List of legit SEC challengers already growing short after Week 4

We all knew this was a possibility, but the reality still seems so unbelievable. Les Miles is actually no longer an SEC head coach after 11-plus highly entertaining seasons at LSU.

Saturday’s 18-13 upset loss at Auburn was the last straw for Miles, whose program opened the season as a popular pick to reach the College Football Playoff only to drop two of its first four games. And even if interim coach Ed Orgeron leads the Tigers onto more stable footing, it’s difficult to envision LSU challenging Alabama as the SEC’s alpha program this season.

Maybe nobody will.

Nick Saban’s top-ranked Crimson Tide (4-0, 1-0 SEC) didn’t do anything in Saturday’s 48-0 shellacking of Kent State to create doubts about its status atop the SEC heap. Injuries to key offensive players -- particularly running back Damien Harris -- created concerns, but it does not appear they will be long-term issues.

Hence, the Alabama machine seems likely to keep trucking up to the key three-week stretch on its schedule, when it will visit No. 20 Arkansas (3-1, 0-1), visit No. 11 Tennessee (4-0, 1-0) and host No. 9 Texas A&M (4-0, 2-0) in consecutive October weekends.

Although a November trip to LSU (2-2, 1-1) will be tricky, it’s those ranked October opponents that currently look like the biggest challengers to Alabama’s throne.

Texas A&M ran away from Arkansas in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s 45-24 victory at Jerry World, with transfer quarterback Trevor Knight performing exactly like the dynamic player Aggies fans hoped he would become.

And what about Tennessee’s comeback against Florida (3-1, 1-1), following a dismal first half where it seemed the Volunteers had no hope of ending their decade-long run of futility against their SEC East rival? Up until that point, Butch Jones’ team had hardly looked like the division favorites they were predicted to be in August, but the Vols dominated Florida on both offense and defense after halftime. That showdown with Alabama at Neyland Stadium on the third Saturday in November suddenly seems like a possible instant classic.

While we’re discussing division contenders here, perhaps we wrote off Ole Miss (2-2, 1-1) too soon after the Rebels’ matching September implosions against Florida State and Alabama. The Rebels crushed previously unbeaten Georgia (3-1, 1-1) on Saturday, handing Kirby Smart his first loss as a head coach and proving that the many shortcomings the Bulldogs displayed in earlier narrow wins become major problems against the most talented teams on their schedule.

Georgia simply does not deserve to be listed among the SEC’s top programs this season, and its performance in the September’s true separation Saturday proved it. Conversely, Alabama and Texas A&M further established themselves as Western Division powers, and Tennessee emerged as the lone unbeaten team in the East.

Perhaps teams like Florida, Georgia, Ole Miss and Arkansas can scratch their way back onto the top tier of division competitors -- there’s more than enough time for that to happen, after all -- but the three remaining unbeatens look like the class of the conference at this point. Otherwise, the SEC appears to be a middling collection of teams, as evidenced by the four 2-2 squads in each division.

Among those 2-2 teams, Auburn, Missouri (79-0 over Delaware State), Vanderbilt (31-30 over Western Kentucky in overtime), Mississippi State (47-35 over UMass) and Kentucky (17-10 over South Carolina) all notched confidence-boosting wins over the weekend, but let’s be honest about this: Missouri is the only member of this group that has any hope of challenging in its division this year.

First-year Mizzou coach Barry Odom’s team is improving rapidly and displaying explosiveness on offense, although it has already lost to West Virginia and Georgia. The Tigers’ next two games -- at LSU on Saturday and at Florida on Oct. 15 -- will tell us plenty about whether they will become contenders or also-rans this season.

It would do the conference some good to see Missouri’s rebound under Odom continue. We’re only a month into the season and the list of legitimate challengers in either division already seems fairly short.