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The SEC got punched in the mouth in Week 1, can the league bounce back in Week 2?

On3 imageby:Jesse Simonton09/07/23


They Win If... Alabama and Texas

The SEC is the best conference in the country. At least that was the conventional thinking entering the 2023 season. 

It’s probably still true. Probably. 

But the purported biggest, baddest league in the sport got punched in the mouth in Week 1 on national stages three different times. Sure, Florida was a slight underdog at Utah, but the Gators went to Salt Lake City and lost decisively to a team down 5-6 starters playing its third and fourth-string quarterbacks.

The ACC then collected a pair of SEC skins, with Florida State curb-stomping LSU behind a dominant second-half performance and North Carolina pummeling Spencer Rattler and South Carolina

For the ‘It Just Means More’ conference, we’re going to find out how true that sentiment really is in 2023 this weekend. Can the SEC flex its might in a slew of Week 2 marquee non-conference matchups, or will the league get out-muscled again in these showcase games?

On Saturday, the SEC has five non-conference games where its teams are anywhere between a 4-10-point favorite. 

No. 20 Ole Miss at No. 24 Tulane (+7)

No. 23 Texas A&M at Miami (+4)

No. 4 Alabama vs. No. 11 Texas (+7)

Mississippi State vs. Arizona (+9)

Auburn at Cal (+6.5)

The Tide’s tangle with the Longhorns is the headliner here, but all five games present opportunities for SEC teams (all of varying strengths this year) to make a statement. After going 0-3 in embarrassing fashion last weekend, the SEC needs to win most … if not all … of these matchups or else the conference will not be viewed with the same cache in 2023. 

Can they? Absolutely. Will they? We’re going to find out. 

Here are a couple storylines/matchups I’m curious to watch on Saturday:

We’re going to find out a lot about Jalen Milroe and Alabama’s 2023 ceiling on Saturday night against Texas

Alabama QB Jalen Milroe
Gary Cosby Jr. | USA TODAY Sports

I don’t care how many ‘ORs’ are listed on Alabama’s depth chart. The Tide’s QB battle has been decided. For now. 

Jalen Milroe took every snap before garbage time against Middle Tennessee State, and the redshirt sophomore flashed the very upside that had Tide fans drawing Jalen Hurts comps last season. It’s not just Milroe’s electric running or ability to improvise. Though, those are two of Milroe’s greatest strengths. But the quarterback also displayed legitimate improvement as a passer in Week 1, throwing with timing, touch and anticipation (13 of 18 for 194 yards and three touchdowns). 

Importantly, Milroe didn’t turn the ball over, which was an issue in his first-career start last season against Texas A&M (three turnovers). 

Yes, Milroe lit up G5 defense. But if Milroe has a similar performance against Texas?

Nite nite for everyone?

Alabama’s 2022 Revenge Tour might’ve come just a year too early. 

I think the Tide have one of the best 2-3 defenses in the country. They’ll be tested against the Longhorns’ high-powered offense on Saturday, especially if several secondary starters are dinged up or out. But even with Steve Sarkisian’s familiarity with Nick Saban’s scheme, there are far fewer questions about that side of the ball. 

Alabama’s OL is better this season, and the RB room is deeper and more versatile. The weapons on the perimeter do not match those on Nick Saban’s previous title teams, but that’s where Milroe re-enters the conversation. 

If Milroe plays like he did against the Aggies in 2022, and looks more like a liability than the long-term answer under center, then that will tell us plenty about the Tide’s upside in 2023. 

But if Milroe is the straw that stirs the drink, emphatically beating Texas with his arm and legs (reminder: the Longhorns held Bryce Young to just 213 yards at 5.5 per clip last season), then Alabama’s 2023 floor and ceiling suddenly become the same — a nightmare for every other team in the country. 

