The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.

SEC Power Rankings Week Two: High Hopes & Higher Expectations

After Week One provided an entertaining return to college football, The Hustler takes a stab at ranking the SEC.
Nour a
Quarterback AJ Swann and Tight End Josh Palmer celebrate during Vanderbilt’s win over Alabama A&M on Sept. 2, 2023 (Hustler Multimedia/Nour Abida).

For teams in the Southeastern Conference, Week One is an opportunity to showcase what potential they have to offer. The upper echelon of the conference is packed with programs that believe they have a shot at not just the SEC crown, but the national title. The teams floating around the middle have aspirations towards consistent improvement from prior seasons, as they attempt to maintain the degree of excellence for which the SEC is recognized. With a Week Two slate highlighted with compelling matchups, the dreams of many programs can be put in a state of jeopardy. Sep

1. Georgia (1-0)

Once again, Kirby Smart and the Bulldogs begin their merciless campaign for a championship, this time around eyeing a three-peat, an accomplishment only attained by Minnesota once back in the 1930s. Tennessee-Martin was the first target of many along the Georgian warpath. The Skyhawks were not much of a hurdle for their opposition, falling to Georgia 48-7. Then again, the result for the most part was foreseen, as it pitted the No. 1 team in the country against an FCS school. 

Georgia’s schedule is brimmed with lackluster competition outside of two currently ranked opponents, Ole Miss and Tennessee. The Bulldogs will need to consistently bulldoze their rivals week in and week out to avoid any questions about their prowess on the gridiron.

In fact, one of the biggest questions lied at the helm of the offense, right under center. The analytical magnifying glass will be fixated on quarterback Carson Beck, as the redshirt junior has massive shoes to fill considering the dazzling years Stetson Bennett had leading this program. The first half against Tennessee Martin might’ve drawn some concern about whether the inexperienced signal caller really could step up in the spotlight due to a sluggish performance, but the ship was righted with Beck and the Bulldogs cruising to a relatively smooth victory after halftime. 

2. Alabama (1-0)

Could this be the beginning of a redemption arc for the Crimson Tide? With the way they went about bullying MTSU, perhaps Alabama foreshadowed a return to title glory that has become the timeless standard in Tuscaloosa. The successor to Bryce Young, Jalen Milroe, put on a show of athletic fireworks as he posted five touchdowns (three in the air, two on the ground) en route to a 49-point victory. The defense was at its signature pinnacle, holding the Blue Raiders to a measly 3.5 yards per play while pitching a shutout until late in the third quarter. 

Yet, the true test of this Alabama team’s caliber is a rematch this weekend with SEC-bound No. 11 Texas at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Last year’s meeting is still fresh in the minds of many college football fans, as the Crimson Tide narrowly escaped the Longhorns on the cusp of a Quinn Ewers injury and late game heroics from Young. Carrying a less experienced roster and facing a full-strength Texas, this time around the contest shapes up to be possibly defining of how the rest of the season can unfold for Saban’s crew.

3. LSU (0-1)

Two surging top-ten teams. Two championship contenders. Two senior quarterbacks attempting to prove themselves on the national stage. Two dynamic offenses paired with stout, aggressive defenses. That was the story surrounding the Camping World Kickoff game, a Monday night showdown between premier programs in LSU and Florida State to finish off the first week of action. When the dust settled, the Seminoles ran off with a 45-24 triumph, delivering an early blow to the bubbling aspirations held by the Baton Rouge faithful.

LSU was eventually slaughtered by the Seminoles despite leading 17-14 at half. Brian Kelly’s defense gave up an unprecedented 494 yards, 359 of them coming off the fingertips of Heisman-hopeful quarterback Jordan Travis. It’s hard to criticize the Bayou Bengals harshly because of the quality of their opponent. Still, being no-shows against the nation’s best on the grand stage is an Achilles heel of any team with the National Championship in their sights. Big games matter regardless of how young the season is.

The Tigers will look to right their wrongs from Week One when they host Grambling State, hoping to build some momentum before they reach the mountain that is SEC play.

4. Tennessee (1-0) 

Last season, the surprising Volunteers came armed with a barrage of weapons geared for a shootout in any contest. Hendon Hooker firing missiles down field to Jalin Hyatt and Cedric Tillman, blowing the top off of secondaries who had no answer for the high-flying Vols. This season’s first game, however, showed a fresh layer to Josh Heupel’s team: a more assertive and balanced win on all sides of the ball. 

