Five SEC West questions: Can the division reestablish their dominance?
With every team in the midst of fall camp, we take a closer look at the biggest storylines in the SEC West heading into the season.
1. How will Alabama respond from its stunning loss to Ohio State in the College Football Playoff?
Before last season’s playoff, Alabama was the perceived king of college football. In fact, the Crimson Tide entered the Sugar Bowl as 10-point favorites over Ohio State and were expected to dismantle the Buckeyes. In reality, had Ohio State capitalized on early red zone opportunities with more than six points, the game would have been a blowout.
Following the loss, staff changes were inevitable. Inside linebackers coach, as well as director of player personnel, Kevin Steele gone, now at LSU. Outside linebackers coach Lance Thompson gone, now at Auburn. Brought in to coach outside linebackers was Tosh Lupoi and Mel Tucker now takes over coaching the defensive backs for the Tide.
How soon will those changes pay off? Alabama may have the best front seven in the nation, including a D-line that will go 10-deep according to Bruce Feldman, and with the return of a number of defensive backs the Tide’s defense could be among the best in the nation.
A questionable hire at the time, Lane Kiffin turned out to be a revelation for the Tide’s offense, turning Blake Sims into an SEC winning quarterback and Amari Cooper into a Heisman finalist in 2014. With Sims and Cooper now longer on the team, look for the offense to run through Derrick Henry, Kenyon Drake and Damien Harris on the ground. If the Alabama offense returns to a ground-and-pound attack, can limit turnovers and play into the hands of its defense, the Tide could once again find themselves a factor in the SEC and eventually in the playoff.
2. Will new defensive coordinators at Texas A&M, Auburn, LSU and Mississippi State curb the offensive explosion in the SEC West?
The headline moves this offseason involved Will Muschamp landing at Auburn and John Chavis jumping ship to Texas A&M. Kevin Steele’s move from Alabama to LSU and Manny Diaz’s return to Mississippi State could prove to be as big.
Auburn fell apart last season due in large part to a defense that completely collapsed down the stretch. Insert the highest-paid defensive coordinator in the history of college football, Muschamp is scheduled to make $1.6 million this season, and many project the Tigers to catapult back to atop the SEC leaderboard. Talent won’t be an issue, as the team welcomes back a number of returning starters and will receive a boost from Freshman All-American Carl Lawson’s return as well as High School All-American Byron Cowart. Their additions should do wonders for a pass rush unit, which registered 21 sacks a season ago.
Kevin Sumlin made a wise move and pulled a double whammy as he landed his division nemesis John Chavis to run his defense. Under Sumlin, A&M has failed to reach 20 points and lost to LSU in all three contests against Chavis. Now, Chavis looks to not only turn around the Aggies’ talented defense but can provide valuable insight into the LSU program that could help A&M finally defeat the Tigers.
How did LSU respond after losing arguably the game’s best defensive coordinator? The Tigers brought in one of the best defensive line coaches in college in Ed Orgeron and hired Steele from Alabama. Steele should do be able to bring valuable insight into an Alabama program the Tigers have failed to beat in their last four attempts. Rumor has it that LSU will switch to a multiple look, including some 3-4 looks after a 2014 season that saw LSU rack up 19 sacks.
Mississippi State’s bend-but-don’t- break defense finally snapped down the stretch, allowing 25 or more points in their last three games of the season including a 49-34 loss in the Orange Bowl to Georgia Tech. Diaz helped lead Louisiana Tech to the 35th best total defense and 39th best scoring defense in the nation last season, according to CFBStats.com. With a massive upgrade in talent and his familiarity with the program, as this is his second stint in Starkville, will the Bulldogs build off their success in 2014 and once again make a run toward the SEC title?
3. Which quarterbacks will emerge in a division filled with turnover at the game’s most critical position?
The division could rest in the hands of a quarterback that has yet to take many meaningful snaps or be named the starter for his team.
Jeremy Johnson appears to have taken the offseason by storm. He’s been called the next Cam Newton at Auburn and is currently the SEC’s best odds at winning the Heisman Trophy, according to online gambling site Bovada at 10-1. All this after one half of football played against Arkansas in the 2014 opener. Kenny Hill looked pretty good that week too against South Carolina and a year later he isn’t on the A&M roster after transferring to TCU. The hype may not be fair, but it’s a reality of playing quarterback in the SEC for a perceived national title contender. Will Johnson live up to the hype or be buried by it?
At Alabama, Jacob Coker, David Cornwell, Blake Barnett, Cooper Bateman and Alec Morris are all competing for the job, however following a Sugar Bowl loss featuring three interceptions and a relatively inexperienced receiving corp to throw to, don’t expect the starter to be asked to do much for the Tide early on.
LSU has all the tools to compete for a national title, yet many have them predicted near the bottom of the division due to the fact the Tigers’ quarterback play seem to hinder them more than help in recent seasons. If Brandon Harris or Anthony Jennings can take the next step and simply provide an occasional threat of the pass, Leonard Fournette could lead this team atop the division rankings.
Ole Miss has as much NFL talent as any team in the nation, but the loss of Bo Wallace could prove to be their undoing if Chad Kelly, Ryan Buchanan or DeVante Kincade can’t lead the offense. The winner of this job won’t have the luxury of leaning on the run game, as the Rebels finished 75th in the nation in rushing last season, according to CFBStats.com, and not only failed to add any immediate impact runners, they lost one with the injury to Eric Swinney before fall camp began. The Rebels quarterback will be asked to get the ball into the hands of arguably the SEC’s best receiving corp to win in conference play, will they be able to do it?
4. Is Mississippi State doomed to fall back into the division’s cellar?
The Bulldogs already start 2015 as an anomaly, as quarterback Dak Prescott was picked to be the Preseason First Team All-SEC and yet the team was picked to finish last in their division by the SEC Media as well as FOX Sports’ Stewart Mandel and Bruce Feldman. So the Bulldogs are set at the game’s most important position and are coming off a 10-win season and are being picked to finish last a year later? What gives?
For starters, the Bulldogs return seven “starters.” For all teams that number is misleading, but it’s especially true for the Bulldogs, as they rotate players so frequently that many of the new starters for 2015 have already logged significant hours on the field and will be expected to be team leaders this season. That includes Chris Jones on the defensive line, Will Redmond at corner and Richie Brown at linebacker all of whom have made game defining plays and played significant snaps.
While many experienced players did leave Starkville this offseason, the players being asked to replace them are far more talented and have been in Dan Mullen’s system for a number of seasons, as Mississippi State currently has 34 juniors and 14 seniors on their roster heading into the season, according to their official online roster. Adding to the team’s experience is State’s best crop of incoming freshmen in the Mullen era, many of which could see the field early including potential impact freshmen linebacker Leo Lewis and safety Jamal Peters.
Doubt Mississippi State at your own risk, the Bulldogs shocked the college football world last season and have many of the pieces still in place to stake their claim among the elite in the SEC West.
5. Can the SEC West hold on to their title as the nation’s best conference?
For all the stature the SEC West earned following a 28-0 non-conference record in 2014, it was destroyed following a 2-5 bowl record. The fact that all seven games were nationally televised, including three New Year’s Six bowls, only fueled the fire for many claiming the SEC was overrated.
The division can save some face by winning early season non-conference games on opening weekend. Alabama vs. Wisconsin, Texas A&M vs. Arizona State and Auburn vs. Louisville will all give the SEC West an opportunity to reclaim the division’s claim as the nation’s best but ultimately the best way to flip the narrative will be winning high profile bowl games and at least advancing to the national championship game.