Here are grades for the Southeastern Conference teams at the midway point of the NCAA football season.
Summary: There's little to no precedent for what Alabama is doing in 2018. The Crimson Tide aren't just beating teams; they’re smashing them into a million pieces before you can even crack your beer open.
Despite some whispers that Bama's dominance is becoming tedious, this team isn't boring. What Nick Saban and Co. have concocted on offense is nothing short of cruel. They've turned their offense into a series of one-on-one matchups, and guess what? Their one is better than yours.
There is a sliver of hope for the rest of the college football world - a teeny, weeny crack, but it's there: This isn't the Tide defense we're used to seeing from Saban. It's currently 17th in defensive S&P+. If that holds, Alabama would finish outside the top five for the first time since 2007 (think about how bonkers that is).
Stats don't tell the whole story. After all, some games have been over by halftime. But there are issues when you check the tape, too. Saban's side has a penchant for giving up big plays, and his front isn't as versatile as it's been in the past.
Preseason injuries to the linebacking corps decimated not only the front's depth, but the variety of athletes it could chuck at opponents. Sure, the Crimson Tide's still stocked with five-star menaces at linebacker. But, unlike the last few years, they're all the same kind of menace: downhill thumpers with supreme lateral quickness. It's a sweet combination, but it doesn't allow Saban to be as effective from as many different fronts as he would like to be. Alabama's forced to either stick in base or run looks with guys who lack the optimal skill sets.
Key figure: Tua Tagovailoa, of course. What he's done to the midpoint of the season is unfathomable. He's made Bama the most effective and efficient offense in the game on standard downs (64.5 percent, first), as well as the most explosive - averaging a big play (20-plus yards) on 15.2 percent of their plays, per SB Nation. Oh, and he still hasn’t thrown an interception. Not one. They may as well etch his name onto the Heisman Trophy now.
Summary: Jimbo Fisher must be delighted with his first year in Aggie land. He’s struck that perfect year-zero balance: winning enough games to get people on side and remaining competitive against the big boys without raising expectations too high (as much as those can be tempered at A&M).
Jimbo has beaten every team he was expected to, including a pair of excellent back-to-back wins against Kentucky and South Carolina. Running Clemson close did wonders for him on the recruiting trail and within the national conversation.
The Aggies have been successful on both sides of the ball, as they're 31st in offensive S&P+ and 27th in the defensive equivalent. They've got games left at Mississippi State, at Auburn, vs. Ole Miss, vs. UAB, and vs. LSU. It won't be easy, but there's a path to nine wins.
Key figure: Fisher has worked wonders with young quarterback Kellen Mond, whose growth since 2017 is impressive. The sophomore has become a more nuanced thrower, willing to tick in the pocket and bounce through reads rather than bail out at the first sign of trouble. He's also developed a nice bag of idiosyncratic tricks, including a tasty sidearm release he uses when the pocket is being collapsed from both sides.
Mond just finds ways to move the chains, whether it's with his arm or his legs. He’s averaging over 13 yards per completion and 6 yards per carry. Watching his continued development under Fisher will be one of the treats of the second half of the season.
Summary: In Week 1, the pressure on coach Ed Orgeron was mounting before we'd even seen a snap. "What if they lost to Miami?" we said. "Then he might be in real trouble!"
I was wrong. Orgeron has done a fabulous job cultivating an LSU side that pales in comparison, talent-wise, to some of the teams we've seen over the last decade. It sounds corny, but this team plays hard. They play for each other. It's a very different attitude from the tail end of the Les Miles era, when the business of college football had engulfed the program.
The Tigers haven't been perfect - far from it - but they've executed what their coach has demanded: all-out effort on every play. They ran over and around Miami and Georgia, dominating each on both sides of the line of scrimmage.
It will be tough for any team in the country to record a more impressive win than the Tigers' victory over the Bulldogs on Saturday.
Key figure: LSU offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger isn't working with Leonard Fournette or Jarvis Landry or Odell Beckham or any of the superstars that have come through Baton Rouge in recent years. His group has talent, sure, but it should be solid at best.
And yet it's been mighty effective. Quarterback Joe Burrow has mastered the art of being bad right up until he's really needed. Then he's spectacular. Have you ever seen another quarterback make so many no-no-no-yes plays on third down?
Schematically, Ensminger has done an outstanding job. He's designed the definition of what a modern, multiple college offense should look like: spread-to-run, quarterback options, box RPOs, hold-fold reads, motions, shifts, different tempos, and all kinds of formations. It's beautiful. He's even retained elements of Matt Canada's system from a year ago.
