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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 12: Thanksgiving Edition

With Thanksgiving break on the horizon, The Hustler compared SEC teams to Thanksgiving dishes.
Matthew+Hayball+punting+against+Auburn%2C+as+photographed+on+Nov.+4%2C+2023.+%28Hustler+Multimedia%2FGeetika+Komati%29
Geetika Komati
Matthew Hayball punting against Auburn, as photographed on Nov. 4, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Geetika Komati)

1. Georgia 10-0 (7-0)

Thanksgiving Equivalent: Turkey

At the very core of Thanksgiving lies the turkey. No matter how many times it is doubted, or whatever futile efforts arise to argue that it is not the best part of the plate, all roads end up leading back to the turkey. The two-time defending National Champions have had a similar experience this year. After beating a handful of SEC teams by slim margins — South Carolina by 10, Auburn by 7, Vanderbilt by 17 and Missouri by 9 — experts began to wonder if there was a new team ready to become the staple of college football. Add to these growing doubts an ankle injury to star tight end Brock Bowers sustained against Vanderbilt, and the noise was loud. Yet, the Bulldogs have done nothing but win. Last weekend, Georgia sent all the doubters packing, cruising past the No. 10 Ole Miss Rebels 52-17. Kendall Milton was dominant, gashing Ole Miss for 127 yards and 2 scores on just 9 carries. While their defense is not as dominant as it has been in previous seasons, Georgia has a top-10 offense that just re-added Bowers last week. It’s always tempting to say there is a new flavor on the block —one year, your grandma’s stuffing may like it can overtake the true core of Thanksgiving — but all roads lead back to turkey and Georgia. 

2. Alabama 9-1 (7-0)

Thanksgiving Equivalent: Mashed Potatoes 

After you get a nice helping of turkey, your second move has to be a mad dash at the mashed potatoes. Mashed potatoes are one of those foods that is clearly under turkey, but the notion always exists that if the turkey is not up to snuff one year, these pesky potatoes are waiting in the wings for their chance to be No. 1. Alabama dropped an early game to Texas this season, triggering extreme disappointment and causing many to ask if Jalen Milroe could handle the starting duties in Tuscaloosa. It seems ridiculous to say the ensuing sentence: “Milroe was benched against South Florida in favor of Tyler Buchner.” Needless to say, since then, the Tide, quite literally, has turned. The last three weeks have been as big as any for this squad — multi-score wins over Tennessee, LSU and Kentucky have positioned this team as a strong contender on the outskirts of the CFP picture. The SEC Championship, taking place on Dec. 2, is set to be a battle of the Tide and the Bulldogs once again. Just as it should be at your Thanksgiving table, the turkey is expected to win out, but when you got mashed potatoes coached by the legendary Nick Saban and a defense tied for No. 2 overall in the nation by Pro Football Focus, counting them out would be a grave mistake.

3. Missouri 8-2 (4-2)

Thanksgiving Equivalent: Stuffing

Stuffing is my personal favorite dish of the Thanksgiving spread. While I concede that it is not better than turkey, I’m always left thinking about the wonderful medley of flavors that stuffing leaves in my mouth at the conclusion of the meal. I’ll say the same about this Missouri squad when the season comes to an end. They were never the best team in the SEC, but they have been the most fun one to watch. This was a bowl team last year but also one that almost lost to Vanderbilt. This squad has dropped two tough games this year — LSU and Georgia. Otherwise, the Tigers have been dominant. They embarrassed a one-loss Kentucky squad at home in mid-October, easily handled South Carolina the following week and most recently beat Tennessee by 29. This is a top-15 offense in college football. Brady Cook has been stellar this season, tossing 23 total touchdowns to just 6 interceptions. The Tigers’ offensive line is one of the best in the nation. Luther Burden and Theo Wease are a secondary’s worst nightmare. Running back Cody Schrader has been all-world. Against UTK, Scharder rushed for 205 yards, added 116 yards through the air and scored. It was the first time in history an SEC player recorded 200+ yards on the ground and 100+ yards through the air. While I’m not here to argue that stuffing is better than turkey, you may find that the stuffing is the dish you’ll leave the table remembering this year.

