The SEC is a shell of its former self, and Alabama will reap the benefits

Auburn, which was supposed to be Alabama’s biggest challenger in the SEC West, lost to Clemson two weeks ago and needed a fourth-quarter touchdown to pull away from FCS foe Mercer on Saturday.

LSU, which fired former coach Les Miles because he didn’t beat the Crimson Tide enough, lost its first SEC game this season under coach Ed Orgeron by 30 points.

And Florida and Tennessee, which combined for three field goals in the first three quarters at the Swamp on Saturday, finally surrendered to the law of averages and at least put a dramatic ending on what was largely an unwatchable rivalry game.

Three weeks into the 2017 season, and as SEC play hits full stride this coming weekend, the gap between the No. 1 Crimson Tide and the rest of the league is just as wide, if not wider, than ever before.

After firing Miles, who won 77 percent of his games and guided the Tigers to two SEC titles and the 2007 national championship, LSU hired his defensive line coach, Orgeron, who won 29 percent of his games as Ole Miss head coach in three seasons from 2005 to 2007.

With the highest-paid coordinator duo in FBS (defensive coordinator Dave Aranda makes $1.8 million and offensive coordinator Matt Canada is paid $1.5 million annually) and Heisman Trophy contender Derrius Guice coming back, the Tigers were finally supposed to challenge Alabama in the SEC West.

In Orgeron’s first big road test, however, the No. 12 Tigers lost at Mississippi State 37-7 on Saturday night, their worst defeat in the 111-game series. Maybe Miles didn’t beat Alabama enough, but his teams never lost to the Bulldogs by 30 points. In fact, LSU had won 23 of the 25 previous meetings, and Miles’ only loss was a 34-29 defeat in 2014, when current Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott accounted for three touchdowns.

“Put it on me,” Orgeron said after the humbling defeat. “Maybe we’re not as good as we thought we were.”

The College Football Playoff race is shaping up in each of the Power 5 conferences. In the ACC, Kelly Bryant has shown he can keep Clemson’s title defense on track.

Auburn, which has a new offensive coordinator (former Arizona Stateassistant Chip Lindsey) and quarterback (Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham), was supposed to be another SEC West challenger. But the Tigers lost 14-6 at defending national champion Clemson two weeks ago and then struggled to put away Mercer 24-10. Auburn turned the ball over five times against the Bears, who lost to Wofford 28-27 the previous week.

It was another disappointing performance by an offense that surrendered a whopping 11 sacks against Clemson.

“Obviously, it was a little sloppy,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “It kind of snowballed on us.”

Auburn and LSU haven’t been the only disappointments in the SEC. Florida and Tennessee were ranked in the preseason, but both have looked awful on offense so far. If you’re old enough, you might remember what their annual SEC East showdown used to be. Fans around the country would circle the date on their calendars, and you’d even skip your own team’s game to watch the Gators and Volunteers play on TV.

But the game that Peyton Manning and Danny Wuerffel helped make famous has sadly become a comedy of errors. Besides this past Saturday’s unbelievable ending at the Swamp — Florida freshman Feleipe Franks threw a 63-yard touchdown to Tyrie Cleveland on the final play of a 26-20 victory — the game was downright painful to watch.

The Gators were playing for the first time since their ugly 33-17 loss to Michiganin their opener (last week’s game against FCS program Northern Colorado was canceled because of Hurricane Irma), and their offense went more than 115 minutes without scoring a touchdown. Both of Florida’s touchdowns against the Wolverines came on interception returns and its first touchdown against the Vols came on another pick-six.

No matter how hard Florida tried, it couldn’t seem to score an offensive touchdown. On one play that encapsulated its offensive ineptitude, freshman Malik Davis ran 74 yards, but was stripped from behind at the goal line and fumbled out of the end zone for a touchback.

Only Tennessee’s mistakes kept the Gators in the game. On one possession, the Volunteers reached the Florida 1-yard line, and then failed to hand the ball to tailback John Kelly, their best player. The Vols threw three straight passes and the third one was intercepted. UT also missed three field goals and had three turnovers. Tennessee’s fatal mistake, however, was allowing Cleveland to get behind its safeties on the final play. It was the only completion Franks had for more than 10 yards.

“We’ve just got to stay as deep as the deepest [receiver],” UT coach Butch Jones said. “That’s one of those plays that comes around every so often, and unfortunately they made the play and we didn’t.”

Heading into the third Saturday of September, there are five undefeated teams left in the SEC — and Kentucky, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt are three of them. Alabama and Georgia are the others, and the No. 11 Bulldogs host surging Mississippi State at Sanford Stadium on Saturday night. Georgia has survived most of three games without injured quarterback Jacob Eason, and freshman Jake Fromm is probably going to start again this coming weekend.

This was supposed to be the season in which the SEC also-rans closed the gap on Alabama, which has won three straight SEC titles and four national championships in the previous eight seasons. Improved quarterback play throughout the league was the primary reason for optimism, but there’s little evidence offenses have improved so far.

In fact, more than half of the SEC’s 14 teams rank 91st or worse in passing among 129 FBS teams, and each of them is averaging fewer than 200 yards per game, including LSU, Alabama, Arkansas and Georgia, which rank 105th or worse.

Ole Miss (427 yards per game) and Missouri (299.7) are the only SEC teams ranked in the top 30 in passing, and the Rebels and Tigers suffered humbling nonconference losses this past weekend to California and Purdue, respectively.

After only three weeks, there’s a creeping feeling that the SEC is once again following a familiar script: It’s Alabama and then everyone else.

Unfortunately, we can’t even count on Miles getting lucky — he’d actually beaten Alabama coach Nick Saban more than anyone else, beating the Crimson Tide three times in 10 tries — or Ole Miss pulling off another miracle. Former Rebels coach Hugh Freeze was the only other SEC coach who beat Saban more than once in the past 10 seasons, but he resigned in June because of inappropriate personal behavior.

Amazingly, only two other active SEC coaches have beaten Saban’s teams even once, and both of them — Malzahn and Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin — sit firmly on the hot seat after slow starts.

The rest of the SEC’s other head coaches are a combined 0-24 against Alabama under Saban (Georgia’s Kirby Smart, Missouri’s Barry Odom, Ole Miss’ Matt Luke and Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason have yet to face him).

Yes, there’s still a lot of football left to be played, but the inevitability of another Crimson Tide SEC coronation is already creeping in.

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