Summary: Kudos to Matt Luke for an exceptional job in his two-year tenure with the Rebels (one as interim head coach, replacing Hugh Freeze). Luke has brought positivity to a situation that could have easily turned all sorts of ugly, and he's kept his players focused.
As Luke knows, the real pain and fallout from the Freeze scandal - along with all the recruiting violations - will be felt down the road. For now, the team is still loaded with enough talent to remain competitive in the West.
Key figure: D.K. Metcalf, the team's star wide receiver, suffered a scary, season-ending neck injury this weekend. The redshirt sophomore has an interesting decision to make. Metcalf's skill set - height, short-area speed, catch radius - should make him a highly coveted receiver in the NFL draft, but he hasn't played a lot of football. He redshirted in 2016 after appearing in just two games. If he opts to return, he will have two years of eligibility left.
Summary: Remember, these grades are relative to the team's preseason projections, and expectations were sky-high for the Bulldogs. They had a dominant defensive front, a new offensive mastermind, and a quarterback with the talent and moxie to win big games. On paper, they should be really, really good.
And they have been! Mississippi State currently ranks 15th in S&P+. Yes, it anticipated beating Kentucky and Florida, but both of those teams are much better than expected this year.
It's the manner in which the Bulldogs lost to Kentucky that was jarring, as the Wildcats lined up and bullied MSU on both sides of the ball.
At least the team's vaunted defensive front has held up its end of the bargain. MSU ranks in the top 10 in the country in stuff rate, red-zone success rate, third-down success, and limiting explosive plays. That's typically a recipe for winning a lot of games.
Key figure: The issues are on offense. Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald has not played well, tossing just five touchdowns to four interceptions. Though he's always been more of a threat with his legs than his arm, he showed real signs of progress with the latter prior to his injury last season. Now, he looks tentative - even fidgety - inside the pocket, and he's completing less than 50 percent of his throws.
Part of this is on Joe Moorhead, a reputed offensive wizard. Completion percentage is really a team stat: How did the team block? Did the receivers create separation? Did the quarterback get rid of the ball on time and in rhythm?
Moorhead is working with an average batch of receivers and a quarterback who looks gun-shy. This needs corrected, through play design, if the Bulldogs are going to approach the 9-to-10 wins they would have been eyeing in the preseason.
Summary: I guess it's one of those awful Auburn years. When Gus Malzahn's teams crater, they try to make the implosion as spectacular as possible.
The lone bright spot: Auburn's defense is as good as any in the nation, other than perhaps Michigan. But the offense resembles a clogged toilet. It can't get anything going on the ground or through the air. A unit that always seemed one step ahead is now utterly predictable; the Tigers rank 97th in offensive S&P+.
Quarterback Jarrett Stidham has had a dreadful season. He's tossed seven touchdowns to four interceptions, looking like a shadow of his former self. Stidham was at his best in 2017 when throwing down the field off heavy play-action. The Tigers' offensive line has struggled and Stidham hasn't gotten the time he needs to take downfield shots. He was billed as a guy who could elevate the play of those around him, but that's proven to not be the case.
Still, even Auburn isn't daft enough to can its coach six months after giving him a fresh seven-year, $49-million contract extension.
Key figure: At this point, Malzahn is coaching to save face. The loss to Tennessee on Saturday was the Vols' first SEC win in 12 tries. There's a very real chance Auburn doesn't win another SEC game the rest of the way, with Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Georgia, and those fellas from Tuscaloosa on the schedule.
Malzahn leveraged wins over Georgia and Alabama - and Arkansas' interest - into a new contract last fall. He'll need to pull off something similar this year.
Summary: Chad Morris' Year 0 hasn’t gone quite as swimmingly as Jimbo Fisher's. He's probably regretting all those comments that he could instantly mold Arkansas players - who were recruited to play an old-school, pound-the-rock style - into pace-and-space stars. Perhaps he should have admitted that it's going to take a while to install his system. He's not just changing the offense; he needs to recruit an entirely different body type.
Still, there should be enough talent on the field - whether it fits his system or not - to beat Colorado State (104th in S&P+ and one of the very worst teams in college football) and North Texas. Arkansas lost a one-score game to CSU, and North Texas blew Morris' men off the field 44-17.
Key figure: Morris has spent his first year trying to figure out if his quarterback of the future is currently on his roster. He's not, but the Razorbacks' running back of the future is.
