The Southeastern Conference's most mediocre football program over the past several seasons doesn't look so average this year.
Texas A&M, which posted a 28-28 league record from 2013 to 2019 that included five 4-4 marks, is staking an impressive case for the SEC's second-best team behind Alabama. The Aggies have to qualify as a distant second due to their 52-24 loss in Tuscaloosa on Oct. 3, but they did defeat new SEC East favorite Florida and are coming off Saturday night's 48-3 stomping of South Carolina inside Williams-Brice Stadium.
The decisive defeat of the Gamecocks has resulted in a 5-1 record and a No. 5 ranking in The Associated Press poll heading into this week's trip to Tennessee.
"We're turning heads and doing a lot of things that people didn't think we were going to do," Aggies sophomore tight end Jalen Wydermyer said Saturday night after a two-touchdown performance. "If we can keep going game to game, we can keep turning heads and keep proving people wrong. This game will open some eyes for people around the SEC that we can be a dominant force running and passing the ball."
Texas A&M amassed 530 total yards while holding South Carolina to 150. Senior quarterback Kellen Mond set a program record with his 68th career touchdown pass, while sophomore running back Isaiah Spiller rushed for 131 yards behind an offensive line that has now gone five straight games without allowing a sack.
The Aggies have swept the Gamecocks the past seven seasons, but never have they been so thorough.
"You always think and hope you can have a game like this," Aggies third-year coach Jimbo Fisher said. "They're trying to dominate each play, and I think that's how you end up dominating a game. We're learning that, and, in turn, you're seeing the big picture coming together."
A picture that might include the fourth and final berth in the College Football Playoff.
Alabama is the new No. 1 in the AP poll, marking the 13th consecutive season in which the Crimson Tide have been at the top at some point.
Tennessee is 2-4 with games remaining against No. 5 Texas A&M, No. 24 Auburn, Vanderbilt and No. 6 Florida. Should the Volunteers lose to each of those ranked teams and defeat the Commodores, they would be saddled with their first three-win regular season since 1924.
"I've talked to them, and I've told them that I'm not discouraged and I'm not disappointed with where we're at," third-year coach Jeremy Pruitt said. "I'm pissed off where we're at obviously, but I've been a part of really good programs, and I know how to get there. We have to learn to play at a higher level on Saturdays. The execution part is not where it's at, which is my fault, and we've got to work hard to get them there.
"The guys understand that, and I really like the character of the guys in our room, but we've got to execute at a higher level if we want to finish the way we want to finish."
Despite its four-game losing streak, Tennessee somehow received six votes in the latest coaches poll.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart isn't waving the white flag in this year's SEC East race after Saturday's 44-28 loss to Florida, but he does realize his chance for a high-octane offense this season is slipping away. Bulldogs quarterbacks Stetson Bennett IV and D'Wan Mathis were a combined 9-of-29 passing for 112 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions against the Gators.
"Scoring points gives you the best chance to win, but if you don't feel great about being able to throw the ball vertically with who you have, you better figure out what you can do, like opening the game with a truck sweep," Smart said. "There are things there that we have to be able to do to complement who we are right now. I can't wish myself into an explosive offense. We have to work ourselves into that.
"We can run the plays that Florida and Alabama run. That's not the issue. The issue is being able to execute them at a higher level. We've got to be more accurate. We've got to get guys open, and when we do, we've got to hit them."
Mississippi State earned its second victory of the Mike Leach era with a 24-17 topping of a winless Vanderbilt that arrived in Starkville with 58 available scholarship players, just slightly above the 53-player threshold the SEC requires as part of coronavirus guidelines.
Freshman quarterback Will Rogers won in his first career start, but the Bulldogs raced out to a 17-0 lead after their first three possessions before struggling the rest of the way. Leach had an amusing response when asked what the Commodores did defensively after the early onslaught.
"I have a lot of respect for Vanderbilt, but they really didn't do anything," Leach said. "They pressured us some and basically watched us take turns screwing up and playing timid and sitting on the sideline with blank, wide-eyed faces. I'm getting sick and tired of it. We as coaches have to find a way to generate toughness in our offensive players, because right now I don't think they're tough.
"'Pretty please' and all that isn't quite getting it."
Every so often, Auburn showcases a performance under Gus Malzahn that is close to the "perfect game" every coach desires.
Such was the 48-11 rout of LSU that preceded this weekend's open date, which was reminiscent of the 41-7 drubbing of LSU in 2014, the 56-3 shellacking of Arkansas in 2016, the 40-17 stunning of top-ranked Georgia in 2017 and the 63-14 humbling of Purdue in the 2018 Music City Bowl that was 56-7 at halftime.
"I just think there are times when teams play their best games towards the end of the year," Malzahn said. "All those games you just talked about were really during the second half of the season, and I tell our team all the time that very few teams in college football continue to improve. Some of them play lights out at the first and hit a plateau.
"We've always been one of those teams that pride ourselves on being one of those few teams that continue to improve. We played our best game in game six, but now we've got to keep doing that."
The Tigers are 4-2 and will be expected to get to 6-2 with games the next two weeks against Mississippi State and Tennessee, but then comes college football's toughest close to this regular season — at Alabama on Nov. 28 and home against Texas A&M on Dec. 5.
Finally, for all the pinball machine numbers Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa and LSU's Joe Burrow produced in recent seasons, Florida fifth-year senior quarterback Kyle Trask is the first in SEC history to throw for at least four touchdown passes in five consecutive games.