The mighty Southeastern Conference has taken more hits than usual in the opening week of the college football season, raising questions about the SEC’s status as the nation’s premier conference.
Red flags went up around the country after the SEC, which has won over 80 percent of its nonconference games since 2006, went just 6-5 against non-league opponents. The first-week schedule of marquee matchup ends Monday with No. 11 Mississippi facing No. 4 Florida State of the Atlantic Coast Conference in Orlando, Florida.
No matter what happens in the Rebels-Seminoles matchup, it is too early to believe the SEC won’t be in the national championship conversation all year. No. 1 Alabama crushed No. 20 Southern California 52-6, No. 18 Georgia beat No. 22 North Carolina 33-24 and Texas A&M defeated No. 16 UCLA 31-24 in overtime.
Still, there were chinks in the SEC armor.
No. 5 LSU fell 16-14 to unranked Wisconsin at Lambeau Field in a result, more fodder for the argument the SEC wouldn’t fare so well in nonconference games if its teams left the South more often. LSU had won a Football Bowl Subdivision record 52 consecutive regular-season nonconference games.
“We knew what was at stake this season,” LSU cornerback Tre’Davious White said. “Our goal is to win it all and to go undefeated. … It’s a hurtful feeling.”
Kentucky blew a 35-10 lead in a 44-35 home loss to Southern Mississippi. Missouri fell 26-11 at West Virginia. Mississippi State lost 21-20 at home to 28-point underdog South Alabama when a potential game-winning 28-yard field-goal attempt bounced off the left upright in the closing seconds. The SEC is not used to celebrating moral victories, but the one loser with reason to feel good about itself was Auburn, which was competitive in a 19-13 home loss to No. 2 Clemson.
“I don’t care if you’re SEC or ACC, whatever conference you’re in, you put your clothes on just like I do,” Southern Mississippi defensive lineman Dylan Bradley said. That is “our mentality, we talk, and that’s just something we believe in. We can play anybody on the field no matter who they are.”
Some of the SEC’s wins were as concerning as the losses.
No. 9 Tennessee needed overtime to beat 20-point underdog Appalachian State 20-13. Arkansas converted a fourth-and-goal for the winning touchdown with 6:37 left in a 21-20 squeaker over 25-point underdog Louisiana Tech. No. 25 Florida, a 36 ½-point favorite, only led 10-7 at the start of the fourth quarter before pulling away for a 24-7 triumph over Massachusetts.
“Obviously, as you watched the game, we’ve got a long way to go,” Florida coach Jim McElwain said afterward.
One consistent problem is for the SEC is that some teams that struggled last year continue to face the same issues this season. LSU and Auburn still aren’t getting consistent quarterback production. Kentucky’s defense remains porous. Florida and Missouri continue to have trouble moving the ball, though the Gators at least appear to have corrected the field-goal problems that haunted them a year ago.
All of it opens a window for other conferences to take a bite out of the SEC, which has won eight of the last 10 national championships. The SEC entered this season having gone 496-110 in nonconference games (regular season and bowls) since 2006 for an .818 winning percentage that leads all leagues.
Not that the window is fully open.
The Crimson Tide handed USC its most lopsided loss in a half-century and may have found a quarterback in freshman Jalen Hurts, who threw two touchdown passes and ran for two more scores. Georgia’s Nick Chubb rushed for 222 yards and showed that he was all the way back from a knee injury that ended his 2015 season in October. Texas A&M’s defense sacked UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen five times and forced him into three interceptions.
“Do I think we can get a lot better? Yes I do,” Texas A&M quarterback Trevor Knight said. “But that’s a big-time win.”
Big wins are not unusual for the SEC, though losing is.
That is why the outcome of the Ole Miss-Florida State showdown on Monday could fuel the tone of the is-the-SEC-faltering discussion for at least another week.
AP college football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org