Monday measure: Is Ole Miss the SEC's chaos team? How legit is Tennessee?

Mississippi State became the talk of college football when it upset LSU in Mike Leach’s debut with the program.

But the other SEC program in Mississippi, Ole Miss, has the looks of the season-long chaos team in the conference — even more so than MSU.

With Lane Kiffin leading the way, the Rebels are going to put up tons of yards and tons of points on a weekly basis. Just look at what they have done through two weeks.

Against Florida, one of the best teams in the country, Ole Miss had 613 yards of offense, including 395 yards through the air from Matt Corral. Though they were playing from behind in an eventual 51-35 loss, Corral and Elijah Moore (10 catches for 227 yards) carved up the Gators defense all afternoon.

On Saturday, Kiffin’s Rebels upset Kentucky in Lexington, coming out with a 42-41 overtime win. Corral had another big game, throwing for 320 yards and four touchdowns while leading the team with 51 rushing yards

Corral, after an uneven 2019 season, is living up to his recruiting billing under an aggressive play caller like Kiffin. Corral wasn’t really a fit when Rich Rodriguez was the offensive coordinator for Matt Luke last year, and often stepped aside for John Rhys Plumlee, a speedster who ended up rushing for more than 1,000 yards. But now Corral is thriving alongside Moore and running back Jerrion Ealy, and that Ole Miss offense is going to make things interesting every week.

The fact that Ole Miss has a rebuilding defense (to put it mildly) also will contribute to the amount of fun we’ll all have watching this team. Do you like Big 12-style shootouts? Of course you do. The potential for one when Ole Miss is playing is very high. Every week. Adding the shenanigans Kiffin is known for to the mix makes things that much better.

On Saturday, Kiffin will bring Ole Miss to Alabama, where he revitalized his career as Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator. Kiffin’s tenure in Tuscaloosa was successful. He deserves a lot of the credit for the offensive transformation in Saban’s program. But it was also tumultuous as Saban grew tired of Kiffin’s nonsense.

Will Ole Miss be able to hang with Alabama on Saturday? Probably not, but you know you’ll be entertained.

- Sam Cooper

Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin stands on the sideline during a game against Kentucky on Oct. 3. (Mark Cornelison/Collegiate Images/Getty Images)
Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin stands on the sideline during a game against Kentucky on Oct. 3. (Mark Cornelison/Collegiate Images/Getty Images)

How real is Tennessee?

Tennessee lost 35-13 to Alabama on Oct. 19, 2019. The Volunteers haven’t lost since.

Saturday’s 35-12 win over Missouri was the eighth straight for the Vols. Tennessee closed last season on a six-game win streak and is now 2-0 to start 2020.

The streak is a big reason why Tennessee is No. 14 in the AP poll. The Vols brought back a ton of talent from a team that finished last year strong. And it’s done nothing to dissuade voters that it’s not worthy of a spot in the Top 25 so far this season.

But just how good is Tennessee? It’s a question that should be a lot easier to answer after Week 6 against No. 3 Georgia.

Georgia is far and away the best opponent Tennessee has played since that Alabama game. The eight-game win streak includes victories over South Carolina (twice), UAB, Kentucky, Missouri (twice), Vanderbilt and Indiana. It’s not exactly a daunting group, though it’s not full of cupcakes either.

The progress that Jeremy Pruitt’s program made over the final half of the 2019 season is clearly real. But it’s also hard to measure. A game at Georgia on a national stage in the prime CBS time slot should give us a pretty good idea.

It’ll also be the first game back in Athens for Georgia transfer Cade Mays. The former five-star offensive lineman was cleared to play by the SEC against Missouri and his presence led to an immediate impact. Tennessee’s ground game controlled the game against the Tigers and QB Jarrett Guarantano even scored two touchdowns on sneaks.

Georgia’s defense may be the best in the country. Tennessee’s offensive line won’t be able to boss it around like it did Missouri. But it’s at least a reason to hope that UT can hang with the Bulldogs.

Tennessee doesn’t have to win against the Bulldogs to prove it’s a legitimate top-20 team. A competitive loss in Athens will go a long way to showing that the SEC East is more than just Georgia and Florida and everyone else.

- Nick Bromberg

Can BYU get to a top-tier bowl game?

Is BYU a contender for a New Year’s Six bowl?

The Cougars have been one of the most impressive teams to start the season. After destroying Navy on the road to begin the season, BYU has blown out Troy and Louisiana State. The combined score of those three wins is an incredible 148-24.

Yes, the schedule hasn’t been exceptionally tough. But it’s not at all unfair to wonder if BYU can go 8-0 this season. And, if it does, where it could end up in the postseason.

