So quickly, as it always seems, we’ve reached the midway point of the college football schedule.
For your halftime entertainment, here’s a look at the first half of the Southeastern Conference season:
Player of the year
In a season where no one has emerged as a dominant player like LSU’s Leonard Fournette in 2015, we’ll go with Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham. He ranks fourth in the SEC in passing yards per game (224.2) and fifth in total offense (226.7), right behind Alabama’s Jalen Hurts. He isn’t the dual threat Hurts is, but Stidham’s supporting cast isn’t as great, either. Stidham has helped transform Auburn, which was on the verge of firing Gus Malzahn when LSU and Auburn met a year ago.
Coach of the year
Georgia’s Kirby Smart hasn’t allowed the specter of a quarterback controversy to derail his 6-0 Bulldogs, who are a legitimate threat to unseat Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. The biggest stumbling block between the Bulldogs and an unbeaten regular season might be their annual rivalry game at Auburn on Nov. 11.
Here in South Louisiana, how can you not say it's LSU linebacker Arden Key? Possessing comparable talent to 2017 NFL No. 1 draft pick Myles Garrett, Key missed the spring, preseason and LSU’s first two games with injuries and personal issues. He has 10 tackles and a half-sack in four games after leading the SEC in sacks in 2016, returning out of shape and looking like he’s marking time until he turns pro. Key can still turn his season around, but it needs to start Saturday against Auburn.
Coach on the hottest seat
I’d pick a tie between Arkansas’ Bret Bielema and Tennessee’s Butch Jones were it not for the possibility Bielema’s enormous buyout ($15 million before Dec. 31) may buy him one more season. Jones, however, is in deep trouble, 3-2 (0-2 SEC) so far but with a remaining schedule that could potentially yield just one more win (at Missouri). If the Volunteers lose three or four of their next five (South Carolina, at Alabama, at Kentucky, Southern Miss, at Missouri), it’s a decent bet Jones isn’t coaching Nov. 18 when LSU visits Knoxville.
Game of the year (so far)
Eliminating Texas A&M’s 45-44 come-from-ahead loss at UCLA because it’s a non-conference contest, we’ll go with Florida’s 26-20 victory over Tennessee in The Swamp on Sept. 16. The Vols rallied from 10 down in the final five minutes to tie the Gators 20-20 with 50 seconds left, only to watch Feleipe Franks find an uncovered Tyrie Cleveland on a 63-yard touchdown pass as time expired.
SEC bowl projections
If the season ended right now, here’s where we figure SEC teams would be going bowling:
• Sugar: Alabama vs. Washington
New Year’s Six
• Peach: Georgia vs. South Florida
• Cotton: Auburn vs. TCU
Next-best available SEC team
• Citrus: Texas A&M vs. Notre Dame
Group of six SEC bowls (SEC assigns teams)
• Outback: LSU vs. Michigan State
• TaxSlayer: Florida vs. Nebraska
• Music City: Kentucky vs. N.C. State
• Texas: Miss. State vs. West Virginia
• Belk: South Carolina vs. Georgia Tech
• Liberty: Tennessee vs. Texas Tech
If SEC teams are available
• Birmingham: Vanderbilt vs. UCF
• Independence: No SEC team eligible
Note: Arkansas (2-3) and Missouri (1-4) appear unlikely to finish 6-6 or better. Ole Miss (2-3) is serving a bowl ban in anticipation of NCAA sanctions.
The Return of Les Miles
The former LSU coach is scheduled to be on the field Saturday when players from his 2007 BCS national title team are honored on the 10th anniversary of their championship season.
It’s a great gesture both for LSU to invite him and for Miles to agree to take part in the celebration. The question is, how will he be received by the crowd in Tiger Stadium? When was the last time a fired former coach was honored on the field, anyway?
It was a similar question and situation in 1988, when Billy Cannon took the field for a 30th anniversary celebration of the 1958 national title. Just five years earlier, Cannon was implicated for his part in a counterfeiting ring.
Cannon got a standing ovation. Something tells me Miles, who might well one day be in the College Football Hall of Fame, will get the same reception.
By the way, Miles, on his new weekly podcast, picked the Tigers to win Saturday. Reminded on air by daughter Smacker Miles that there are two Tigers playing in this one, The Hat shot back: “Those other Tigers don’t count. I’m talking about the real Tigers. The purple and gold Tigers.”
Just in case you were wondering where his allegiances still lie.