Three games in and the SEC appears to have a fairly well-defined top and bottom, but the middle appears to be a pretty big mystery.
Alabama...Clearly in the top-two with LSU, and yet there's still a sense that we don't completely know just how good either are yet. The Tide dominated an overmatched Michigan team that, name brand aside, is realistically the third- or fourth-best team in the B1G, which is probably fourth in the conference pecking order, they handled Western Kentucky and a reeling Arkansas squad that was highly overrated to start with and was playing their third-string quarterback. LSU, likewise, dominated overmatched Washington along with North Texas and Idaho. The real tests for both come in October: Missouri, Mississippi State and Tennessee (depending on whether the Vols will have folded like Derek Dooley's britches by then) for Bama; Florida, Texas A&M and South Carolina for the Tigers.
Arkansas...It's an unpopular opinion I find, but I stand by it: the major issues on this Razorback team have more to do with personnel than coaching -- a porous offensive line and a defense short on the talent to compete in this league. Two issues that fall completely at the feet of Bobby Petrino, who was never able to get the Hogs' recruiting going at the level of the upper-echelon programs. That begs the question of whether or not things would really be that much better for Arkansas if Petrino was still running the show.
Auburn...Just what is wrong on the plains? No simple answer of course. Offensively, the Tigerwarplainsmen appear caught in between offenses. The team is still very much built for Gus Malzahn's spread, with smaller speed guys like Onterio McCalebb, Tre Mason and quarterback Kiehl Frazier. But new offensive coordinator Scott Loeffler wants to get back to more of a typical two-back, run-and-play-action offense. The only back on the team really built for that style of play is Mike Blakely, and he hasn't been reliable enough to carry things so far. On defense, the team just seems short on playmakers aside from Corey Lemonier. Brian Van Gorder doesn't come with a magic wand. The biggest question is, how is a program that has recruited so well in the last few years, wound up so short on quality depth along the line of scrimmage?
Florida...We're all used to watching the Gators beat Tennessee, but make no mistake that was a big win for Will Muschamp's program. Florida is not only showing signs for life for the first time under its young coach -- they're showing signs of improvement. They're still a bit limited on offense, but Brent Pease seems to understand how to work around those limitations with the same ingenuity we've seen out of Boise State in years past and saw from Bryan Harsin last year at Texas. And of course the Gators still have a ton of defensive talent, even without Ronald Powell and Jelani Jenkins. The style should sound familiar to anybody that's played LSU or Alabama in recent years, the question is whether or not Florida will still be able to pull it off as the year wears on. Mike Gillislee's health may be the deciding factor.
Georgia...Remember what I said about a muddled middle? Georgia just might be the first step below LSU and Alabama and squarely in the pole position of the SEC East. Todd Gurley gives them a counterpunch to Aaron Murray and the passing game, the question is whether they can hold up along the line of scrimmage to South Carolina and Florida. But make it by those two, and November suddenly looks like a cakewalk. Full disclosure, I completely expected the Bulldogs to go down at Missouri two weeks ago, but when the fourth quarter arrived, Mark Richt's squad took over and pulled away. October will determine whether or not they can pull away from the rest of the eastern division.
Kentucky...Hey, basketball season isn't that far off, right? It's clichéd because it's true. I'm sure the Joker Phillips era will be over by then. The question then moves to replacements. Is Western Kentucky's Willie Taggart too obvious of a choice?
Mississippi State...The Mississippi State Bulldogs are going to be highly, highly favored to be 7-0 when they travel to Tuscaloosa on Oct. 27. This isn't a shock to yours truly, but the way Tyler Russell has started this season -- 8.2 yards per attempt with eight touchdowns and no picks, is a big one. Dan Mullen is doing something he hasn't had to do yet in Starkville: manage the psyche of a favorite.
Missouri...The reality of depth differences hit home for the third set of Tigers around the fourth quarter of the Georgia game. Things can get out of hand that quickly in this league. But I'm still bullish on Missouri's chances to make some noise this season. Winning the East may be out of reach for now, but James Franklin is a good enough QB to knock off somebody in the league's top half.
Ole Miss...Early returns, but Hugh Freeze seems to have lifted the Rebels out of the deepest league depths. Ole Miss just might avoid being last place in the league. He's at least gotten the Rebs playing hard, and when you inherit a team this bad that's the first step you can take. How much of Bo Wallace's play is an early season mirage will be determined in two weeks when Ole Miss gets Bama, followed up a week later by Texas A&M.
South Carolina...So here's a question -- did LSU simply rid itself of its four-season case of QBAIDS by passing it on to other programs? If so, Sakerlina appears to be infected. The good news for Gamecock fans is that a stout defensive line can take you just as far as a good passer, and there's still Marcus Lattimore to hand off to. One of the scariest teams left on LSU's schedule.
Tennessee...The snowball just always seems to be moving for Derek Dooley and the Volunteers, and they're always getting flattened instead of on top of the hill doing the pushing. Don't underscore that Florida loss -- the feeling in Knoxville was that they needed a win over somebody like Florida or Bama. And if you can't beat the former it ain't gonna look too good for the latter. The question now is, will the team go in the tank on Precious like it has in the past.
Texas A&M...Johnny Manziel just might be emerging as one of the star players in the league in Kevin Sumlin's offense. Yeah, they won't see a decent team until LSU comes to town in October, but if Manziel can tear through his next couple opponents the way he did SMU last week, the rest of the league had better take notice. The Aggies have some front-seven talent on defense, and that plus good quarterback play will give them a puncher's chance against anybody, including LSU and Bama.
Vanderbilt...Improvement appears to be continuing for the Commodores in year two of James Franklin's tenure. The next step is a signature win over a team that isn't Kentucky or Ole Miss. Georgia this weekend? Not likely, though I'm sure Franklin would love to get one over on Todd Grantham. There's Auburn on Oct. 20, but this season I'm not so sure beating the other other Tigers is something to really brag on.