Nick Saban has built Alabama into the best program in college football
While I was negative towards the lesser of the SEC’s two divisions, I have to give credit where credit’s due: the SEC West is the best division in college football, has been for a while, and boasts impressive depth across the board. While Alabama – and their four national titles during the Saban era – are the undisputed kings, other programs (Auburn, LSU) have recently won it all, and there’s no guaranteed win within the division – the Mississippi schools arguably have the best coaches they’ve had in decades and Arkansas and Texas A&M each won eight games last season.
Three of Alabama’s four Saban championships were won after suffering a single regular season loss to three different division foes. While fortunes may rise and fall behind Alabama, we can be sure that the SEC West will give us high quality football on average year in and year out. Sure, it’s annoying when fans of mediocre conference rivals take credit for Bama’s titles by proxy; still, you can’t ignore that those 3:30 games with Uncle Verne and Gary Danielson (who’s not my favorite, but whatever) on CBS are some of the best that this sport has to offer.
With the amount of talented players, caricaturish coaches, and huge games, the storylines become quite compelling. Alabama is always well-equipped to reload, but they’ve lost a Heisman-winning running back (the best of the Saban era, in my opinion), their quarterback, and some tremendous defensive linemen – their title defense will be a challenge. Les Miles barely survived at LSU and slipped a little bit in the last two seasons (17-8 total, 9-7 in the SEC); they’re always extremely talented, the question is if they have good enough quarterback play. Ole Miss is newly relevant under Hugh freeze and allegations of improper benefits follow him around, but he has a very talented roster in Oxford and likely has the SEC’s best quarterback in Chad Kelly.
Bret Bielema has the Arkansas program on the right trajectory after two years at the cellar of the division – back-to-back wins over Ole Miss and LSU on the road last season shuffled the West hierarchy a little. Star quarterback Dak Prescott departs Mississippi State and Dan Mullen must find a way to keep things rolling without him. Auburn appeared in the national championship game just three seasons ago and Gus Malzahn is seemingly on one of the hottest seats in the country after finishing last in the SEC West in 2015. Kevin Sumlin also saw some early success at Texas A&M, signed a huge contract, and now they’ve backslid some – with A&M’s delusions of grandeur in their new league, he could be looking for work soon.
This should be fun.
[Team previews after the JUMP]
This iteration of the nasty Bama offensive line features star LT Cam Robinson
Last season fit the script for the Tide: lose an early conference game (43-37 home vs. Ole Miss, a game in which Alabama had five turnovers), recover in the rankings on the strength of wins over highly-ranked opponents (38-10 at Georgia, 41-23 at Texas A&M, 30-16 vs. LSU (all were in the top ten at the time of the games)), get into the SEC Championship (where they beat Florida by a pedestrian 29-15 margin, though they were in control all game), and receive a coveted playoff bid – they destroyed Michigan State in the semifinal (38-0) and got past Clemson in a shootout in the final (45-40). Alabama ran the dang ball, often with Derrick Henry, who finished with a Heisman and an unfathomable 2,219 yards and 28 touchdowns rushing.
Bama lost quite a bit on offense, including Henry. His backup – Kenyan Drake – also departs, which leaves Bo Scarborough as the heir apparent to the Crimson Tide running back crown – he’s been injured a bit, but has that five star potential to eventually be one of the best backs in the country. Jake Coker beat out Cooper Bateman for the starting QB job and eventually delivered Alabama a title; he’s gone but Bateman is back and the favorite to win the job, even though there’s still competition. The offensive line will be young, as it must replace three starters.
Still, there’s definitely some talent on offense. Left tackle Cam Robinson is one of the linemen who are back and he’s an insane prospect as a franchise LT and will likely leave early and get drafted very high after the 2016 season. Whoever wins the quarterback job will have the best group of pass catchers in the SEC: Calvin Ridley was a good #1 as a freshman last season, O.J. Howard – long considered an under-utilized TE – was the breakout star of the national title win over Clemson, ArDarius Stewart and Robert Foster have shown promise, and Bowling Green transfer Gehrig Dieter could make a big impact as well.
