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Hot Reads: Progress reports for the SEC

When Amari Cooper and Alabama rolled past Arkansas, we were reminded again what makes the Crimson Tide a force in college football. (Source: Alabama Athletic Communications) When Amari Cooper and Alabama rolled past Arkansas, we were reminded again what makes the Crimson Tide a force in college football. (Source: Alabama Athletic Communications)
If Missouri can survive the next few weeks without James Franklin, it could set up some interesting matchups at the end of the season. (Source: Missouri Athletics) If Missouri can survive the next few weeks without James Franklin, it could set up some interesting matchups at the end of the season. (Source: Missouri Athletics)

(RNN) - Remember back to almost exactly one year ago when the dust had settled after the eighth week of the season. Vanderbilt had beaten Auburn in the first game of what was the longest SEC winning streak coming in to 2013.

My, how things have changed. Looking at things right now, Vanderbilt doesn't appear a likely candidate to knock off the Tigers. Then again, not many people thought the Commodores would overcome a two-touchdown deficit against Georgia this past Saturday, and look how that turned out.

Things are not what we thought they would be two months ago. Some teams are better. Some teams are downright ratchet, and no, that is not a reference to the tool.

This week we will go team by team, handing out grades and comparing their standing now with comments Hot Reads made about them before the season.

Alabama (7-0, 4-0, 1st in West Division)

What we thought: "Even if you don't like them, it's hard to argue for someone else as the most well-rounded team in the conference. You have to search hard for statistical leaders in any category aside from the only one that counts - wins."

When reality hit: Things looked a bit shaky rounding the quarter post, but once Bo Wallace bragged about his receivers the Crimson Tide hit full stride. They shut out the Rebels and have allowed an average of 2.5 points and 201 yards per game since. Take away that cliffhanger at Texas A&M - who no team in the country could effectively contain - and those numbers for the entire season still stand at an impressive 4.3 and 216.

Alabama is obviously not the same team as the last two years, but has played well enough to regain its title as an honorary member of the NFC South.

Grade: A - Virginia Tech played up to its potential, making Bama's schedule stronger. And even with the scoring fest in College Station, the Tide is first in the nation in points allowed and fifth in yards allowed. And by the way, the offense is still pretty great.

Arkansas (3-5, 0-4, 6th in West Division)

What we thought: "Bret Bielema… is a notoriously calm presence. Good, Coach B. Remember that during the hard times."

When reality hit: The hard times are definitely here. Arkansas looked like a road grader through the first three weeks of the season. In five weeks since, this team has turned into the greasy spot on the highway.

Quarterback Brandon Allen has been inconsistent since he was hurt playing Rutgers. Tailbacks Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins, although fairly steady, found out the hard way playing SEC teams is different from playing Louisiana-Lafayette, Samford and Southern Miss.

Grade: D - They got an upgrade from D-minus because we know this team can beat the teams it's supposed to, and the defense has occasional impressive stands against quality competition.

Auburn (6-1, 3-1, 2nd in West Division)

What we thought: "Auburn-Washington State looks particularly compelling. That was a joke. The final score might be as well."

When reality hit: The game went the way the rest of the season has for Auburn - no frills and no drama. Well, there has been just a little drama.

The only thing between Auburn and the top of the West is a loss to LSU. Turns out Gus Malzahn is probably more of a football genius than everyone gave him credit for. In a fashion eerily similar to his last time on The Plains, he is engineering a dominant rushing attack with a quarterback plucked from the junior college ranks. Also similar to a certain season three years ago, the team will likely have four players who finish with 400 or more rushing yards.

Those are all the similarities we feel comfortable talking about at this point.

Grade: B - Mainly because they're dead last in the SEC in passing yards allowed per game. Sure, they have played some outstanding offenses, but still.

Florida (4-3, 3-2, 2nd in East Division)

What we thought: "They deserve consideration as long as Jeff Driskel develops as a passer and gets the ball into the hands of an athlete, like oh, say, Trey Burton. Remember him?"

When reality hit: Driskel is out for the season, and even though Burton is their second-leading receiver, it still feels like he has fallen off the face of the planet.

Florida was like the unattractive person who was a crush on you - you really don't want to admit you like them, and it's even harder to talk about them because their personality is so great. Well, the Gators' personality - its defense - was once phenomenal, but injuries have threatened to take that away.

Shame. This would have been a fun date at the dance.

Grade: C-plus - The stink of it is they're still deep enough to compete, but you get nowhere in this league unless your quarterback takes you. Tyler Murphy is a great talent, but he was No. 2 for a reason.

Georgia (4-3, 3-2, 3rd in East Division)

What we thought: "[Aaron] Murray will do his job, but he'll get blamed because the defense will fail him."

When reality hit: In addition to the defense, we can add the special teams and knee ligaments of just about every offensive skill player to the list of things that have failed Georgia. If mental mistakes and injuries were what earned you points in the polls, the Dawgs would be No. 1 with a bullet.

Not even Capt. Phillips can save this ship.

Grade: C-minus - A team can survive doubts about mental toughness or injuries, but not both.

Kentucky (1-5, 0-3, 7th in East Division)

What we thought: "The Wildcats could go undefeated … for the first two games. After that, don't expect much."