Who wins: Texas A&M’s DL vs. Miami’s OL

Texas A&M DL Walter Nolen
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

While there’s plenty of intrigue in how A&M’s new Bobby Petrino-led offense will fair against better competition (especially going up against Lance Guidry’s hyper-aggressive scheme), I’m just as curious to see if the Aggies’ defensive potential looks realized against a much-improved OL. 

It was eye-popping to see ESPN’s Bill Connelly’s preseason SP+ projections tab Texas A&M to have the No. 3 overall defense nationally in 2023. This is from a unit that, while talented, had the worst run defense in the SEC in 2022.

But McKinnley Jackson and Walter Nolen are a year older. Can the former 5-stars clog the middle against Miami’s new-look OL? Quarterback Tyler Van Dyke didn’t look a whole lot different in the opener against Miami OH, but the Hurricanes’ OL and run game did look improved from 2022. Miami rushed for 250 yards at nearly 7.0 yards per carry in Week 1, oftentimes using jumbo personnel with seven offensive linemen. 

Will the Aggies be up to the task? Can their hoard of blue-chip DL start to live up to their recruiting rankings?

A Battle of the Banjos in the Big Easy

Ole Miss quarterback Jaxson Dart vs. Mercer
© Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

I’m expecting a QB duel in New Orleans between Ole Miss’ Jaxson Dart and Tulane’s Michael Pratt. The Rebels threw for 524 yards in their opener against Mercer — 334 coming from the former USC transfer. 

It was only Mercer, but Dart looked so much more comfortable and decisive in his second season operating Lane Kiffin’s offense. He showcased immediate chemistry with transfer wideout Tre Harris (133 yards, four touchdowns) and former Louisville transfer Jordan Watkins had a big day, too. The Rebels have one of the nation’s top tailbacks in Quinshon Judkins, but Kiffin has never shied away from pushing the ball vertically over and over again, and Tulane is breaking in three new starters in the secondary. 

Pratt was almost perfect in Tulane’s opener against South Alabama, going 14 of 15 for 294 yards and four touchdowns. His lone incompletion was a drop. While he no longer has Tyjae Spears to handle some of the load, the Green Wave are deep at receiver and steady along the offensive line. This is a ‘Show Me’ game for Pratt in front of NFL scouts. Ole Miss doesn’t have a Top 25 defense, but the Rebels project to be better (and more aggressive) with a host of transfers and Pete Goulding now at DC. 

SEC After Dark

hugh-freeze-auburn-football (2)
(© Mickey Welsh / Advertiser / USA TODAY NETWORK)

In a pair of late-night affairs, two SEC teams will tangle with the bottom (or so we think) of the Pac-12 on Saturday. 

Hugh Freeze isn’t a fan of having to travel across the country to play at Cal, while Zach Arnett and the Mississippi State Bulldogs will host a frisky Arizona squad. 

The Tigers looked intriguing in Freeze’s debut in Week 1 (creative run game with Robby Ashford as the red zone QB, lots of young, fun defensive pieces), and they better bring the juice against a Bears team that now has a pulse offensively and has reloaded their roster through the transfer portal. Auburn should be able to move the ball against Cal, but the Tigers’ new-look front seven will be tested stopping dynamic tailbacks Jadyn Ott and Montana State transfer Isaiah Ifanse, who combined for 232 rushing yards and five touchdowns in Week 1. 

As for Mississippi State, Arnett & Co., are charged with slowing down the ultimate YOLO offense. You never quite know what you’re going to get from Jayden de Laura, but the Wildcats’ QB is capable of producing fireworks fast. Even after losing Dorian Singer to USC, Arizona is flush with playmakers at receiver and MSU’s secondary — sans Emmanuel Forbes — is going to be tested. 

The good news is Arizona was terrible at stopping the run in 2022, and it’s too early to know if the Wildcats’ defensive transfers have immediately flipped the script. In his first game as head coach, Arnett’s Bulldogs had their first 100-yard rusher since 2019. State is clearly leaning all-in toward its pivot away from Mike Leach’s ‘Air Raid’ offense.