In the eternal parochial squabble over conference strength and superiority, what happens at the top of a league is what matters most. Making the College Football Playoff is a whole lot more important than winning or losing the Belk Bowl.
But part of building a playoff résumé is a rigorous conference schedule. This has always been a bragging point for the Southeastern Conference, which relentlessly touts its depth and celebrates the weekly grind of league play. But that depth is in question all of one week into the 2019 season.
A wobbly 8-4 non-conference start, including three fairly ghastly upset losses, ups the ante for what looms as a big Week 2 in the SEC.
The two marquee games involve SEC teams in visiting roles: No. 6 LSU at No. 9 Texas and No. 12 Texas A&M at No. 1 Clemson. Vanderbilt at Purdue offers a third road opportunity. For the only Power Five league not to win a non-conference true road game in Week 1, those games are important.
A 10-2 record in Week 2 would be palatable from an SEC perspective. Maybe 9-3 is OK, depending on the particulars. Anything less is another bad Saturday.
Thus far, the top of the SEC looks fine one week into the season. Auburn scored the biggest win in the nation, Alabama recorded the customary neutral-site blowout, Georgia was authoritative at Vanderbilt, LSU and Texas A&M both won big and won easy.
The problem is just about everyone else.
When a lower-tier Sun Belt coach is mocking the SEC slogan while the Gatorade bath drips off him in Neyland Stadium, it puts a dent in the league’s rather lofty self-esteem.
But Georgia State 38, Tennessee 30, wasn’t the only dent the SEC took in the first week of the 2019 season. The conference looks a bit like a car left outside during a hail storm. If it Just Means More in good times, then the losses Just Mean More, too. Consider the rest of the Week 1 damage:
• An SEC defense is the only one in the nation to give up two runs longer than 60 yards in its first game, and that opponent only had three such runs over the past two seasons. That’s you, Missouri, run over in the high plains by Wyoming.
• The only SEC team to face a true freshman quarterback gave up touchdown drives of 95 and 98 yards to blow a double-digit lead. That’s you, South Carolina, which made an instant hero out of North Carolina’s Sam Howell.
• An SEC team with a $900,000 offensive coordinator and a highly touted quarterback threw for 93 yards, fewest of any Power Five team in Week 1. That’s you, Mississippi, whose 10 points against Memphis was its lowest point total against a non-Power Five team in eight years.
One week into the season, the SEC is the only Power Five conference that hasn’t won a non-conference road game. Truth be told, there weren’t many of those games played by any of the Privileged Five: the ACC and Big 12 were 1-0; the Pac-12 and Big Ten were 1-2.
Courtesy of Tennessee, the SEC joins the ACC as the only Power Five leagues to have lost a home game to a non-Power Five opponent. Florida State is the other, having been beaten by Boise State, which did not go over well in Tallahassee but the defeat came at the hands of a much more proven program than Georgia State.
“Every loss is the same, right?” Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt said Wednesday. “No loss is weighted more than another one.”
Um, not quite. Losses to the likes of Georgia State, in the season opener, are weighted with an anvil. Which in turn adds heft to the BYU game Saturday night. The Cougars are 0-1 themselves, dominated by rival Utah, but at least have played a far better opponent than the one that beat Tennessee.
A second home loss to start the season would intensify the toxicity in Knoxville. It’s been a lousy decade of Tennessee football, but the Volunteers haven’t started 0-2 since 1988.
Similarly, Missouri is trying to avoid its first 0-2 start since 1995, before Gary Pinkel breathed new life into the program. West Virginia is in rebuilding mode after major personnel losses and a coaching change, but establishing Mizzou as a two-touchdown favorite is mystifying coming off the debacle at Wyoming.
“It’s not going to define us,” Tigers coach Barry Odom said of that loss. “But our response from that game is absolutely going to define us.”
That puts a lot of pressure on the home opener.
The third SEC team to be upset, South Carolina, has a get-well game against Charleston Southern. It’s a good opportunity to ease true freshman Ryan Hilinski into the starting quarterback role after a foot injury to senior Jake Bentley. He’ll need the cushion before what should be his second start, at home Sept. 14 against Alabama.
In the SEC West, the key performers will be LSU and Texas A&M. The Tigers are favored and expecting victory at Texas; the Aggies are sizable underdogs at Clemson. Lose both, and the doubts about SEC depth will start to creep up from the bottom of the league toward the top.
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