Last season began on a remarkable high note for the SEC, with the conference landing a record 10 teams in the AP Top 25 following Week 1. This year’s opening week festivities carried a much more disappointing tone.
No. 5 LSU fell to unranked Wisconsin. Ole Miss bungled a gift-wrapped opportunity to take down No. 3 Florida State. Runaway SEC East favorite Tennessee needed overtime to beat Appalachian State. Mississippi State and Kentucky suffered losses to non-Power-5 opponents, while Arkansas and Florida narrowly avoided embarrassing defeats to Louisiana Tech and Massachusetts, respectively.
If not for top-ranked Alabama’s 52-6 dismantling of No. 20 USC and Texas A&M’s upset of No. 16 UCLA, opening week would have been a complete disaster for the conference.
These unimpressive early-season showings can be merely a sign of rust, but they can also be an honest indicator of how much — or little — a team has progressed. Below are the two teams that should be most and least concerned about their 0-1 start to 2016.
Most Worried: LSU
The LSU Tigers entered the season as a popular national title pick, largely due to an offense that had supposedly made significant improvements in the passing game. Running the ball was never a concern with Leonard Fournette in the backfield, and their receiving corps had proven to be among the most talented in the conference. If junior quarterback Brandon Harris showed development from last season, a trip to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game would be well within reach for LSU.
In last Saturday’s shocking 16-14 upset loss to unranked Wisconsin, though, the Tigers revealed an offense that has made few, if any, changes from the one-dimensional attack of the past two years that continues to hold them back.
Fournette accounted for 176 total yards and senior wide receiver Travin Dural recorded five catches for 50 yards and a touchdown, but nobody else showed up on that side of the ball. The offensive line play was atrocious. Heralded sophomore running back Derrius Guice carried the ball twice for three yards, fumbling on one occasion. And most notably, Harris appeared to have regressed in a forgettable performance that was capped off with a game-sealing interception, his second of the day.
Les Miles vowed to shake up the offense after an abysmal month of November nearly cost the head coach his job last fall, but nothing looked different in his team’s first game of 2016. If LSU refuses to make adjustments, whether it be personnel or philosophy, the stage will be set for another disappointing season in Baton Rouge.
Least Worried: Ole Miss
For roughly 27 minutes on Monday night, the Ole Miss Rebels looked unstoppable. Their passing offense, that ranked first in the SEC last season, had not missed a beat despite losing Laquon Treadwell, the all-time leading pass catcher in school history. Senior quarterback Chad Kelly looked every bit the part of a Heisman Trophy candidate. Plus, with the help of an aggressive defense that was containing a massively-hyped Florida State offense, Ole Miss jumped out to a 28-6 lead late in the second quarter.
Then, in 11 minutes and 16 seconds of playing time, the Rebels blew a 22-point lead.
Florida State’s offense started to click and the defense slowed down the tempo of the game, forcing Ole Miss into an uncomfortable position. Kelly’s production fell off in the second half — he committed three turnovers down the stretch. The defense seemed to run out of energy, and the Seminoles rode to a 45-34 victory.
While this collapse is a legitimate cause for concern, it comes nowhere close to the severity of LSU’s offensive situation. The Rebels offense became stagnant late, but 34 points is going to be enough to win on most weeks. With Evan Engram and Damore’ea Stringfellow stepping up as formidable receiving options, there is no reason to believe Ole Miss will not lead the conference in passing again this year. Defensively, Ole Miss can find solace in knowing that it may not face a more dangerous offense all season.
Even with this loss, the Rebels will likely be favored in the rest of the games currently on their schedule — with the exception of next Saturday’s home game against No. 1 Alabama, and possibly an Oct. 22 showdown with LSU at Death Valley.