Joe Milton had a decent game, narrowly eclipsing the 200 yard mark and throwing 2 touchdowns. The real star offensively was the running game, spearheaded by junior Jaylen Wright. The lead back rushed for 115 yards out of a combined 287 yards on the ground for Tennessee, with sophomore Dylan Sampson churning out three touchdowns and Milton adding two of his own. As if the depth of runners wasn’t enough for a Tennessee victory, the defense practically swallowed Virginia whole. The Cavaliers could only secure 12 first downs during the duration of the game, a minuscule amount compared to the 29 first downs the Volunteers delivered. 

With its schedule getting harder towards the backend of the season, performances like this keep the ball rolling forward on Tennessee’s SEC title chances. Hosting Austin Peay for Week Two, the Vols will aim to keep marching forward with confidence. 

5. Ole Miss (1-0)

This isn’t the first time Mercer has been subsequently dropped by an SEC team. Last year, Auburn trounced the Bears 42-16. This year, Ole Miss one-upped their SEC West rival by putting up 73 points. If it wasn’t for Oregon putting up 81 also against another FCS opponent, it would have been heralded as the best offensive display of the weekend. 

As much as their returning talent added to the victory, the biggest eyebrow raiser was senior transfer from Louisiana Tech, wide receiver Tre Harris. Harris only had six catches, but four of them were for touchdowns, amassing a mind boggling 22.2 yards per reception. His four snags for scores broke a record for Ole Miss as he became the first wideout in program history to ever reach that mark. Mercer or not, the execution of the Rebels offense was noteworthy, with all facets on the same page all game. A breakout season could be in store for Harris, quarterback Jaxson Dart and the rest of Ole Miss if these types of air raid annihilations continue. 

In spite of that, Ole Miss will face an intriguing Week Two challenge in No. 24 Tulane. The defending AAC champions are still riding the momentum of last year’s Cotton Bowl upset of USC. The Green Wave waltzed by South Alabama 37-17 in their Week One matchup. If Ole Miss wants to prove its legitimacy, it can’t let itself be washed away by the Green Wave.

6. Texas A&M (1-0)

To say the expectations aren’t remarkably crushing at College Station would be an underestimate. After reeling in the top ranked recruiting class in 2022, the Aggies dropped to the ball and went 5-7. The seats at A&M could start heating up this year if the team doesn’t provide adequate results. Even then, it’s clear that the Aggies have some believers, as evidenced by their No. 23 national ranking. A 42-point besting of New Mexico to start the year gives some reasoning as to why people are buying into the A&M stocks, at least for now. 

New offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino was fantastic as the leading play caller, with possession after possession resulting in touchdowns as Texas A&M secured 35 points before the halftime break. Sophomore Connor Weigman reinforced Jimbo Fisher’s decision to start him, hurling five touchdowns and earning the highest QBR in college football at 97.2. The Aggies defense, who had more questions than answers following a large loss of talent, was spectacular. An initial impact came from Boston College graduate transfer Josh DeBerry, who posted ten tackles, an interception and a sack in a quality debut for the defensive back. More substantial performances will be necessary as the Aggies travel to Miami to battle the Hurricanes, a robust challenge for a team trying to discover their identity. 

7. Kentucky (1-0)

The Wildcats’ reformed and revamped roster still have some kinks to work out. A touch of convincing play was blanketed by shrouds of scrutiny, namely due to a mediocre performance from NC State transfer quarterback Devin Leary. The ground game helped Kentucky own the gridiron, and to the envy of every Commodore fan back on West End, Ray Davis led the charge. The former Vanderbilt 1,000-yard rusher was the focal point for Kentucky, scoring twice on an average of 8 yards per carry. His performance was an indication of the talent Mark Stoops has pulled in through the portal, as Davis and other transfer additions will serve as leaders of this group going forward. Consistent playmaker Barrion Brown also flashed his brilliance, blazing through the Cardinals special teams as he took a kickoff 99 yards to the endzone as a knockout punch to Ball State. 

Kentucky will stay at home this weekend, welcoming in-state foe Eastern Kentucky into Lexington. The Colonels, who were just decimated by Cincinnati 66-13, gave up 438 yards through the air, meaning Leary will have a chance to get some quality reps in against a weaker pass defense. 

