It was...not a good week, for Tennessee at least.
As the 2023 season begins to stretch out its sea legs and we learn more about each team within the SEC, it seems the Vols ain’t got no legs, faltering in a major way in a game many thought they would win.
Elsewhere across the SEC, the favorites won to open conference play, and one team in particular pulled a major upset in the non-conference, getting a win back for a conference that’s struggled against other power conferences to begin the season.
1. Georgia Bulldogs (3-0): 4.1259 points (#1)
Week Three: 24-14 W vs. South Carolina
Doing a simple box score musing, one comes away thinking “wow, Georgia feels human this season”. A 10 point win? Down to South Carolina by 11 at half? To that I say, I agree. They do feel ‘human’ this season. That being said, they still feel super-human.
Offensively, I am beginning to trust that Georgia will come into its own as the season goes on. Yes, three points at half isn’t good, but of their four drives going into the half, they didn’t struggle to move the ball outside of the one punt, and South Carolina’s scoring drives ended with touchdowns to Georgia’s field goal and missed field goal. Georgia posted a 58% success rate on the day, good for 98th percentile of all teams in week three. Their +20% net success rate margin was 4% higher than Ohio State’s on Saturday, and Ohio State beat Western Kentucky 63-10.
A team looking overmatched on the field come in all shapes and sizes, and while South Carolina held their own, they got blitzed in the second half. Georgia found their ground attack, running for 189 yards at 4.3 yards a pop and three scores, and Carson Beck played efficiently, keeping the sticks moving all day. Georgia had a chance to put the game away on what could have been a back-breaking six minute drive that led into the start of the fourth quarter, but another missed field goal squandered that. Despite that, they still shut down South Carolina the rest of the game, forcing a three-and-out, a turnover on downs, and two interceptions to close it out.
They don’t quite look the same, but they’re still really good.
What to watch for: How will UGA look on the road in two weeks at Auburn?
2. Alabama Crimson Tide (3-0): 3.2365 points (#8)
Week Three: 17-3 W @ USF
I, uhhhh...what happened here? There’s a couple schools of thought to this one: Nick Saban was trying to throw a curveball at Lane Kiffin for next week by starting Tyler Buchner over Jalen Milroe, or two, Saban doesn’t quite know what he has yet. I tend to think both are true, and boy are there some concerns in Tuscaloosa right now.
Between Buchner and Ty Simpson, Tide quarterbacks combined to go 10-of-23 for 107 yards against what’s been one of the worst programs in FBS college football for years. Alabama was tied 3-3 with USF late into the third quarter. Nothing made sense on Saturday.
Of course, Alabama’s star power shined through defensively, but my goodness that offense is a disaster. They lack any level of a playmaker that could even make a defense sweat. Alabama has had superstar quarterbacks in recent memory, but they don’t right now, and it’s a problem. Sure, they never used to need a first round QB to make it work, but all of those guys had first round, All-Pro talent around them. John Parker Wilson and Greg McElroy had Julio Jones, Glen Coffee, and Mark Ingram. It was Trent Richardson, Amari Cooper, TJ Yeldon, and Eddie Lacy for AJ McCarron. It was Cooper/Henry/Yeldon for Blake Sims. Derrick Henry, Kenyan Drake, and Calvin Ridley for Jake Coker. They don’t have those game breaking level of athletes surrounding their quarterbacks right now.
Jermaine Burton continues to be Jekyll and Hyde, showing up one week and disappearing the next. At least Roydell Williams showed some signs of life, rushing for 129 yards on 17 carries for a touchdown, but things look extremely bleak surrounding this offense heading into a major showdown with Ole Miss.
What to watch for: Who, if anyone, steps up on offense?
3. LSU Tigers (2-1): 3.088067 points (#9)
Week Three: 41-14 @ Mississippi State
LSU has rebounded nicely since their week one thrashing against Florida State. The Tigers worked through some lumps as they put it on Grambling State last week, and they carried it over to Starkville, pummeling Mississippi State 41-14.
It was as thorough as any win in week three. LSU posted a +15% net success rate, and their 0.34 expected points added per play was the highest of any road team in any power conference matchup of the weekend. Jayden Daniels settled in early and turned in a terrific performance, throwing for 361 yards on 30-of-34 passing and two touchdowns, and just for fun, he added two more rushing scores on 64 yards rushing. Malik Nabers went nuclear as well, posting 239 yards receiving and a pair of touchdowns.
LSU’s defensive front even got in on the fun, adding four sacks and seven tackles-for-loss. This is a very good team that just may be finding its stride as they move into the meat of their schedule.
What to watch for: Can LSU’s offense thrive if Daniels isn’t playing at a Heisman level?
