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Starting 11: The SEC Returns Edition

In a year where everything has felt abnormal since March, 14 SEC teams returned to play in college football today and we had a Saturday that felt, dare I say, if not normal at least close enough to normal that I didn’t find myself thinking about anything during a sporting event other than which teams would win and which teams would cover for 13 straight hours.

And that’s pretty damn awesome no matter who your team is.

At some point Outkick is going to tell the full story of the 2020 football season and let you know about all the unsung heroes who fought as hard as they possibly could to make this season happen. There are so many people that deserve commendation for helping to make this season happen that many will never know.

But until then it’s worth just sitting back and thinking about where we are — college football is back, baby!

After the coronabros in the sports media told all of us back in August there wasn’t going to be a college football season — or a college sports season at all in the fall — just three schools aren’t playing FBS football this fall: New Mexico State, UConn, and Old Dominion.

That’s it.

The coronabros pitched a fit for months and managed to only cancel three teams.

What a remarkable comeback this all is. From the Big Ten, Pac 12, Mountain West and MAC all canceling and putting pressure on the rest of college football to buckle to the point where all of us are going to get to see at least some games, to all of these conferences reversing course and acknowledging they’d made the wrong decision.

It’s simply remarkable.

Sure, it’s going to be a season without precedent and all of us are going to have to hold our breaths all season long that the scheduled games are actually played. But for one Saturday at least the SEC became the first conference to play an entirely scheduled slate of games featuring every team in a conference without a single postponement.

Here’s to hoping there are many more of those weeks to come for all the conferences out there.

But in the meantime let’s all celebrate one huge, massive victory, we knocked the coronabros out and college football is here.

Let’s dive right in to the Starting 11.

1. Mike Leach finally got a head job in the SEC and promptly won one of the biggest games in Mississippi State history and set an all time passing record in the process.

For years one of the great college football bar debates has been: what would Mike Leach do if he ever coached in the SEC, or coached a top program, or got a head job in the NFL? As Leach has swung his sword from Texas Tech to Washington State to Mississippi State fans have gotten into bar debates for years about exactly what to expect if he ever had better players or better resources or a better job.

And then, boom, it suddenly happened, Leach was in the SEC, even if he was in a team with lesser resources than the big boy schools. So what happened? Leach had a quarterback set an all time record for passing yards and he spoiled the return of LSU to Death Valley after a 15-0 season.

This wasn’t just a win, it was a pirate pillaging. It was Disney World before they redid the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Leach came down to the bayou and left with all the loot and all the good looking women. He planted his pirate flag by Mike the Tiger and shrugged his shoulders when the big cat roared.

He treated LSU like Carole Baskin did her first husband.

The numbers are truly mind-boggling, in his first ever game as a head coach in the SEC Leach’s quarterback, KJ Costello, threw for 625 yards and five touchdowns.

625 yards!

On the road at LSU.

Against the defending national champions.

The most passing yards ever. In the history of the conference. Against the defending national champion.

And it’s not like he had any running game threat to rely upon either, State only ran the ball for nine yards on 16 carries.

Where does Mississippi State go from here?

I have no idea.

But it seems pretty likely the Bulldogs can beat Arkansas and then beat Kentucky too. If so, the Bulldogs would be 3-0 with Texas A&M coming to town. Win that one and Mike Leach would roll into Tuscaloosa to play the (likely) 5-0 Tide in what would be an incredible Halloween battle. Hopefully Leach would coach in a full pirate costume.

In the meantime, as for Leach, he took to Twitter after the big win and sent out a strong message.

Which is somehow perfect.

As for LSU, if I’m a Tiger fan I’m waking up this morning feeling like 2019 was a dream. And also wondering whether Joe Burrow in 2019 is going to be like Cam Newton for Auburn in 2010. A player so unfathomably good that he covered up many faults, a shooting star of a season that stands alone, not as a foundational example of the strength of a program, but as a unicorn season the likes of which we’ll never see again under Coach Ed Orgeron.

But for one afternoon in Baton Rouge, this wasn’t about LSU, this was about Mike the Tiger.

2. Oklahoma choked away a home game to Kansas State.

I’ve learned my lesson about saying that a September loss disqualifies a team from playoff contention.

So while everyone wants to cast dirt upon the Sooner grave, it’s certainly possible that Oklahoma runs the table and finds itself back in the playoff mix.

But in the meantime this was an epic collapse.

How epic?

AP top five teams up by 21 points had won 504 straight games prior to Kansas State’s comeback today.

What Kansas State did, put simply, doesn’t happen in college football.

Now Oklahoma’s in a position where they arguably need Texas and Oklahoma State to keep winning and they also need Kansas State to be pretty solid too. They need the rest of the Big 12 to help lift them back up into contention, starting with a Red River Rivalry win soon.