8. Arkansas (1-0)

Following a disappointing season last year that saw the Razorbacks barely break .500, Sam Pittman and the Hogs started their season with a bang against WCU, with the final score showing 56-13. KJ Jefferson led Arkansas, as the senior finished the day with 246 total passing yards, 3 touchdowns, and no interceptions. Andrew Armstrong also supported the cause with five receptions in Saturday’s game. The WR is expected to further his accomplishments from his 2022 season when he averaged almost 100 receiving yards per game. The running backs were lacking in comparison, but it didn’t affect the outcome of the game too much.

A notable soft spot for Arkansas football has been its special teams. Hoping to turn this around, WR Isaiah Sategna, a redshirt first-year, made his debut in the season opener. The young returner took four returns (two on punts, two on kickoffs), each of them sending waves throughout the stadium. In the fourth quarter, Sategna made the field his own, breaking through the WCU defense for a 39-yard return. This set up an easy Arkansas touchdown moments later, extending the score even further. 

The defensive line has seemingly improved with the addition of Jahiem Thomas, Cincinnati linebacker, who left nothing on the field with eight tackles in Saturday’s game. Put this together with an 85-yard pick six, and they have a defense with decent potential going into a Week Two matchup with Kent State. 

9. Mississippi State (1-0)

While this past Saturday was an electric day for all the teams around the SEC, it was an emotional one for the Bulldogs. As their first home game since the passing of legendary Coach Mike Leach, the team was determined to honor one of their own. Under the work of Leach, though he only spent three years with the program, Mississippi State was able to keep their 13-year bowl streak alive. On top of this, Leach led the team to its best record since 2017. Leach is also credited with the immense development of Will Rogers, the senior quarterback who started Saturday’s game. The Bulldogs, Rogers and all of Mississippi State took this opportunity to give tribute to Leach in front of their home crowd. 

After a slow first quarter, Mississippi State was held to just a field goal. Finally, once the second quarter hit, the Bulldogs found their footing, breaking the game open in minutes. At its core, the offense was driven by Rogers and his 227 passing yards amounting to 2 touchdowns. Assisting Rogers was the Bulldog defense that held Southeast Louisiana to merely 125 passing yards, leaving only one touchdown for the Lions in the box score. Against this team, the Bulldogs’ performance was expected. They’ll face a tougher test later in the season, facing top-15 teams such as LSU and Alabama. 

This week, though, Mississippi State meets Arizona, where they look to continue to replicate their meeting from 2022, when the Bulldogs conquered the Wildcats 39-17. 

10. Missouri (1-0)

Following their season-opening win, the Missouri Tigers had many decisions to make, most of which pertain to their (now) QB1, Brady Cook. With 172 passing yards, going 17-for-21 in attempts but only 1 TD, Cook was a few steps above the bare minimum in the first half of Saturday’s game. Notably, Cook is recovering from a torn labrum this past December, so his return, in all, is progress for the Tigers. But even with Cook healthy, QB2 Sam Horn took the second half of the game, completing three out of five of his pass attempts, with a touchdown and an interception. After post-game interviews, it was revealed that Cook will be taking most of the starts for Missouri, with Horn as a second string.

Supporting Cook was the Death Row Defense, a well-suited term for this Missouri team on the other side of the ball. Allowing just 38 rushing yards the entire game on 35 carries, South Dakota averaged 1.1 yards per rush. Pair this together with a 2-of-13 3rd down defensive conversion rate, and Missouri is unbeatable. That is, against a team like the Coyotes. 

So, Missouri, even while carrying a 35-10 win against South Dakota, has exponentially more to prove in the later weeks of the season with LSU, Georgia and Tennessee on their calendar. Before that, they face the MTSU Blue Raiders as 21-point favorites, serving as substantial batting practice for Week Two. 

11. Florida (0-1)

Florida managed to upstage their disappointing 2022 with a disheartening loss to back-to-back Pac-12 champions, No. 14 Utah. Although the Gators brought the house down with an exhilarating upset of the Utes last year, this season’s opener left feelings far from that exuberance. When the very first play from scrimmage is a 70-yard touchdown pass from Utah’s backup quarterback Bryson Barnes to wide receiver Money Parks in a sold out Rice-Eccles Stadium, it can take the wind out of the sails in a mere instant. 

