee. Ole Miss was fortunate to escape a Tulane team playing without its star quarterback, and Auburn narrowly defeated Cal, which hasn’t had a winning season since 2019.

Right now, the SEC’s second-best win – after the Rebels survived the Green Wave – is Mississippi State’s overtime victory against Arizona, which went 6-23 the past three years. So, uh, that’s not great.

Tucker: Welp. The first couple of weekends couldn’t have gone much worse. In fact, they have gone so bad that I’m not really sure who in the league is actually good. It feels semi-safe to assume that Georgia is, but beating UT Martin and Ball State by a combined score of 93-10 doesn’t tell me much. So let me put this to my fellow panelists: Is the SEC down? Is the rest of college football catching up? A bit of both? Or has this just been a ragged start for the league and the universe will return to order any day now?

Emerson: Kirby Smart was asked about it Monday and answered: “I think every team you mentioned that beat an SEC team is a really good team. Really good teams. Most of those teams have been improving for a while.”

Maybe it’s coach-speak to not talk about your conference being down, but Florida State and Texas have been getting better, including through the portal. Both teams had elite transfer receivers – including AD Mitchell, who left Smart’s Georgia program for the Longhorns. Miami got defensive lineman Jamil Burroughs from Alabama, and like FSU and Texas, Miami is a program with a national championship pedigree that’s committed to getting back to that level. Two weeks into the season may be too early to draw any firm conclusions, but it could be that a few sleeping giants outside the SEC are figuring things out, and it came at the SEC’s expense.

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Alabama suffered its first loss of the season Saturday in a showdown with Texas. (John David Mercer / USA Today)

Smith: Outside of the marquee defeats, other results around the league particularly in Week 2 don’t scream SEC dominance. Arkansas-vs. Kent State, Kentucky vs. Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee vs. Austin Peay, all heavy favorites, were in one-possession games in the second half before pulling away. Missouri, playing a Middle Tennessee team fresh off a near 50-point loss to Alabama, scraped by for a 23-19 win. It’s a little of both a down SEC year and other teams elevating (I credit the transfer portal), and programs that ideally would’ve made a jump, like Florida in Year 2 of Billy Napier, not getting to that point.

Tucker: Here’s a theory, to one of your points, Seth: Might the transfer portal be the great equalizer? The SEC continues to dominate in high school recruiting, racking up four- and five-star talent like no other league. (The current 247Sports recruiting rankings for 2024 include No. 1 Georgia, No. 3 Florida, No. 4 Alabama, No. 5 Texas A&M, No. 7 Tennessee and No. 10 LSU.) But if you have 85 blue-chippers on a roster, only about 30 of them are probably happy with their playing time, and now they don’t need to wait their turn to play for another big-time program that has an immediate need. Alabama just lost to a Texas team that – in addition to having a ton of talent it recruited out of high school – got 349 passing yards from an Ohio State transfer and two receiving touchdowns from a Georgia transfer and was led in tackles by an Arkansas transfer. What role do you think the portal has played in leveling the playing field?

Smith: I’d say a significant portion of it. Another example from Week 1: Florida State’s star quarterback, Jordan Travis (Louisville), leading rusher, Trey Benson (Oregon), and top three pass catchers, Jaheim Bell (South Carolina), Keon Coleman (Michigan State) and Johnny Wilson (Arizona State), were all transfer portal additions. The portal has allowed for programs to catch up at the top of the sport (like Florida State and Texas) but also for programs in lower tiers to acquire the talent they wouldn’t get otherwise recruiting from high school. Former blue-chip recruits who didn’t pan out at their previous schools are looking for playing time, and other teams that weren’t a factor out of high school are able to capitalize. What we’re seeing is the talent across the sport becoming more evenly distributed.

Emerson: Let’s not neglect NIL as a factor here. It’s often connected to portal decisions, but underachieving programs with well-heeled boosters now are stepping up to (legally) help their programs recruit. That still would seem to help the SEC depth-wise, because I don’t know that any conference has more football-first programs with rabid fan bases. But the likes of Florida State, Texas and Miami – to name three, because those are the three that just knocked off SEC teams – have boosters who are sick of losing. (And by the way next year, Texas will be in the SEC. A little nugget we should mention at some point.)



SEC superlatives: The Week 2 saviors are … the Mississippi schools?

Smith: A potential down-the-road question to ponder: The SEC has lived off the strength of the conference when it comes to College Football Playoff implications. Due to the lack of dominance in early, non-conference games, could you see the committee leaving out a potential one-loss, non-SEC champion team from the field if compared to other one-loss teams? In past years, that seemed to be an automatic qualifier, but this year seems more unlikely.