Rakeem Boyd, a star on the most recent season of the Netflix show "Last Chance U," has been mighty impressive. Boyd is blessed with tremendous explosiveness and just enough wiggle to make guys miss in the hole. He's averaging 7.6 yards per carry on 53 touches.
Morris finds creative ways to get his athletes favorable matchups in space. That's been tough this year, as he doesn't have enough depth to share the wealth. Defenses have keyed in on his top guys. But Boyd has still punished opponents, both on the ground and in the passing game.
Summary: It hasn't always been pretty, but Florida has stacked wins in Dan Mullen's first year in Gainesville, and the victory over LSU looks better with each passing week.
The team isn't quite where Mullen would want it to be. The Gators are still sluggish on offense and overly reliant on their defense to come up with huge, negative plays.
Changing that will take recruiting cycles. For now, Mullen's likely content with a signature win in the Swamp.
Key figure: Todd Grantham's all-out, all-the-time style has been just as boom or bust as you might expect. Grantham ratchets up exotic blitzes and safety rotations as much as any coordinator this side of Don Brown, producing a defense that ranks in the top 12 in defensive S&P+ and top seven in efficiency, but in the mid-60s against explosive plays. It feels like that's going to hurt the Gators in a big spot.
Still, Grantham deserves a lot of credit. When Jim McElwain was fired, much of the blame was placed on his offense (as well as off-the-field issues). Less attention was paid to the struggles of his defense, which was drastically worse in his final year. He'd changed its makeup, moving to a smaller and shiftier front. There was a solid theory behind it: Get more agile in the era of pace-and-space offensive football.
But it didn't work. Teams ran all over Florida’s dwarfed front, and McElwain's group lacked the gap discipline to compensate for the size issues. They struggled with all the little things.
That's improved dramatically under Grantham, though there are still problems. His group relies heavily on a menacing pass-rush to bail out the rest of the defense on passing downs. Opponents are racking up 4.1 yards per rush attempt on the Gators, which ranks 67th nationally - not terrible, but not what we're used to seeing out of Florida.
That pass rush, however, shows no sign of relenting. The Gators are 10th in sack rate, and they run through a steady stream of stars, with Jachai Polite being the best of the bunch. A little bit of McElwain's vision has been brought to life under his successor.
Summary: Stomping some opponents, playing with their food into the third quarter against inferior sides, and one inexplicable stinker per season - is this what we're going to get from Kirby Smart teams?
In that regard, 2018 looks a lot like 2017.
Georgia's loss to LSU was bad - really bad. LSU ran the ball down the Bulldogs' throats in the first half and confused Smart's defense throughout by diversifying its formations and adjusting tempos. It looked like Smart's players had never seen the no-huddle. What gives?
The Bulldogs entered 2018 with the kind of hype typically reserved for Alabama. They have been crushing everyone in recruiting. Smart's biggest decision this season was choosing which five-star quarterback to play, and he opted for both.
Georgia was the presumptive favorite to storm through the East, face Alabama in the SEC title game, and head back to the playoff, win or lose. But the loss to LSU has thrown a spanner in the works. Win out and Georgia will still be in, but with Florida and Kentucky on the horizon, that's not a sure thing.
Key figure: Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, who needs to figure out what he's doing with Justin Fields. Last week, I detailed how Chaney has used Fields thus far, and how the quarterback could be used moving forward.
Summary: Kentucky's defense has conceded just 53 points all season. Every other team in the East has allowed over 100 points.
Mark Stoops has done a marvelous job so far this year. Kentucky is a legitimate top 25 team. The Wildcats are well-rounded, efficient, and explosive on both sides of the ball.
The team is fueled by its defense. Stoops runs a version of quarters-match, a system that uses hybrid zone-man combination coverages to take away deep throws.
Kentucky isn't just effective against the passing game - it's fifth in limiting explosive plays of any kind. Stoops' defense forces opponents to drive the length of the field and earn every score. Eventually, they make a mistake, whether it's coughing up the ball, calling a bad play, or a player making a bad read.
Kentucky’s win over Florida looms large in the race for the East. A win over Georgia in three weeks could send them to Atlanta for the SEC championship game. The Wildcats are favored in all other remaining games: vs. Vanderbilt, at Missouri, at Tennessee, vs. Middle Tennessee, at Louisville. And they get the Bulldogs at home.
Key figure: Benny Snell and Kentucky's offensive line get the lion's share of attention, as they should. Kentucky's O-line has been utterly dominant, and the running back has taken advantage. At some point, though, quarterback Terry Wilson is going to need to win a game from the pocket.