Oklahoma turned the ball over four times to Kansas State’s zero turnovers and as a result Oklahoma needs to get to 10-1 and win the Big 12 title to be back in the playoff mix.

Can they get there?

Sure.

Will they? Personally, I have my doubts that anyone is going to emerge from the Big 12 with fewer than two losses. This feels like a conference that’s trending towards not being in the playoffs.

3. Texas survived, improbably, against Texas Tech.

Down 15 with a little over three minutes to play Texas rallied to put the game into overtime and then put Tech away 63-56 to keep the Big 12’s start to the season from being Hindenburg-like.

Yes, Texas won, but if you give up 56 points in regulation to any team you aren’t a legitimate national title contender.

I’m sorry, that’s just the truth.

As for Texas Tech, how do you manage to lose that game?

This one will sting for a very, very long time.

4. Alabama was up 35-3 with 9:45 remaining in the third quarter and then, uncharacteristically, Nick Saban just took his foot off the gas.

The end of this game was very strange.

Alabama ended up allowing Missouri to score 19 points, 13 in the final eight minutes, and only outgained the Tigers by 92 yards.

I know, I know, you can argue that most of these Mizou gains came against Alabama back ups, but here’s the deal: Alabama back ups are usually working so hard to get on the field they don’t allow any points or yards either.

The end result was I didn’t see the Alabama domination I expected to see.

And that doesn’t bode well for Texas A&M, who rolls into Tuscaloosa next week because I think Nick Saban will have the Tide begging for mercy in practice this week.

5. Florida quarterback Kyle Trask looked like Joe Burrow last season.

Coming into the season I argued that Trask had the potential to make himself into a first round pick if he had a great year. And that I thought it was downright possible. I’ve loved everything about Trask ever since he took over this starting job.

He just looks insanely comfortable in the pocket and always seems to make the right decision.

And that was without ever having an offseason where everyone on the team knew he was the starter.

It’s hard to believe Kyle Trask could throw for 416 yards and six touchdowns and not be the top story coming out of Saturday’s games in the SEC.

Or that Florida could give up 613 yards to Lane Kiffin and Ole Miss.

But here we are.

Given how wobbly Georgia looked at quarterback and the fact that Jarrett Guarantano still looked like Jarrett Guarantano and South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Kentucky, and Missouri all took losses, I think you have to make the Gators a large favorite to win the SEC East.

They look like the best team in the SEC East by a substantial margin, especially on offense. I think there’s a decent chance Florida can just outscore everyone on their schedule.

As for Ole Miss, what’s the over/under going to have to be for the Egg Bowl this year?

80?

Maybe.

6. Georgia doesn’t have a quarterback.

Yes, the Bulldogs pulled away late against Arkansas, but how many SEC teams would they have beaten today with their first half performance in particular?

Not many.

Considering Florida and Alabama both have very solid quarterback situations, the Bulldogs look to be at a severe disadvantage here.

You know Kirby Smart’s defense is going to be elite and there’s always talent, but Georgia hosts Auburn, Tennessee, and then goes to Alabama before going to Kentucky and playing Florida, all before they even get to the tail end of their schedule.

Based on what I saw yesterday I just don’t see the Bulldogs coming out of that stretch without at least two losses.

Then even after that brutal run Georgia still plays Mississippi State in November.

The point? Georgia doesn’t have the luxury of developing a quarterback, they have to be good now and I just don’t think they are.

7. Kentucky got screwed out of a first half touchdown and Auburn managed to pull away in the second half.

No one ever has any idea what to expect of Gus Malzahn’s team.

They’re a total enigma every year.

So Auburn getting the benefit of a clear touchdown not being called against them and then two plays later getting a 100 yard pick six felt somehow perfect. (The pick six was called back for targeting, which helped to erase a bit of the stigma from the blown call on the touchdown).

The blown call didn’t look to be particularly close, Kentucky had clearly powered its way into the end zone to take a five point lead, but the miss changed the course of the game.

How might the second half have gone if Kentucky was up 14-8 to begin the third quarter?

We’ll never know.

What we do know is we still don’t know much about Auburn.

Are the Tigers a true SEC West contender or just another spoiler for Alabama at the end of the year? I have no idea. Neither do you.

We may get an idea this coming weekend in Athens.

8. Tennessee won their seventh straight under Jeremy Pruitt.

But they needed a punt to roll into a South Carolina special teams player at the end of the game to make it happen.

And fifth year senior Jarrett Guarantano continues to be a completely erratic quarterback. Guarantano can make every throw a top college quarterback needs to make, but he can also make every throw that gets a quarterback in college football benched. And it now appears he’s going to do it at Tennessee for a fourth straight year.

The Vols will be good enough to beat just about anyone and also bad enough to lose to just about anyone.

