We looked at the all-important SEC East, now let’s discuss the SEC West. If the Gators successfully rebound from last year’s debacle and make it to Atlanta in early December who are they likely to face? It is not as easy as just saying Alabama like so many previous seasons. There are some questions to be answered for many of the contenders in the West. Still the SEC West has some spectacular coaches in it right now and we can expect some great football.
I still have to go with Alabama to win the West. College football quite often comes down to coaching and Saban is still the best in the business right now. The Tide returns five starters on defense and seven on offense. The thing about Alabama is that they sign a top three recruiting class every year so there is not likely to be a shortage of talent on either side of the ball any time soon. However, potential does not always translate into the success. Alabama has a big question mark at the most critical position of all, quarterback. The common consensus is that FSU transfer Jacob Coker will start at QB. I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that Coker almost beat out Jameis Winston for the starting job at FSU. That little qualifier means absolutely nothing. What does matter is that once again the Tide rolls out a deep and extremely talented stable of running backs behind an offensive line that includes three returning starters. Defensively, does anybody really doubt that Saban and Kirby Smart will field a quality defense? The quarterback will not be asked to carry this team. The bigger concern should be the number of players that have gotten into off-field problems this off-season. That is not typical of Saban’s teams and may be a sign of chinks in the armor.
The sexy pick to win the division seems to be Auburn. After all, they did win the SEC last year. It is certainly possible for the Tigers or War Eagles or whatever to repeat but I find it unlikely. Gus Malzahn is the latest greatest new flavor but I am not quite ready to anoint him as the best offensive mind since Steve Spurrier. Besides as Spurrier, and Will Muschamp, have learned, there is more to being a head coach than there is to being a coordinator. Malzahn must also put a viable defense on the field. I harbor doubts about any coach who seems willing to build his team with players tossed from other schools for behavior issues. It might work short term but eventually that rises up and bites you right in the buttocks. The bottom line this season is that even if Nick Marshall improves, the loss of Tre Mason is a big one. With Mason, Auburn needed some real fortuitous bounces to win the SEC West last season. I just do not see it happening two years in a row without him.
I would normally have picked LSU to give Alabama the biggest challenge for the division despite what Auburn did last season. I think Les Miles is a heck of a coach. But, there are some serious questions about the LSU offense this year. All of the starting offensive backfield is gone from last year. I do not see a star in the making in that group of quarterbacks they have in Baton Rouge right now, at least not one that looks poised to have a breakout season this year. The Tigers did add what many consider to be the top recruit in the country in running back Leonard Fournette, but if he does not burst onto the scene or gets banged up LSU may have a hard time scoring points or even keeping their defense off of the field. Defensively, the Tigers have one of the best at Defensive Coordinator in John Chavis and will likely field another stingy defense that leaves you bruised and aching on Sunday. They return seven starters on defense. Because of that defense, they might even rise up and win the West. The 2012 Gators showed what a great defense can do.
Texas A&M and Kevin Sumlin get a lot of love nationally, but I see this season as reality check time for the Aggies. They have done surprisingly well in their first two SEC campaigns BUT that was with arguably the best college player in the country. And yet, A&M still did not actually win anything. Missouri did win their division and gets none of the love the Aggies get. I like Sumlin. I think he will be a successful coach but he is now in a division loaded with good coaches and he will have to stockpile the amount of talent that LSU and Alabama have to be a real contender in the division on a regular basis. That is certainly doable in the talent rich state of Texas. This year we will find out what the post Manziel Aggies are going to be like in the SEC.
Hugh Freeze appears to have turned the fortunes around at Ole Miss. He has signed a couple of good recruiting classes but those classes were ranked more on a handful of elite players than the overall depth of the class. It is a great start and all of those lovely ladies are certainly more optimistic while tailgating in The Grove, but the Rebels do not have the depth yet to match the heavy-weights in their division. The Rebels return six players on offense and a whopping nine on defense but that Ole Miss defense gave up a lot of points in virtually every game against quality teams last year. If Freeze can continue to recruit like he has so far without running afoul of the NCAA, Ole Miss could very well develop into a serious player in the SEC West, but I don’t think it will be this year.
What can you say about Mississippi State? I think Dan Mullen is a great guy. I also think he is a good coach. I don’t think he is a great coach. He may have done about all that can be done in Starkville but it will require a spectacular coach to take Miss State to the next level. The bottom line here is that the Bulldogs make up for a lack of playmakers on offense with a lack of playmakers on defense. They have just enough talent on either side of the ball for Mullen to make them competitive most of the time. That isn’t enough to be a threat in that brutal division. The good news is that they return eight players on both offense and defense. The bad news is that they will have mostly the same people on offense and defense.
Arkansas may finish ahead of one of the Mississippi teams but I am not a big believe in Bret Bielema. Big 10 football does not dominate SEC football. There is ample evidence of this. Perhaps Bret will make the adjustment to his philosophy to survive down south. I rather doubt it. I think this will end up being a three or four year experiment that ends badly. I cannot seem to envision a scenario where Bielema outcoaches and/or out-recruits Saban, Miles, Malzahn and Sumlin. I know Razorback fans do not want to hear that. I imagine they walk around mumbling, “damned old motorcycle”.
Overall, it should be a real interesting season in the SEC West. Personally, I would like to see someone knock the Tide off of their perch. A win by the Gators in Tuscaloosa in September would be a great start.