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Week 3 SEC Talking Points: Who is the favorite in the East?

The first three weeks of College Football have taught us that we knew nothing back in August.

Georgia v Missouri Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

I can’t remember a college football season where after three weeks of play there were this many unknowns with teams across the country. Whether you’re a fan, objective observer, or blatant homer, you’d be lying if you said you had this college football season figured out to this point. The same narrative that describes the national landscape could be used to describe the SEC after Week 3.

Here are some talking points from the weekend as we head into Week 4.

Who exactly is good in the SEC East?

If I asked you this question last week the answer would have surely been Florida after a 45-7 rout of Kentucky and Luke Del RIo settling into the starting role at quarterback. They say it only takes one play to change a teams outlook. Well, that one play happened to Florida on Saturday, as Del Rio took a low hit sidelining him for the trip to Tennessee this weekend and possibly several weeks more.

The Gators also have to concern themselves with the health of star receiver Antonio Callaway, who was out with a quadricep injury. The Gators’ saving grace could be their stifling defense again, but there are other factors at play. The biggest concern for the reigning SEC East champs should be the continued inconsistency of their offensive line. Add uncertainty under center with backup Austin Appleby with a struggling offensive line, and you have a recipe for another offensive firestorm the program is all too familiar with.

Tennessee has seen it’s hype train rattle closer to the edge of the tracks each week this season. Week 1, it was the overtime escape past Appalachian State; Week 2 brought the slow start in Bristol, followed by the strong finish after the waving of the caution flag; Week 3, the Volunteers were back to struggling with a Group of Five opponent located along the Appalachian Trail. However, the 28-19 win over Ohio may be the least concerning result of the afternoon at Neyland.

The injury bug has plagued Butch Jones in the past, and it looks to have infected a few key players again this season. Cornerback Cameron Sutton is likely to miss the remainder of the regular season if not the entire year with a broken bone in his ankle. Linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin participated in practice Monday, despite struggling with a shoulder injury, while his linebacker mate Darrin Kirkland has been sidelined with a lingering injury suffered in the opener. Kirkland’s replacement Quart’e Sapp showed promise before tearing his ACL on Saturday.

Once again, the Vols’ depth will be tested.

Combine the injuries of the Volunteers and Gators and Saturday afternoon with GameDay on hand, it could be a classic 9-6 atrocity even if it answers question towards who will be the best in the East.

Look past the issues in the Swamp and on Rocky Top over to the ones in Athens. Georgia, like the two mentioned above, sits at 3-0. Tennessee’s 3-0 has been pretty straightforward. The Vols have, for the most part, looked less than stellar outside of the second half against Virginia Tech. Florida hasn’t played a formidable opponent, so you’d expect for them to be undefeated.

As for the Bulldogs, they’ve earned an impressive opening day win over North Carolina, followed up by a dismal two-point win versus FCS Nicholls and a gutsy, late win over a better-than-expected Missouri team. Georgia has seen Nick Chubb perform at the level he did prior to his gruesome injury and seems to have the quarterback conundrum settled after Jacob Eason’s late game heroics.

Isaiah McKenzie has proven himself to be the Bulldogs’ biggest offensive weapon while the rest of the offense develops. The secondary has been just as good as last season, if not better, and at the same time, the Bulldog linebackers have looked good as well.

I’d like to believe that Georgia has shown the most out of the three, but I have close to the same amount of reservations with the Dawgs as I do with the Gators and Vols.

For a moment Saturday night, I thought that I was watching another Missouri team poised to surprise in the East. The Tigers looked like they could be decent team at West Virginia. The only problem was their offense struggled mightily to put points on the board in a 26-11 loss. The next week they hosted Eastern Michigan, and Mizzou all of a sudden was posting 61 points thanks to 647 yards of total offense.

Take an interception away from Drew Lock, who played an otherwise fantastic game on Saturday versus Georgia, and we’re talking about a Tiger offense that has the most potent passing game in the league to go along with another quality defensive line, that could have sat at 1-0 in the East. I’m certainly not going to discount Mizzou because the Tigers are surely to have a say in who goes to Atlanta.