The Gators mustered no momentum offensively all night. Squeaking out 13 yards on the ground paired with going 1-for-13 on third down paints a grim picture of how Florida was suffocated. Florida had 12 drives against Utah, two of which ended in scores. The rest resulted in punts, turnovers on downs or another crushing fate like an interception or missed field goal. While outgaining their opponent in yardage, senseless penalties and an inefficiency in terms of converting chances to points sank Florida. Improvement is needed on both sides of the ball if the Gators hope to have any shot of avoiding last year’s disastrous season. 

12. South Carolina (0-1)

When we think of South Carolina’s opening season game, we almost wish we didn’t. In general, the game between North Carolina and Gamecocks was nearly impossible to watch from the SEC point of view, but it also begs the question: how did so much go so right but so wrong at the same time?

Looking on the surface, it seems like not much positive to talk about for this team. The Gamecocks were 4-for-14 third down attempts and 0-for-3 on fourth down. Moreover, the Tar Heels defense recorded nine sacks and even left the Gamecocks in the negatives for rushing yards. 

On the other hand, Spencer Rattler, the senior quarterback for the Gamecocks, completed 30-of-39 passes for a total of 353 recorded yards (but no touchdowns), which went hand-in-hand with Xavier Legette, who received nine of those passes and averaged 19.8 yards per reception. Though Legette’s work on Saturday set a record that weekend, as they had the most receiving yards of all 14 teams, the Gamecocks still fell short. 

Despite the disappointing performance from the Gamecocks, there is always next week. The Furman Paladins will make their way to Williams-Bruce Stadium Sept. 9 where South Carolina will look to even their record to a fair 1-1. 

13. Auburn (1-0)

Auburn demolished UMass 59-14. No, their ranking is not a mistake.

Simply put, Auburn was expected to win this game and win it by this margin. Even though the game started slow and was at one point tied at seven apiece, Auburn’s offense dominated the field and gave them more than a 20-point lead before halftime. Prior to kickoff, Auburn was the 35-point favorite, as they ranked in nearly the 100th percentile in both points per game and points allowed per game. Because of this, Auburn’s Week One means little to nothing for the SEC and their respective ranking, causing them to stay on the lower side of the rankings for this week. The box score does not mean everything. 

So, on Saturday, it’s wheels up for the Tigers, as they travel to California Memorial Stadium to hopefully add a meaningful win to their season against California. It is expected that a win over California would push their ranking both in the SEC and the overall CFB stage. Auburn hopes to establish a winning streak against this western team but might face some difficult following the Golden Bears’ starting QB, Sam Jackson, who is day-to-day after an upper-body injury at North Texas this past weekend. 

14. Vanderbilt (2-0)

Despite the fact that technically Vanderbilt is on top of the conference standings, it’s another week with Vanderbilt at the bottom of the pecking order. Nevertheless, the Commodores have found themselves once again at 2-0, scraping by Hawaii 35-28 in Week Zero and then besting Alabama A&M 47-13 this past weekend. Although the box scores and the unbeaten record reflect some ideas about Vanderbilt’s persistence, witnessing its play firsthand shows a culmination of striking weaknesses. 

Sophomore AJ Swann, who’s been given the reins to this team, has had two completely opposite games. In Week Zero, he showed poise and flashes of why Clark Lea has trusted the young quarterback throughout training camp and into the season. In Week One, he struggled against an FCS defense, indecisiveness and questionable throws being slotted in between two touchdown tosses to Will Sheppard. Not to mention on the other side of the ball, the secondary has been susceptible to huge chunk plays frequently. This problem has been amplified by an injured pass rush, who has struggled against lower quality offensive lines.

Facing a familiar opponent in Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, Vanderbilt aims to earn a 3-0 start by trouncing a formidable foe on the road. The Demon Deacons represent an intense jump in difficulty compared to Vanderbilt’s first two adversaries, meaning the Commodores have to be at their best as they enter as underdogs.

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About the Contributors
Megan Curtis
Megan Curtis, Staff Writer
Megan Curtis (‘27) is from Queens, N.Y., and is majoring in biomedical engineering and minoring in digital fabrication in the School of Engineering. When not writing for The Hustler, you can find her watching the New York Yankees and training at the gym. You can reach her at [email protected].
David Hernandez
David Hernandez, Lead Sports Analyst
David Hernandez (‘26) is a student in the College of Arts and Sciences double majoring in political science and law, history and society with a minor in communication studies. Outside of writing for The Hustler, you can find him playing basketball, catching up on his favorite shows and mourning the tragedy that is New York sports. He can be reached at [email protected].
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