4. LSU 7-3 (5-2)

Thanksgiving Equivalent: Sweet Potatoes with Marshmallows

Sweet potatoes topped with marshmallows is where the eye naturally is drawn to first when you’re conducting your first scan of the year’s assortment. The smell is second to none, and the satisfying pattern of marshmallows brings a wave of child-like joy to even the most experienced of Thanksgiving eaters. Watching this LSU team brings that joy week in and week out. The Tigers have lost to Ole Miss (by a slim margin) and Alabama (by not so slim of a margin). The biggest story here is obvious: Jayden Daniels. Daniels is not the Heisman favorite — he trails Oregon’s Bo Nix and Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. — but he should be. LSU’s atrocious defense has held this team out of contention. Daniels leads the best offensive attack in the nation, and last week, the California native put up a video game stat-line: 372 passing yards, 3 passing touchdowns, 234 rushing yards and 2 rushing touchdowns. I anticipate being kept up late at night for many years to come wondering what this team could be with a good defense, just like I will think about how high sweet potatoes could fly if there were just a few more marshmallows and a little less potato. 

5. Ole Miss 8-2 (5-2)

Thanksgiving Equivalent: Pumpkin Pie

Pumpkin pie can go against anything on the table. People might leave Thanksgiving telling you pumpkin pie was the best thing they had. But, let’s return to reality. When we talk of the blue bloods — your turkey and mashed potatoes of the world — pumpkin pie isn’t even in the same arena. You can’t compare a desert to the main table, no matter how appealing it may be. Ole Miss has been soaring high all year — except when it is tested by those aforementioned blue bloods. On Sept. 23, the Rebels suffered a two touchdown loss at the hands of the Crimson Tide. This team proceeded to do nothing but win for a month and a half, with a signature 55-49 shoot-out win over LSU. The storylines were all going right for this team: the defense was steadily improving, Jaxson Dart has proved himself to be an elite playmaker and Quinshon Judkins was causing nightmares for opposing linebacking corps. Last week was Ole Miss’s chance to get a real seat at the table, but a 52-17 loss to Georgia assures that we have the Rebels in the right place — on the dessert table, to be picked at after the big boys eat.

6. Tennessee 7-3 (3-3)

Thanksgiving Equivalent: Cornbread

Cornbread is always filled with promise — it has years where it is made so perfectly that for a split-second, you find your brain comparing it to the truly elite dishes of the holiday. Unfortunately, this dish is one of the most volatile, because if it is left in the oven for just a few seconds too long, it becomes a forgettable part of the smorgasbord. This year’s iteration of Tennessee is just that — a team with flashes of a well-crafted squad, but one that is just a bit overcooked. Or, perhaps, undercooked. While their defense ranks in the top 30 in college football, Joe Milton III has yet to prove he can step up when this Tennessee squad needs him most. Last week against Missouri was less like Thanksgiving and more like a horror-filled Halloween for the Volunteers. Despite a slim 13-7 deficit at halftime, the Vols couldn’t get anything going in the second half, finding a way to blow every opportunity their defense gave them. They host Georgia at Neyland Stadium this weekend, and I expect the obvious thing to happen when we are talking about poorly cooked cornbread: it’ll be chucked in the garbage in favor of the turkey.

7. Texas A&M 6-4 (4-3)

Thanksgiving Equivalent: Cranberry Sauce

Cranberry sauce is solid. It won’t blow you out of the water, but it’s something that the experienced Thanksgiving eater will make room for on their plate. Any evaluator of SEC football has to give their props to Texas A&M this year. The only time they lost by more than one score this year was back on Sept. 9, at the hands of the Miami Hurricanes. Their other losses have come against Alabama (by 6), Tennessee (by 7) and Ole Miss (by 3). Their offense ranks in the top 25 and their defense ranks in the top 20 in the NCAA according to Pro Football Focus. What holds this team back is its turnstile of an offensive line, resulting in multiple quarterback injuries this season. Despite certainly being a middle-of-the-road SEC team this season, Jimbo Fisher and A&M continue to find a way to stay relevant. Even if it’s only in a small corner of your plate, you have to find some room for the cranberry sauce.