Tucker: That’s a great question because there’s no doubt the SEC has had more leeway than any conference in the Playoff era when it comes to taking an early loss and still getting in. Everyone just assumes the league is so brutal that a one-loss team from that league has run a more impressive gauntlet than those from other conferences. And that’s typically true. But it feels like a harder argument to make this year. Not to mention, it just seems like there are going to be way more options for the committee to choose from this time, and the default “put the SEC’s second-best team in” won’t come into play.



How are the SEC’s teams feeling after Week 2?

Emerson: It’s not decided in a vacuum. It depends on what happens elsewhere: If the champions of the other four Power 5 conferences all go unbeaten and the SEC champion has one loss, then yeah, the SEC is going to be left out unless something crazy happens. But if it’s a one-loss SEC champion on the bubble against another one-loss conference champion, it’ll depend on the resume – unless the champion is Georgia. It’ll be hard for humans on a selection committee not to put the two-time defending champion in the field if they can possibly justify it. That said, it’s too early to know what everyone’s resume will look like, and there’s plenty of time for top teams in other conferences to go belly up.

Tucker: One other thing that jumps out at me about the SEC’s sputtering start is the fairly blah quarterback play so far. We often overthink a problem when most of the time the simplest answer is the best explanation. And it seems there’s a dearth of elite QBs in the league this year, so maybe that’s the biggest issue. There is exactly one SEC quarterback, Texas A&M’s Conner Weigman, currently ranked among the top 15 nationally in QBR. The quarterbacks for No. 2 Michigan, No. 3 Florida State, No. 5 Southern California, No. 6 Ohio State, No. 7 Penn State, No. 8 Washington, No. 9 Notre Dame, No. 16 Oregon State, No. 18 Colorado, No. 20 North Carolina, No. 21 Duke and No. 22 Miami are all top-15 in QBR. That is to say, the SEC sure could use a Caleb Williams, Michael Penix Jr., Sam Hartman or Shedeur Sanders right now.

Emerson: By the end of the year it may look like a better group. You have relative newcomers to starting or the SEC such as Carson Beck, Devin Leary, Payton Thorne and Weigman, maybe even Jalen Milroe. Plus veterans who will continue getting better: Jaxson Dart has looked good so far, Jayden Daniels wasn’t really the problem in LSU’s loss to Florida, plus KJ Jefferson, Will Rogers, Joe Milton, Spencer Rattler …

But it’s definitely not a star-studded group yet, and that may be bearing itself out early in the season.

Tucker: OK, so … what are we looking at here? A blip or a true downturn? It’s really hard and probably foolish to bet against the SEC long-term. But I do wonder, as the Big Ten adds Oregon, Washington, USC and UCLA, while the SEC looks prepared to hold off on further expansion after Texas and Oklahoma come aboard next season, whether the sport’s other superpower is now positioned to overtake the SEC as the biggest bully of all. Just check out the future Big Ten in this week’s AP Poll: No. 2 Michigan, No. 5 USC, No. 6 Ohio State, No. 7 Penn State, No. 8 Washington, No. 13 Oregon, No. 24 UCLA, No. 25 Iowa. What say you, friends?

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Kirby Smart’s Georgia Bulldogs open SEC play Saturday against South Carolina. (Dale Zanine / USA Today)

Smith: I’m more inclined to believe that it’s a blip in the natural ebbs and flows of the sport. The powers of the conference will be the powers, and long-term, there are programs that are positioned to become mainstays in the top tier (like Tennessee under Josh Heupel), teams that eventually will return to winning form (Auburn, Florida) and teams that haven’t been strong in the previous 10 years that can become consistent bowl-level teams in the upcoming stretch with energizing, new head coaches (Arkansas, Vanderbilt), while other teams in the middle of the pack will hold serve. The question about the Big Ten is an interesting one. In an “SEC is top-heavy” argument, the Big Ten potentially will have four perennial College Football Playoff contenders in Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and USC, and Oregon, Washington and UCLA are relevant programs that will add to the conference’s depth. I’m not selling all of my SEC stock yet, but I see the Big Ten as a legitimate threat in the era to come.

Emerson: When the 12-team Playoff arrives next year, the key will be having the conference that is basically guaranteed two spots every year, often gets three and sometimes gets four. I don’t see any reason the SEC won’t be that conference, and the Big Ten probably will be too. In the SEC’s case, you will have 16 programs where the majority will consider it a failure not to make the Playoff multiple years in a row. And when those programs fail, the pressure will come to hire better coaches and pour other resources into the program. As long as the passion continues to run deep in the SEC and as long as so much talent resides in the conference’s footprint, I don’t see any reason to worry.

(Illustration: Daniel Shirley / The Athletic; Photos: Getty Images)

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