Alabama keeps rolling along

Saturday’s comeback at Ole Miss won’t be one that Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide soon forget. Hugh Freeze and the Rebels have had the Tide’s number the past two seasons, winning at the benefit of costly turnovers. This year, it was Ole Miss who had issues taking care of the ball. Quarterback Chad Kelly, for all of the high praise the media has given him throughout the offseason, has been unable to shake off the turnover bug. Kelly had a fumble and an interception both returned for touchdowns on Saturday that killed any momentum that Ole Miss had. Those and Eddie Jackson’s 85-yard punt return for a touchdown gave Alabama three non-offensive touchdowns on the day.

True freshman Jalen Hurts was equally brilliant throwing and rushing for over 140 yards in his first true road game. Sophomore running back Damien Harris has looked like the feature back after rushing for 144 yards and a touchdown Saturday. There should be little question about Hurts as the starter, but I hope that Lane Kiffin looks to limit the hits he takes, given the early inconsistencies of the offensive line.

For Freeze and the Rebels, a 1-2 start was always a possibility. Now it’s a reality. Georgia comes to town next week and the loss to Florida State doesn’t look as good as it once did following the ‘Noles 63-20 ass-whooping at the hands of Louisville. I wonder if the talks of placing self-sanctions on the program heat up if the Rebels fall to 1-3.

Gus Malzahn is on his last legs at Auburn

I’ve said that if Auburn fires Malzahn this season with him leading the program to a bowl, then the Auburn job is one with unreasonable and impossible expectations. I say that because Auburn, like it always has, compares itself to its in-state neighbors over in Tuscaloosa. That’s a philosophy most programs in college football go by, but most schools don’t look over and see Nick Saban coaching their rival. The expectation for Auburn to win the SEC West and compete for a College Football Playoff annually, in theory, isn’t an unrealistic ask; what’s unrealistic is believing that it’s going to happen while Saban is at the helm at Alabama.

Now, this excuse that I’ve made up for Malzahn isn’t going to mean much if he continues to field offenses like the one he did on Saturday night against Texas A&M. A week after posting 706 yards of total offense against Arkansas State of the Sun Belt, the Tigers managed 399 ugly yards against the Aggies defense. Auburn hit a wall in the second half, aided by the failure to hand the ball off to H-back Kamryn Pettway, who got just two carries in the third quarter. Malzahn panicked and took out Sean White in favor of Mr. Last Chance U, John Franklin III, who had far less success than White.

The offensive slog and quarterback rodeo has driven about everyone on the Plains mad. If AD Jay Jacobs is one of them, and a loss to LSU occurs, then Malzahn’s days are certainly numbered.

Danny Etling is LSU’s quarterback, but they’re not in the clear

The Brandon Harris Era is over in Baton Rouge. There is no reason for Harris to see any time on the field unless it’s in mop-up duty or injury relief. Even then I’m hesitant to see him take a snap. Even after Etling went 19-for-30 for 215 yards and a touchdown Saturday night versus Mississippi State, LSU nearly found a way to lose the game. Leonard Fournette has done a lot of good for this offense, but he almost cost his team the game with his two fumbles. Les Miles can thank Dan Mullen for benching quarterback Nick Fitzgerald in favor of Damian Williams, or else the talk could be of the fire blazing underneath Miles’ chair.

Quick thoughts:

- Mark Stoops, allowing 42 points to New Mexico State isn’t going to help your case to stay in Lexington. Neither is Drew Barker being out for an extended period of time.

- South Carolina quarterback Brandon McIlwain was impressive in his first career start. The true freshman threw for 195 yards, rushing for another 34 and two touchdowns on the ground. I’d expect Will Muschamp to run with him the rest of the way.

- I’m not sure what to say about Derek Mason. I believed that this Vanderbilt team would compete for bowl positioning coming into the season. Sitting at 1-2, with a roadtrip to uptempo-heavy Western Kentucky, things could get dicey on the West End for Mason.

- Arkansas’ 42-3 drubbing on Texas State was the perfect way for the Hogs to show that their win at TCU wasn’t going to affect their mindset the rest of the season. Another trip to the Dallas-Fort Worth area awaits this weekend as the Razorbacks faceoff with Texas A&M in their annual meeting at JerryWorld. A win over A&M, and a massive meeting with Alabama in Fayetteville awaits them after a date with Alcorn State.