8. Auburn 6-4 (4-3)

Thanksgiving Equivalent: Mac & Cheese

Whether it’s Thanksgiving or just another day of the week, Mac & Cheese always gets the people going. While not a headliner of the Thanksgiving rotation, there are few better options in the side category. Auburn falls in the same vein as one of the most underrated teams in the SEC in an overall down year for the conference. The Tigers went 5-7 (2-6 SEC) and fired head coach Brian Harsin in 2022, seemingly reaching a new low for the once storied program. However, new head coach Hugh Freeze has the Auburn rebuild ahead of schedule. The Tigers are 6-4 so far, having won three consecutive SEC games by a double-digit margin and losing fairly close games to Georgia and Ole Miss. Quarterback Payton Thorne has made big strides to secure the QB1 title, throwing eight touchdowns and just two interceptions in Auburn’s last three contests. It certainly doesn’t hurt that its run game ranks third in the SEC in yards per game (207.2). Overall, this is a balanced team that is well on its way to moving up these rankings next year. 

9. Kentucky 6-4 (3-4)

Thanksgiving Equivalent: Apple Pie

Apple Pie is a strong dessert option, but it lacks the seasonal flair to stand out in the Thanksgiving rotation. Likewise, mediocre Kentucky might want to go back in the freezer until March when its No. 17  basketball team has the chance to be relevant. The Wildcats started out hot with five straight wins to open the season, including an impressive victory over then-ranked Florida. Since then, Kentucky has lost four of its last five games, with all those losses coming against ranked SEC opponents. Capable of beating down on the SEC’s worst but unable to perform against legitimate conference contenders, it’s clear that Kentucky belongs somewhere in the middle of these rankings.  While quarterback Devin Leary has failed to play at the same level he did at NC State, other transfers have worked out well for the Wildcats. Some guy named Ray Davis is 2nd in the conference in rushing yards (929), 3rd in touchdowns (11) and likely to wind up in the 1st-team all SEC conversation. As great as Davis has been, Kentucky will still need to win at least one more game against South Carolina or No. 9 Louisville to qualify for a bowl game. 

10. Florida 5-5 (3-4)

Thanksgiving Equivalent: Green Beans

Green beans are the best vegetable in the Thanksgiving rotation. But on a holiday where you get the excuse to “feast” on less-than-healthy alternatives, it’s hard for a vegetable to wind up too high in the rankings.  At 5-5 and with matchups against No. 11 Missouri and No. 4 Florida St. to close out the season, Florida faces a difficult path to a bowl game. The Gators’ story this season has been similar to Kentucky. After a promising 3-1 start to conference play that featured a win against No. 21 Tennessee, Florida looked like a team that could at the very least put up a fight with the SEC’s best. That hasn’t been the case. The Gators were trounced by No. 1 Georgia and No. 15 LSU, and even lost to pitiful Arkansas at home. Quarterback Graham Mertz has been surprisingly solid for the Gators, leading the SEC in completion percentage (73.3%) and touchdown-to-interception ratio (9:1). On the whole, however, the Gators lack intensity on both sides of the ball and haven’t established a formula to consistently win games. They might be the best “worst” team in the SEC, which makes the comparison to green beans feel quite appropriate. 

11. South Carolina 4-6 (2-5)

Thanksgiving Equivalent: The Other Potatoes

It’s hard to get excited about roasted or scalloped potatoes when the much more appealing mashed potatoes are just down the table. South Carolina came into the season as a team with mediocre expectations, and that’s exactly where it’ll finish. The Gamecocks picked up their best win of the season last week, annihilating Vanderbilt 47-6 to pick up their second SEC win. Part of their slow start to conference play can be attributed to a brutal schedule, including road contests against Georgia, Tennessee and Missouri. The Gamecocks have also faced some of the worst injury luck in college football, losing ten different offensive lineman to injury at varying points in the season. As a result, Quarterback Spencer Rattler has had little time to get the ball off, and has taken the second-most sacks of anyone in the SEC (36). But excuses aside, the Gamecocks are just plain average this year, just like the other potatoes aimlessly circulating the Thanksgiving table. 

