The SEC football power rankings are back for one last go-round, now that the dust has settled from bowl season and things are effectively going dark until spring. I’m taking an approach that’s based mostly in recency bias — you’re only as good as your last game, or so they say — but also keeping an eye on potential for 2018. Anyway, I’m no Thomas, but I’ll take a stab at it.
Who else? The Tide completed a miraculous overtime comeback against Georgia to claim their bizillionth national title, this time on the strength of true freshmen at quarterback, left tackle, and wide receiver. Coach Nick Saban’s stunning decision to yank starter Jalen Hurts in favor of Tua Tagovailoa paid off in a big way, and it looks like Bama actually has a quarterback who can spin the ball now. Life ain’t fair.
They tried. They really, really tried, and for a few hours, it looked like they might actually pull it off. Georgia took the fight to Alabama in a way few teams have, leading 13-0 at halftime and building a 20-7 advantage in the third quarter. But the Tide, as it so often is, was inevitable. It’s going to be interesting to see what coach Kirby Smart can do next year when roster turnover claims several key players from the Bulldogs’ playoff run.
After a disappointing result in the SEC Championship game, the Tigers got another one in the Peach Bowl when their attempted game-tying rally fell short against UCF. However, with the Knights completing a perfect 13-0 season and with Bama’s playoff victory, Auburn is probably open to supporting UCF’s claim as the true national champion. It all might sting a little less that way.
4. Mississippi State Bulldogs
Louisville in 2017 was not exactly the Louisville of a year ago, when Lamar Jackson dominated on his way to the Heisman Trophy. But Jackson was still one of the best players in the country, and the Bulldogs harassed him into throwing four interceptions in their TaxSlayer Bowl victory. First-time starter Keytaon Thompson, filling in for the injured Nick Fitzgerald, also had an impressive debut with 147 rushing yards and three touchdowns. It was a nice way to wrap up the Dan Mullen era and spring into a new one: Incoming coach Joe Moorhead, the architect behind Penn State’s offense, was an intriguing hire for the Bulldogs. State will be a team to watch next season.
The first half and a good chunk of the third quarter were among the ugliest and most teeth-grinding minutes of football USC fans watched all season, but the Gamecocks came through when it mattered and successfully rallied past Michigan in the Outback Bowl. In addition to spoiling the Big Ten’s bid for a perfect bowl record, they also performed the public service of providing free Bloomin’ Onions. The Gamecocks look to be ahead of schedule, but it will be tough to challenge the Dawgs in the East. We’ll definitely need to see some improvement on offense, but an easy schedule will help regardless.
Thanks to hapless special teams play (two missed field goals inside 40 yards) and a slew of other errors (highlighted by a failure to reach the end zone from the goal line on two separate occasions), the Bayou Bengals suffered a deflating defeat to Notre Dame. I wanted to penalize LSU more for this, since allowing Notre Dame to experience happiness should not go unpunished. But the rest of the conference had such a bad bowl season it’s hard to justify ranking them lower, even though this loss had some uncomfortable shades of Les Miles to it.
The up-and-down Aggies finally stopped beating around the bush and fired the embattled Kevin Sumlin, who never could equal his success from the Johnny Football era. In a game that featured no defense to speak of, A&M took a loss to an admittedly-better-than-you’d think Wake Forest squad in the Belk Bowl. With former Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher taking the reins, the Aggies will hope for better in 2018.
The Gators may finally have their man in prodigal son Dan Mullen, who returns to Gainesville after building Mississippi State into a respectable football program. There’s probably only so much he can do in Year 1, but Florida always has a good talent base to work with — they’ve just lacked a competent coach to help them take the next step, especially on offense. With his proven track record and the incredible success he helped the Bulldogs achieve, Mullen is the rare hire that is somehow both safe and flashy.
The fool’s gold that is the Kentucky football program under Mark Stoops continued to baffle and amaze observers in 2017. After an unbelievable fourth straight win over South Carolina, Kentucky was once again crowned the SEC East’s official dark horse. And once again, the Wildcats failed to accomplish anything of note after beating the Gamecocks, finishing a pedestrian 7-6 after Northwestern topped it off by handing them a loss in the Music City Bowl. Kentucky loses quarterback Stephen Johnson but unfortunately retains the services of Benny Snell Jr. It’s hard to envision more than another mediocre season for them at this juncture, however.
Vols fans suffered the indignity of having to watch their team endure not one, but two separate trash fires: the first being their 4-8 regular season, a record that is simply unheard of at Tennessee, and the second being a wildly dramatic and very public coaching search. Somehow, though, the Vols managed to right the ship and snagged another highly regarded Saban assistant in Jeremy Pruitt. Short of pulling off a miracle hiring of Jon Gruden, this was probably the most impressive possible outcome for Tennessee after its self-inflicted circus. With his strong defensive chops and recruiting prowess, Vols fans will certainly be hoping Pruitt is the next Kirby Smart.
The Rebels actually finished a bowl-eligible 6-6, but thanks to their postseason ban for running afoul of the NCAA, they had to sit at home. Interim coach Matt Luke, who took over after the firing of Hugh Freeze, landed the job full-time and looks to have stabilized things in Oxford. Ole Miss will have to sit out bowl season again next year, though.
Missouri went on a six-game winning streak to end the regular season and attain bowl eligibility, an impressive stretch that made the Gamecocks’ win over them age a little better. Unfortunately, that streak appears to have been smoke and mirrors, as Texas promptly stuffed the Tigers into a dumpster in the Texas Bowl. Quarterback Drew Lock should continue putting up video game numbers as he always has, but after failing to beat a single bowl-eligible team, Missouri has some issues to iron out next year.
After another underwhelming and noncompetitive season under Bret Bielema, the Hogs parted ways with him and hired SMU’s Chad Morris, who was a big part of laying the foundation for Clemson’s success and has been viewed as an up-and-comer. In the brutal SEC West, Arkansas certainly hopes that’s the case. The Hogs also picked up veteran defensive coordinator John Chavis, luring him away from division mate Texas A&M. This could prove to be an effective pairing, but Arkansas will have to dig out of a sizeable pit first.
Vandy whipped the Volunteers in their regular-season finale to avoid going winless in conference play, but beating Tennessee has lost a lot of its luster at this point in Vols history. The Commodores will return veteran quarterback Kyle Shurmur, who was one of the more underrated players in the SEC, but lose stalwart tailback Ralph Webb and three of their top receivers. It’ll be tough sledding for this group as usual.