is was the standard for college football. Most years, the SEC not only produced the national champion or runner up as it did every year of the College Football Playoff except 2014, but it also wins big non-conference games. Last year, Georgia crushed an eventual 10-win Oregon 49-3 in the season opener. Alabama won at Texas. Florida beat Top 10 Utah and South Carolina beat Top 10 Clemson. This year, the big non-conference wins are nowhere to be found, unless you count Ole Miss beating a ranked Tulane with its starting QB. Texas and Florida State dominated Alabama and LSU, respectively. The SEC is 5-7 against other Power 5 teams at the halfway mark of 2023. On top of that, Georgia looked vulnerable until imposing its will on a ranked-Kentucky last Saturday. Alabama is improving, but by how much? LSU is trying to beat USC for the title belt for worst Power 5 defense. Florida crushed Tennessee then got crushed two weeks later at Kentucky. Georgia is clearly one of the best teams in the country – but is it No. 1? Outside of the Bulldogs, the SEC looks like an association of average-to-good-not-great teams. Here are 5 ways the SEC can change that perception in the second half of this season.
Kentucky and Missouri avoid collapse
I considered writing that Tennessee making it back to a New Year’s Six bowl would help rebuild some of the SEC’s reputation in the second half of the season. The Vols going back to an NY6 might confirm that Josh Heupel in three short seasons has the Vols back to consistent SEC contender. But I’m going with Kentucky and Missouri to avoid collapses after hot starts because I think both programs continuing an upward trajectory exemplifies the depth of the league. For all the criticism of Georgia’s schedule this year, it has a chance to play multiple ranked teams in the regular season, in part because Kentucky (already played) and, maybe, because Mizzou will be 6-2 or 7-1 when it visits Athens. David Ubben, college football writer for The Athletic, said on a recent episode of the Until Saturday podcast that he believes Kentucky can challenge for second best in the SEC East, even after it was dominated in Athens. Ironically, the Wildcats and Tigers play this weekend in Lexington. Kentucky has won seven of the last eight meetings against Mizzou. UK will then play Tennessee and Alabama at home, and at Mississippi State, South Carolina, and resurgent Louisville. Mizzou plays South Carolina, Tennessee, and Florida at home, and Georgia and Arkansas on the road. In my opinion, the Wildcats need the win this weekend more than Missouri to avoid an uninspiring 7-5 or worse finish.
Vanderbilt wins out
I’m kidding. The Vandy Boys can help the SEC maintain its pristine baseball reputation next spring. Moving along.
Alabama or Ole Miss make SEC Championship Game with one loss
Alabama or Ole Miss making it to Atlanta at 11-1 is the only way the SEC has a chance at two teams making the playoffs this year. The Tide snagged a victory at Texas A&M last Saturday, meaning they’re far more likely to win the final West division title and play in the SEC Championship for the seventh time in the 10-year CFP era. If Georgia wins the East with a 12-0 record, the SEC will have a shot at two teams making the final four if the West champ upsets the likely No. 1 team; albeit only a chance and not virtually guaranteed like 2021. Ole Miss has never won the West. An improbable overtime loss to Arkansas in 2015 kept the Rebels (relive it here) from playing in Atlanta for the first time. If Ole Miss finally makes the SEC Championship Game this year, it will take beating Georgia in Athens in mid-November. If the Rebels can’t beat UGA, they need Bama to lose three conference games out of five remaining against Arkansas, Tennessee, LSU, at Kentucky, and at Auburn because of the head-to-head tiebreaker. Not impossible, but a Saban-coached Alabama hasn’t lost three SEC games in a season since 2010. If I’m Lane Kiffen, I petition Greg Sankey to make Alabama’s loss to Texas count as a conference loss. Sanky was at the Red River Rivalry while the Big 12 commissioner was not. Its worth a call or a tweet (don’t get me started on the name).
SEC teams handle ACC rivals in November
Georgia vs Georgia Tech, Kentucky vs Louisville, Florida vs Florida State, and South Carolina vs Clemson.
Going 4-0 against the ACC, in most years, won’t move the needle too much for the SEC’s reputation given the ACC’s own problems with projected strength, but beating national championship contender Florida State and surprisingly good Louisville would be huge for the SEC rep. I do not see SEC going 4-0 in these rivalries. I think 2-2 with wins by Georgia and Kentucky or South Carolina is more likely. Still, we see late season rivalry games get a little crazy. Exhibit A: South Carolina upsetting Clemson in Death Valley last year. If Clemson wins, it’s at least considered for the fourth playoff spot over non-league champion Ohio State. Florida knocking its bitter rivals from Tallahassee out of the CFP would do wonders to show that the SEC still has it. Florida took the ‘Noles down to the wire last year. Can they do it again this year in Gainesville? Oh, wait, Anthony Richardson is in the NFL. Dang it.
11-12 SEC teams go bowling and perform well
Arkansas (2-4) and Vanderbilt (2-5) are the only SEC teams with bowl eligibility not looking promising. Whether they want to admit it or not, fans love to compare their team to others in rival conferences – there’s a reason why the SEC and Big Ten match up in three bowls each year (Citrus, ReliaQuest, and Music City). How a conference performs in non-conference games and bowl games is the ultimate conference-strength measuring stick. SEC can regain some respect by having a great bowl season. SEC hasn’t won 8 or more bowls or ESPN’s Bowl Challenge Cup since 2019.
Georgia wins its third-straight National Championship
This one is obvious. If Georgia wins the national championship and becomes the first three-peat champion since Minnesota in the mid-1930s, the SEC will claim the last 5 national championships and 16 of the 26 championships since the BCS/Playoff era began. To win another title, the Bulldogs will likely face a much tougher field than what they faced in 2022 as there doesn’t seem to be a TCU-like dark horse hiding in the wings, unless I’m sleeping on 6-0 Louisville. Some will argue that a UGA three-peat says more about Georgia’s strength as a program than it does about the strength of the SEC. That’s probably true. The SEC appeared much stronger when four different schools (Florida, LSU, Alabama, and Auburn) won national championships from 2006 – 2012. But if Georgia does three-peat, the record books will say “three-time defending national champions, the Georgia Bulldogs from the Southeastern Conference.” In the end, it doesn’t matter how you start, it’s how you finish. The SEC will gain back plenty of respect if Georgia (or another team, likely Alabama) wins another national championship to add to the SEC’s trophy case.