12. Mississippi St. 4-6 (1-6)

Thanksgiving Equivalent: Gravy

Few people would dare try to stomach gravy on its own. Like most sauces, it needs an accompaniment to bring out its best qualities. Mississippi St. feels like straight gravy without the turkey this year. The Bulldogs have some talented players on both sides of the ball, but both their offense and defense rank near the bottom of the SEC. The Bulldogs managed to overpower Arkansas 7-3 in one of the worst football games of the year, but have been otherwise dominated by their SEC competition. Head coach Zach Arnett was relieved of his duties last week, and Mississippi St. will turn to their third coach in less than a year after the tragic passing of Mike Leach. Quarterback Will Rogers has regressed significantly after a standout junior year in which he threw for 3,974 yards and 35 touchdowns. At 4-6, the Bulldogs will need to defeat two in-state rivals in Southern Miss and Ole Miss to have a chance at a bowl game. Perhaps a new head coach can be the turkey to Mississippi St.’s gravy, allowing for a more synergistic end to the season. 

13. Arkansas 3-7 (1-6)

Thanksgiving Equivalent: Glazed Carrots

At the beginning of the night, you tell yourself you’ll eat some carrots this Thanksgiving. But after filling up on the classics, and even getting a few green beans in the mix, there’s just no room for everyone’s (least) favorite root vegetable. Arkansas once looked like a team that might be relevant in 2023. The Razorbacks went 7-6 in 2022 with impressive wins over Ole Miss and Cincinnati. Quarterback KJ Jefferson looked like one of the best dual-threat talents in college football, throwing for 24 touchdowns and picking up an additional nine on the ground. But something has gone horribly awry in 2023. Arkansas choked away its third game for the season to BYU and never managed to get its feet back on the ground. The Razorbacks lost their first five SEC games in fairly close fashion, picked up an overtime win against Florida, and then got their doors blown off by Auburn to fall to 1-6 in the conference. A rushing offense that ranked 3rd in the SEC in total yardage behind Jefferson and Raheim Sanders in 2022 is now ranked 12th, ahead of only Vanderbilt and South Carolina. With one of the more talented rosters in the SEC and just three wins to show for it, this might be the most disappointing team in all of college football. 

14. Vanderbilt 2-9 (0-7)

Thanksgiving Equivalent: Leftovers

This might not be a fair comparison, since leftovers are one of the best parts of Thanksgiving and Vanderbilt has been far and away the worst team in the SEC this year. Just when it looked as though the team hit rock bottom after losing its eighth straight game to Auburn, the Commodores found a new low in their 47-6 loss to South Carolina. Coach Clark Lea actually complimented the abysmal play of Ken Seals by saying “he took care of the ball and gave us a chance to punt.” In Lea’s defense, Hayball has been one of the few bright spots for Vanderbilt this season. The senior punter was just named a finalist for the Ray Guy award, an annual award given to the best punter in college football. Hayball has had plenty of opportunities to show his talent, as Vanderbilt ranks first in the SEC with 52 punts on the season. It’s safe to say that nobody would touch these guys on Thanksgiving night, or any other night for that matter. Leftovers might actually be a more appropriate name for Vanderbilt next season, as in, “Who’s going to be left over after half this team leaves in the transfer portal?” 

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About the Contributors
Jonah Barbin
Jonah Barbin, Sports Podcast Producer
Jonah Barbin (‘25) is majoring in human and organizational development and cinema and media studies. In addition to writing about sports, you can catch him acting, scouring the fantasy football waiver wire, playing golf and fantasizing about what Odell Beckham Jr.’s career would have been if the Giants never traded him. You can reach him at [email protected].
Brandon Karp
Brandon Karp, Senior Staff Writer
Brandon Karp ('25) is from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and is studying human and organizational development and political science in Peabody College. You can reach him at [email protected].
Geetika Komati
Geetika Komati, Staff Photographer
Geetika Komati ('26) is majoring in economics and music performance and minoring in business in the College of Arts and Science. She is from Livingston, N.J. Geetika loves photographing sports games and getting in on the live action. Apart from the Hustler, some of Geetika's favorite things are traveling, boxing, and cheering on the New Jersey Devils. She can be reached at [email protected].
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