With week three in the books, we are officially a quarter of the way through the regular season college football schedule. Crazy, right? The SEC has the been the powerhouse and measuring stick for college football over the last decade, but is it as strong this year? The ACC has been a laughingstock at times, so exactly how far has it come?
We will explore the strength of both conferences, not to compare the two, but to see how the last three weeks have changed our perceptions of both.
Let’s start with the SEC.
The Alabama Crimson Tide are still the gold standard, and you won’t get any argument from me about them being the most impressive team so far this year. Some will look at the Ole Miss game as a weakness, as the Tide were down 24-3 late in the first half and gave up 522 total yards in the game. That victory just further proved that Nick Saban is the best in the business. He finds different ways to win, and his perspective of offensive play has evolved over the last few years.
The Tide are still a dominant defensive team, and that front seven is really, really good. But Alabama is a team that can also beat you with offense now. We saw it in the National Championship Game when it put up 45 points against a talented Clemson defense. We saw it Saturday when the offense overcame a 21-point deficit. The reality of it is that Saban has found a way to beat spread offenses; simply score more.
Outside of Alabama the SEC doesn’t have another dominant team. The LSU Tigers were a preseason favorite, but the Tigers have been unimpressive through three weeks. The offense has come around and got Fournette going, but the looming questions at quarterback are still a major concern. The Tigers are still very talented and could very possibly still win the SEC West, but overall this isn’t a dominant team.
The defense will come to form once new defensive coordinator Dave Arranda puts his stamp on things, but you have to perform on both sides of the ball to be a complete team. Texas A&M is 3-0, but consistency has been an issue under Kevin Sumlin. We have seen the Aggies take down top teams within the conference before, but we have also seen them lose games they shouldn’t. They have playmakers on both sides of the ball, but this upcoming stretch of Arkansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Alabama will tell us more on them.
Ole Miss is 1-2 and they have a non-conference loss to Florida State. Arkansas is 3-0, but it too has question marks. Auburn and Mississippi State are in rebuild mode and still have a ways to go.
The Tennessee Volunteers were another team getting a ton of preseason glamor, but outside of the second half of Virginia Tech, this team hasn’t looked all that impressive. Closer than expected wins over Appalachian State and Ohio have us wondering about the Vols, and it has a brutal schedule ahead of it.
The Florida Gators and Georgia Bulldogs are still a year away, and the rest of the SEC East is trying to figure things out. The bottom line is that the SEC is not as strong as it once was. It is still a great conference, but it is becoming top-heavy. Outside of Alabama, there isn’t really a team that has proved it can contend for a title through three weeks. That’s not a bad thing necessarily, considering the early part of the schedule, but the middle part of the year will tell us much more.
The ACC is the complete opposite. For the last few seasons, this conference has really been nothing outside of the Clemson Tigers and Florida State Seminoles. The winner of that game has won the ACC Championship five years in a row. This is a conference that is slowly but surely adding depth, though.
Pittsburgh is on the rise. With the return of star running back James Conner and the experience of quarterback Nathan Peterman, the Panthers are a wild card to win the ACC Coastal. The matchup with North Carolina on Saturday will help decide that side of the conference.
Speaking of the Tar Heels, they are another group that is trending up. The offense has taken off with head coach Larry Fedora, and the defense has improved under Gene Chizik. North Carolina’s recruiting has also improved, and this group now has a ton of playmakers. After a disappointing loss to Georgia, they have looked solid in consecutive weeks.
Virginia Tech and Miami are gaining steam with new head coaches, and both could be dangerous teams next season. It’s still a little early to tell, but they both seem a year away.
The national surprise team so far has been Louisville, and for good reason. The Cardinals offense has sky-rocketed with the improved passing of Lamar Jackson, and Todd Grantham has something cooking with that defense. The week four showdown with Clemson will tell us much more about this team, but the ACC now has another national contender.
The bottom teams like Duke, Wake Forest, Syracuse, and Virginia have hurt the overall perceived strength of this conference, but one could make that argument about any of the Power 5 conferences.
It’s too early to get a true feel for what these two conferences can do, but the three-week sampling has told us enough. The SEC has a handful of good, not great teams, and it could potentially beat itself out of the playoff if Alabama were to lose. The ACC is in the same situation, but there are a lot of teams to be excited about. Clemson, Louisville, and even Florida State are still threats to win it all, and the mid-level schools are getting better and making this a more competitive league. The next three weeks will be exciting, and the outlook for these two conferences will become more clear by the end of October.
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- Let the Chaos Begin: Previewing the College Football Playoff Rankings - November 14, 2016