4. Ole Miss Rebels (3-0): 2.817433 points (#12)
Week Three: 48-23 W vs. Georgia Tech
Even in the rare down week for Quinshon Judkins (it’s been three down weeks, should we be concerned?), Ole Miss rolled a much inferior opponent, cruising to an easy win over the Yellow Jackets. Ole Miss looks like a good team more than ready to face a legitimate challenge. No disrespect to Tulane, a very good team, but Tulane with Michael Pratt versus without is a vastly different attack offensively, and Ole Miss getting to avoid facing Pratt still makes me a bit uneasy about pushing all chips in on a Lane Kiffin team.
So when does that first test come? As mentioned earlier in the rankings, it’ll be this week at Alabama. Kiffin’s had close calls with worse Alabama teams but has still yet to get one up on Saban, so if there’s a time to pull this upset, it’d be this Ole Miss squad.
What to watch for: Will we see the Judkins that thrashed Alabama a season ago?
5. Tennessee Volunteers (2-1): 2.693717 points (#14)
Week Three: 29-16 L @ Florida
Twenty years...and counting. A recurring semi-annual nightmare strikes again as Tennessee stumbles and falls flat on their face in The Swamp. Things started well with the Vols going up 7-0, but almost immediately all momentum was swallowed up and never given back after a 62-yard touchdown run from Trevor Etienne. Tennessee wouldn’t score again until halfway through the third quarter when Campbell added a field goal, and then they remained scoreless until halfway through the fourth when Milton found Bru McCoy for an all too little, too late touchdown.
This almost felt expected. The offense felt incredibly flat the first two weeks, and if there’s anything we’ve learned over the past three seasons, this defense, namely the secondary, can’t be trusted. Graham Mertz, a Wisconsin transfer who threw 21 interceptions across 25 starts the previous two seasons while completing less than 60% of his passes, carved Tennessee up in ways he never did against even the worst of the Big Ten West’s defenses.
Joe Milton’s downfield struggles continued (3-of-9 on passes beyond 20 yards, TD, INT), and it just feels like there’s not only a chemistry issue on this team, but it also feels as if Josh Heupel doesn’t fully trust his sixth-year senior quarterback. There’s a lot more short game this season in Tennessee’s passing attack. For reference, Milton has attempted 32 passes behind the line of scrimmage this season through three games, Hendon Hooker attempted just 38 all of last season. Sure, the lack of Hyatt and Tillman makes a difference, but this isn’t a receiver room without speed, and Heupel’s scheme can create openings everywhere. It’s a quarterback/coach issue, and that’s where I’ll leave it.
Tennessee gets UTSA at home in a particularly frisky Group-of-Five early season non-conference game. After that, they get a chance to avenge their loss against South Carolina and turn around a sluggish start.
What to watch for: Can #7 turn it on and keep it on for the rest of the season?
6. Kentucky Wildcats (3-0): 1.733133 points (#25)
Week Three: 35-3 W vs. Akron
Kentucky is so...weird. Plain and simple, they haven’t played anyone, and even within that, they haven’t looked great. They have a combined net success rate of +20% on the season. That’s just 5% more than LSU posted just against Mississippi State this season. That being said, I really like Devin Leary and find him more stable and consistent for this offense than Will Levis, and this team runs the ball very efficiently...so far. Again, it’s hard to get a read on an offense when their opponents are Ball State, Eastern Kentucky, and Akron, and none of the three have really been standout, dominant performances for four quarters.
Now the defense...I don’t like what I see. 40.2% success rate allowed against the pass (70th in FBS) against two low-level MAC passing attacks and an FCS team is concerning. Against the run, they’ve been towards the top of the middle of the pack (32.9% success rate vs. running plays, 19.5% stuff rate). If cautious optimism exists, that means cautious pessimism exists as well, so consider me cautiously pessimistic about Kentucky.
7. Texas A&M Aggies (2-1): 1.518 points (#29)
Week Three: 47-3 W vs. UL-Monroe
To the shock of nobody, Texas A&M has fallen across all rankings since the season began. Sure, a win against a vastly inferior UL-Monroe squad was a good bounce back, but that Miami game is just glaring with deficiencies and flaws across the board. 8.35 yards per play given up, mostly all done through the air, letting Tyler Van Dyke have a career day. It was a demolition.
Offensively, this still remains an incredibly conservative attack, and despite having an actual QB capable of getting the ball downfield in Conner Weigman which has allowed Evan Stewart to fully blossom into a star WR1, this offense still feels like its leaving yards on the field every series. They aren’t adept at working a ground game (39.8% rush success rate #85 FBS), and their deep shots in the passing game are few and far between (14 attempts of 20+ yards) despite Weigman having success down the field. If A&M is ever going to take any kind of leap on that side of the ball, they’re going to have to take the training wheels off of their five-star QB who looks as if he’s more than ready to ride the bicycle.
8. Missouri Tigers (3-0): 1.4837 points (#31)
Week Three: 30-27 W vs. (22) Kansas State
Missouri is tough, at the very least. While I can’t fully come around to them being good just yet, this team is bought in, and the defense flies around with reckless abandonment. A home win over a good, ranked Kansas State team was huge in the most important way for Eli Drinkwitz, and even then, he did everything in his power to keep it from happening on Mizzou’s game-winning drive.