Which will make 2020 an absolute roller coaster once again with Guarantano managing the controls.

Tennessee should beat Missouri, Kentucky, Arkansas and Vanderbilt. (Note I said should beat not that they would). That would get the Vols to five wins. But can they beat Georgia, Texas A&M, Alabama, Auburn or Florida? I have no idea because I have no idea what Guarantano will do on any week.

On Saturday night Tennessee went 1 for 11 on third down. The one conversion came on an incredible one-handed sideline catch on a deep ball. Almost all of these third downs were convertible opportunities.

And Tennessee didn’t convert.

Why didn’t they? Their quarterback often made bad throws.

But then out of nowhere Guarantano can unleash a perfect 32 yard touchdown pass like he did to win the game.

My prediction for the Vols?

6-4.

If you’re a Tennessee fan what you’d desperately like is to be alive for the SEC East crown with Florida coming to town to finish the season in December.

But if you’re a realist you have to admit that seems unlikely.

9. Miami destroyed Florida State and Texas A&M survived Vanderbilt.

The U just may be back, boys and girls.

Miami has two weeks to get ready for a road trip to Clemson. That will be a tremendous test.

But in the meantime, how bad is Florida State?

The Seminoles are tough to watch.

As for the Aggies, Jimbo Fisher is in his third year in College Station and A&M opened the season as thirty point favorites over a Commodore team that is favored to go winless in conference this season.

And the Aggies did not look good.

Which is unfortunate because the Aggies now have to go on the road and play Alabama this Saturday. Right now this feels like another season of Texas A&M being decent, but not great in the SEC West.

Which is a far cry for what Jimbo is being paid to do.

10. Bowl game idea: let every rivalry game that was canceled be played as a bowl game this season.

How great would it be to make up these rivalry games in the bowl games for schools that aren’t in the playoff or one of the big six?

Iowa-Iowa State, Georgia-Georgia Tech, Florida-Florida State, Louisville-Kentucky, Clemson-South Carolina, if the games are available to be scheduled, why not make them happen and keep these in-state rivalry games rolling?

Okay, here’s my Outkick Top Ten, with an acknowledgment of how difficult it is to rank teams right now.

Note: as always, I’m only ranking teams that have actually played games on the field. That’s because I begin my polls every year by eliminating expectation and only looking at on field results.

Here we go:

1. Mississippi State
2. Clemson
3. Alabama
4. Florida
5. Miami
6. Auburn
7. BYU
8. Notre Dame
9. Georgia
10. Tennessee

11. SEC power rankings 1-14:

Remember that I rank all the teams based entirely on what we’ve seen on the field. That is, I’m not ranking teams based on what I expect to see, I’m ranking them based on what we’ve actually seen on the field so far. So especially early in the season there can be a great deal of movement because we haven’t seen many teams play yet.

In particular I try to give the most value early in the season to road wins over conference opponents since they are generally tough to pull off. (I know things are somewhat different with reduced capacity home field advantages this year).

So here we go with my weekly SEC power rankings:

1. Mississippi State
2. Alabama
3. Florida
4. Auburn
5. Georgia
6. Tennessee
7. Texas A&M
8. Vanderbilt
9. LSU
10. Kentucky
11. South Carolina
12. Ole Miss
13. Missouri
14. Arkansas

I’m sure, as always, my power rankings will provoke disagreement on social media. But you know what? I have never been happier to have people calling me an idiot about college football on social media.

Because it means we’re back, baby!

Thank all of you for supporting Outkick, yes, even the haters.

I love all of you.

But I love college football the most of all.

And I’m just incredibly thankful that we were able to defeat the coronabros and make this season happen. No matter what comes from here, that already feels like a huge win.

Written by Clay Travis

Clay Travis is an author, radio show host, lawyer, TV analyst, and the founder of OutKick (formerly known as Outkick the Coverage).
Read More about Clay >>

8 Comments

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  1. On Auburn-UK, I was listening to the Auburn radio broadcast; the Auburn radio announcers (who are pretty partisan) called it a Kentucky touchdown. They were worried because Kentucky was going up 14-8 and getting the ball to start the 2nd half. Kentucky’s touchdown was taken away as was Auburn’s pick-6 on the make-up call. After all that, Kentucky got stuffed on the first possession of the 2nd half and Auburn ends up winning by 16. Auburn gonna Auburn.

  2. I’m a grad of MSState. I went to Baton Rouge for the game. Yes, State looked really good, LSU not so much. LSU picked up 17 points directly related to MSU turnovers, including one pick 6.

    Anyone think that the score would have been lopsided without those 4 turnovers?

    LSU couldn’t stop MSU defensively and DBU looked more like DB Middle School.

    I’m hopeful that there’s no drop off in effort or intensity Saturday evening in Starkville against Arkansas.

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