When reality hit: As it turns out, the Wildcats couldn't even do that. Aside from giving it the ol' college try against South Carolina, Kentucky has been the same old Kentucky. An ugly-looking ankle injury to starting quarterback Jalen Whitlow didn't help matters.

Linebacker Avery Williamson has been his usual steady self, but it's not like he can play all 11 positions.

Grade: F - Statistically and in the standings, the Wildcats are firmly planted in the SEC basement.

LSU (6-2, 3-2, 3rd in West Division)

What we thought: "Every bit as much talent as the Tide, but with a slightly more bitter aftertaste."

When reality hit: What is it with the Tigers' secondary in big games this season? First, Georgia and then Ole Miss. And let's not forget about Zach Mettenberger, who looked like the player of the year before tossing a bunch of skeet shooting targets into the Rebels' secondary this past Saturday.

Grade: B-minus - This is the grade college lit professors hand out to talented writers who don't apply themselves.

Mississippi (4-3, 2-3, 5th in West Division)

What we thought: "As my crazy uncle Larry would say, 'With great expectations comes the chance for great butt whippings.' Or something like that."

When reality hit: Boy, did they ever catch a few of those butt whippings. But they also made good on that talent by beating LSU. Contention for the division is way out of the question, but the schedule down the stretch sets the Rebels up for at least one more win than last year.

Grade: B-minus: Four of the next five games are in Oxford. If they run the table the rest of the way, they get extra credit.

Mississippi State (3-3, 0-2, 7th in West Division)

What we thought: "Last season [Tyler Russell] followed a 7-0 start with a 1-5 finish, and his top four receivers are gone. It's not like that's an impossible situation or anything … right?"

When reality hit: Well, it's hard to redeem yourself when you're sharing snaps with a bigger, faster version of yourself who technically hasn't stolen your job, but for all intents and purposes he really has. At one point it looked like the Bulldogs' defense could carry them for a bit, but not so much now.

Grade: D-plus: It's kind of hard to dislike the Bulldogs. Not impossible, but difficult, nonetheless.

Missouri (7-0, 3-0, 1st in East Division)

What we thought: "The Tigers will likely lose in Athens on Oct. 12, but they'll have a field day on that weak defense. This could be one of the highest scoring games in the conference all year, and it will help neither team's bowl chances."

When reality hit: Batting 1-for-4 on that one. It was nowhere near the highest-scoring game of the year, and it surely affected bowl chances, just not the way anyone in the universe thought. Now let's all hold our breath and hope James Franklin rehabs well enough for a showdown with Texas A&M at the end of the regular season.

Grade:  A-minus - Maty Mauk is good, but he finished a game that was already in hand and started a game against the only Florida players that weren't in the infirmary. Meanwhile, the secondary is praying the front seven continues to make up for their shortcomings.

South Carolina (5-2, 3-2, 4th in East Division)

What we thought: "[Jadeveon Clowney] could have a disappointing season (by space-age mathematical standards) and still be a force. That's how good he is."

When reality hit: Lies, all lies. Usually, when super heroes put on armor their power makes them an ominous force. But Clowney has looked his best with his helmet off, when the world can see those glorious, Samson-like dreadlocks.

Meanwhile, his team has plugged along with an efficient running game and the third-best defense in the SEC. Yep, that'll really help the draft status.

Grade: B-plus: Conner Shaw's tender body makes us wary, but teams who sleep on the Gamecocks risk getting their butts kicked and becoming stepping stones to the top of the division.

Tennessee (4-3, 1-2, 5th in East Division)

What we thought: "[Zach Fulton] is probably the best player on the best offensive line in the country."

When reality hit: It's never good when the offensive line is the best talking point for a team. That's no slight to the guys up front, but there is a reason they don't get mentioned much. Oh wait, I forgot about Michael Palardy's game-winning kick against South Carolina.

Offensive line and kicker? Boy, oh boy.

Grade: C-minus - Let's be honest. If Marquez North had not bailed out Justin Worley by catching that floating duck last week, this team would be on the trash heap.

Texas A&M (5-2, 2-2, 4th in West Division)

What we thought: "The sideshow off the field is way better than anything they do within a 120-yard by 53-yard space."

When reality hit: So far, Johnny Manziel has been the model citizen and battle-tested warrior. If you were disappointed there wasn't a massive implosion inside the Aggies' football program, there is something wrong with you. Welcome to the club.

Grade: C - Defense, guys. It's somewhat important.

Vanderbilt (4-3, 1-3, 6th in East Division)

What we thought: "Like the Rebels, this is a team on the rise. Unlike the Rebels, things started falling apart before the first kickoff."

When reality hit: The Commodores handed a win to Ole Miss, and then the best they could do was beating Austin Peay, UMass and UAB. Wow.

The ship got back on course with an upset of Georgia, but starting QB Austyn Carta-Samuels may or may not play in trips to Texas A&M and Florida.

Grade: C-minus - Don't underestimate a savvy team with a chip on its shoulder. Let's also not ignore that you need depth and talent to win at this level.

Stat of the Week

569: LSU's Odell Beckham Jr. blows away the competition when it comes to racking up offense. His 1,649 total yards is 569 more than the next best player, South Carolina's Mike Davis.

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