With 35 seconds left, Drink called their final timeout after a nine yard gain that resulted in a first down despite the clock being under two minutes, meaning the clock stops after the ball is spotted. After an incompletion on first down, Cook completed a pass to Theo Wease, and between the play and the next snap, 18 seconds drained off the clock. Cook found Wease again at the K-State 39, but now with no timeouts, there’s just eight seconds left, so now Mizzou has to spike it and hope for a 61-yard prayer from kicker Harrison Mevis.
Mevis proceeds to nail the 61-yarder as time expires to win it for Missouri. A fantastic win and an even more unbelievable moment. Missouri’s offense is hit or miss, but Luther Burden is breaking out before our eyes. The former five-star recruit has taken off this season, scoring two TDs to go with 114 receiving yards. On top of that, the defense continues to impress. Kansas State had been averaging nearly 500 total yards of offense through their first two games, good for 6.99 yards per play, and Missouri held them to 5.30 yards per play, keeping K-State out of the end zone the entire fourth quarter. This is going to be a tough out for any team all season.
What to watch for: Can the ground game get going in any capacity?
9. Auburn Tigers (3-0): 1.475883 points (#33)
Week Three: 45-13 W vs. Samford
Yeah, this’ll be short and sweet. Auburn has beaten UMass, the worst team in all of FBS, Cal, who is one of the worst power conference teams in the country (and they barely won), and Samford, an FCS opponent. We know nothing about this team yet. That will change very soon. A&M, Georgia, LSU, and Ole Miss in consecutive weeks will be an eye opener for all.
10. Florida Gators (2-1): 1.245467 points (#36)
Week Three: 29-16 W vs. Tennessee
One man’s fail is another’s fortune. A team many perceived to be a failure to launch, Florida upset Tennessee in The Swamp getting a much needed signature rivalry win to Billy Napier. Florida looked lifeless against Utah, failing to do much of anything on offense. Against Tennessee, however, Graham Mertz was efficient and unflinching in the face of pressure, and Trevor Etienne racked up 172 rushing yards on 23 carries for a touchdown.
Florida has a huge opportunity to continue to ride their momentum over the next month as they draw Charlotte, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, and South Carolina. Considering Georgia looms at the end of October, if Florida wants to keep bowl hopes alive, they have to win three of those games.
11. Arkansas Razorbacks (2-1): 1.2328 points (#37)
Week Three: 38-31 L vs. BYU
I think I’m officially off the Arkansas and Sam Pittman train. This just isn’t a good football team, or at least they haven’t proven to be in a couple seasons. Arkansas was in control for the first half, and then they completely lost it. From a solid offensive game to a total lapse where they turned the ball over on three of their final five drives, Arkansas can’t figure out what it wants to be offensively.
KJ Jefferson needs to be given more of the reins to pass the ball and make decisions, and once they get Rocket Sanders back, they need to lean heavily on the two of them. It’s the only way they’re going to find success on a team otherwise devoid of playmakers. The schedule gets no easier, too. At LSU, A&M in Arlington, at Ole Miss, at Alabama. All consecutively. Good grief.
What to watch for: Can Arkansas string together enough stops to remain close with LSU?
12. Mississippi State (2-1): 1.209133 points (#38)
Week Three: 41-14 L vs. (9) LSU
Mississippi State came into Saturday as 10-point home underdogs, and from the jump, that number felt generous. State ran sixteen offensive plays on their first five drives for seven total yards. LSU scored 24 points between Mississippi State’s first first down and their next.
Jo’Quavious Marks ripped off a 52-yard run to get that next first down, and that run accounted for just over 25% of the team’s offense on the day. State averaged just 4.02 yards per play and -0.31 EPA per dropback.
State will have to lock back in as they head to South Carolina before welcoming Alabama to Starkville to close out September.
13. South Carolina (1-2): 1.090217 points (#40)
Week Three: 24-14 L @ (1) UGA
South Carolina put up a respectable fight against Georgia, but they just couldn’t pair any of their stops beyond the first half with scores, and the Bulldogs asserted their will on the Gamecocks. Though they led at half, the switch was immediately flipped in the second half, and Georgia played like Georgia.
South Carolina struggled against a very good Georgia defense, as expected. The Gamecocks will host Mississippi State this week before hitting the road for Knoxville. A lot of identity tests coming in the SEC soon.
What to watch for: Can SCAR channel their 2022 late season magic soon?
14. Vanderbilt (2-2): -1.134231 points (#83)
Week Three: 40-37 L @ UNLV
There’s games on your schedule you just have to win, even for Vandy, and UNLV was one of those games.
Vandy forced a pair of turnovers, but committing four of their own doomed them. Now as SEC play is set to rev up for the Commodores, it appears a long season is ahead once again.