The schedule gets tougher as the season goes on too. While a game against Army was postponed earlier this season, the Cougars will play Houston, Boise State and San Diego State later in the year. Wins over all three of those teams will give BYU a résumé that stacks up against any team outside the Power Five conferences.

Here’s the problem, however. BYU isn’t eligible for a New Year’s Six bowl game as the highest-ranked Group of Five team because it’s an independent.

The Cougars left the Mountain West after the 2010 season, years before the College Football Playoff was implemented in 2014. The goal of playing as an independent was a boost to BYU’s stature and its own TV contract with ESPN for home games.

BYU hasn’t been as successful as an independent as it was in the latter years of the Mountain West. Before going 7-6 in its final MWC year, BYU had won 10 or more games in four straight seasons. BYU hasn’t won 10 games since its first season as an independent in 2011.

A 10-win season is only possible with an undefeated in an 10-game schedule. But the prestige that BYU was seeking by going independent comes at a cost to its bowl hopes in this playoff era.

Since it’s not considered a Group of Five team by the playoff committee, BYU is only competing with Power Five teams for at-large spots in New Year’s Six bowls and not against teams from the Mountain West, American and other smaller conferences for the New Year’s Six spot that goes to the top team from the lower five.

That selection criteria could significantly impact BYU’s chances of getting to a prestigious bowl. An 8-0 BYU team would be compared favorably to everyone else in the bottom five conferences. But what about against Power Five teams with one or two losses? There are no Power Five teams on BYU’s schedule this season. No place where the Cougars can show how well they really stack up against the big teams in college football. Will that end up relegating BYU to a bowl game it may not deserve?

- Nick Bromberg

BYU quarterback Zach Wilson (1) carries the ball before scoring against Louisiana Tech during the second half on Oct. 2. (AP)
BYU quarterback Zach Wilson (1) carries the ball before scoring against Louisiana Tech during the second half on Oct. 2. (AP)

Houston, Temple finally set to make 2020 debuts

When Houston finally makes its 2020 debut on Thursday night against Tulane, 20 other games involving American Athletic Conference members will have already been played. Those games span from the SMU and Memphis games on Sept. 5 during a makeshift Week 1 to the three conference games played over the weekend nearly a month later.

Among the 11 AAC members, nine have played at least two games, five have played three games and SMU, now ranked No. 18, has played four.

Along the way, eight AAC-affiliated games have been postponed due to issues with COVID-19. Three of them have involved Houston, which has had four of its once-scheduled season-opening games wiped off the schedule and five games canned overall.

The Sept. 3 game against Rice was postponed when Rice delayed the start of its practices until late September due to the local infection rate (Rice is also located in Houston) and the “need for highly reliable and very rapid testing results.” Rice won’t begin its season until Oct. 24, same as the Big Ten. UH’s game against Washington State, originally set for Sept. 12, was wiped off the schedule when the Pac-12 decided to postpone its season.

Later, games against Memphis, Baylor and North Texas were all called off because of virus issues among those programs. The game against Baylor was hastily put together after the Memphis game was postponed, only for COVID issues to also pop up at Baylor. And then, to top it all off, the Sept. 26 game against North Texas also met its untimely demise.

The Cougars, 35 days after their season was initially slated to begin, will finally kick off Year 2 under Dana Holgorsen on Thursday. And it will mark the start of a mad dash over the next two months. Nine games in nine weeks (eight AAC games, plus a visit from No. 15 BYU next Friday). No more byes. No more weekends watching their rivals on TV.

The circumstances are similar for another AAC member, but also considerably different. Houston won’t be the last AAC team to make its 2020 debut. That honor goes to Temple, which will play its first game of the year on Saturday on the road against Navy.

While Houston has been on the precipice of playing on multiple occasions, pandemic-related restrictions in the city of Philadelphia limited the level of football activity Temple could engage in during preseason camp. Temple already had its non-conference games against Miami (chose UAB as its lone non-con opponent), Idaho (canceled season), Rutgers (conference-only) and UMass (canceled season) eliminated, and ended up moving back the Navy game from Sept. 26 to Oct. 10.

“We’re not ready yet,” Temple coach Rod Carey said Sept. 8.

Temple had not been able to scrimmage, and Carey noticed that the Owls and Navy shared an Oct. 10 open date. After Navy, which had limited hitting during camp, was trounced by BYU in its opener, Carey knew pushing things back was the right thing to do.

“Our team has to be safe to play. I'm not just talking about COVID. I'm talking about football safe,” Carey said. “You have to practice football to be able to do that.”

A month later, the Owls are ready to play.

- Sam Cooper

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