Opposing teams are wise to the Wildcats' antics. They use a vast array of intricate gap-scheme runs with all sorts of QB options tacked on. It's tough to block the guys up front. It's tough to find the ball. Together, it's damn tough to stop.
But someone will; that's life in the SEC. And most likely, that someone will be Georgia. Wilson, who’s thrown three touchdowns to five interceptions this season, has looked more like a slippery runner masquerading as a quarterback than the real deal. At some point, however, the ball will be put in the quarterback's hand, and he'll have to win by throwing it.
Summary: The Gamecocks were the popular preseason pick to rise up and clinch the seemingly wide-open second spot in the East. Will Muschamp was different, people said. He's installed a new spread, up-tempo offense. He's adapted his defense accordingly.
That's all kind of, sort of true. Yet the results haven't followed. South Carolina has lost all its games against good teams - Georgia, Kentucky, and Texas A&M - and squeaked past Missouri.
Key figure: Quarterback Jake Bentley has, for the most part, been awful, though he's adapted well to the new one-read-and-go offense that’s been installed by offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon. Murmurs of a quarterback change have been constant. Backup Michael Scarnecchia filled in for Bentley against Mizzou with the starter out through injury.
Muschamp has an interesting decision to make. Bentley looks frazzled, while Scarnecchia might provide the best opportunity to keep the offense on schedule. But Scarnecchia is a senior, Bentley's a junior, and the youngster has infinitely more upside.
Summary: Did anyone else find it odd that Tennessee so enthusiastically celebrated beating Auburn by a score? Sure, the Volunteers hadn't won an SEC game in 12 tries. But this is Tennessee. Since when did winning a close game against a below-average conference opponent become the standard?
It's true that not much was expected from Jeremy Pruitt in his first year in Knoxville. Progress has been slow. His team looks out of sorts on defense. He doesn't have a ton of great athletes - surprising given the recruiting rankings Butch Jones was able to haul in.
It's going to take Pruitt time to find players with the right balance of athleticism and football IQ to run his complex, pattern-matching scheme.
Key figure: Offensive coordinator Tyson Helton runs a fairly complicated system of his own, at least by modern measures. There's a batch of full-field reads and a lot of formations, each with pre- and post-snap options for the quarterback.
Tennessee hasn't quite figured out what it wants to be on offense. The Vols should lean on a spread-to-run ground game with the odd quarterback run and shot play mixed in for good effect, but too often this year, the offense has been bogged down, with Helton calling early-down passing plays to free up the box.
Helton arrived from USC with a big reputation. He's got a lot to work on the rest of this year to live up to the hype.
Summary: Mizzou is a similar team to the one it was a year ago. It's good on offense, though not quite as good as 2017. It's bad on defense, though not quite as bad as 2017.
And just like last year, Barry Odom's squad struggles against good opponents. The Tigers run a rudimentary, option-based offense that puts athletes in space and asks them to win one-on-one matchups. That's easy when you're playing UT-Martin or Wyoming; you get demolished when you try it against Alabama and Georgia.
Odom is doing about as well as can be expected with the talent at his disposal. The fun-'n'-gun, Baylor-style offense he signed off on was always going to lead to a dip in what was a once-formidable defense.
We'll know more about Missouri when it faces programs with similar talent: Arkansas, Vanderbilt, and Tennessee.
Key figure: Quarterback Drew Lock is the national name, but keep an eye on tight end Albert Okwuegbunam. The sophomore is a true physical freak, with the speed to beat linebackers in space and the hops to out-leap cornerbacks when matched up one on one. Oh, and he's a quality blocker too.
Summary: Blink and you'll have missed it, but there was a sneaky undercurrent of optimism about Vanderbilt in the preseason. Maybe, just maybe, they had a chance to do something interesting in a division with a lot of coach turnover. They had a settled coach and a veteran quarterback. No one will admit to it now, but I promise you: It was out there.
The Commodores certainly made Notre Dame, Georgia, and Florida work to win, but it's ultimately been the same old same old.
Key figure: Is Derek Mason on the hot seat? It's hard to tell. Vanderbilt is currently searching for a new athletic director, and the new person may decide to bring in their own guy. They may also decide they don't want to compete at the top table of college football and could be satisfied with close games and a few wins a season.
Mason is a terrific defensive mind, but he's struggled to sustain success at Vanderbilt. Following James Franklin was always going to be tough. He deserves more time.