The strength of the 2015 championship team wasn’t Henry and the bully-ball offensive line, it was Alabama’s defensive line and its ability to go several players deep, attack the quarterback with four, and control the line of scrimmage against pretty much every opponent last season. Gone are starting SDE A’Shawn Robinson and NT Jarran Reed, but the Tide are fortunate enough to return plenty of talent on the line: Dalvin Tomlinson, Jonathan Allen, and Da’Shawn Hand can be stars. Pass rushing specialist Tim Williams is technically an OLB, but he might be the best situational player in the country – 10.5 sacks in limited snaps was impressive.
There are also quality players littered throughout the back seven. Former five star recruit Reuben Foster – who famously committed to Auburn, got an AU tattoo on his forearm, and, well, he plays for Alabama now – is a force in the middle of the defense and should adequately replace Reggie Ragland’s production. Corners Minkah Fitzpatrick and Marlon Humphrey are long, physical, young, and talented. Strong safety Eddie Jackson came up with six picks last season and is perhaps the best player on the entire defense. Bama’s defense may not be the force that it was last year, but the talent is there and Saban made a good hire in Jeremy Pruitt to replace Kirby Smart as DC. They also have an amazing punter, because of course. Kicking is far less certain.
Alabama’s the only team who’s two-for-two in playoff appearances and as long as Saban’s in town, they’ll be a near-guarantee to get to double digit wins and they’ll be a topic of playoff conversation every year. This year, they face a USC team breaking in a new quarterback to start the year in Arlington and their SEC schedule has some tough road games: Ole Miss has beaten Bama twice in a row, Tennessee is as good as they’ve been in quite a while, and LSU always gets the Tide into a slugfest. Random chance always factors into things – consider that a miraculous Arkansas win over Ole Miss put Alabama into the SEC title game instead of the Rebels last season – and two losses would probably put the Tide out of the playoff, but as always, they’re as good of a bet as anyone in August.
Leonard Fournette is a Heisman contender, perhaps the best RB in CFB
After starting 7-0, the Tigers rose to #2 in the country and promptly lost three consecutive games – at Alabama, against Arkansas at home, and at Ole Miss. The closest margin was 14 points. It was then that rumors began to swirl about Les Miles’s job security; the Tigers recovered to beat Texas A&M to finish the regular season, there was a huge show of support for the coach, and the faction of the athletic department that wanted Les gone was vanquished. They faced Texas Tech in the bowl game, which was a truly horrendous mismatch, and ran for 384 yards on 40 carries en route to a 56-27 win. With 18 starters back and the uncertainty of that three week stretch in November 2015 firmly out of mind, there’s a good amount of talk about LSU as a possible playoff contender. Their throwback style, elite recruiting, and Miles chaos have produced some great teams before, and it looks like there might be another one in 2016.
It all starts with Leonard Fournette. Last season he ran for 1,953 yards and 22 touchdowns as a sophomore and made a compelling case as the best of an absolutely loaded class of junior tailbacks in college football right now – Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Samaje Perine, Royce Freeman, Elijah Hood, Jalen Hurd, etc. Fournette is a rare blend of power, vision, balance, and speed and he’s a perfect fit for a Miles team that prefers to pound the rock whenever possible. The offensive line might not be as good as some of Miles’s best, but center Ethan Pocic is an invaluable stalwart for that unit. Fournette led the country in yards per game last season, so even if he’s running behind a B / B+ line, he should be insanely productive, fill the highlight reel, and finish in the Heisman conversation.
Like a stereotypical Miles team, the passing game is suspect, despite a ridiculously talented receiver duo (Travin Dural and Malachi Dupree). Brandon Harris started as a sophomore last season and wasn’t tasked with throwing the ball much – he adds a dual-threat dimension, but it’s usually in the context of scrambling from the pocket, not in an option or quarterback run-based scheme. It’s worth noting that Purdue transfer Danny Etling may or may not be in contention to win the job, and it’s fun to imagine a team that’s as good as anyone at every position but QB playing a Purdue guy there. It remains to be seen how good Cam Cameron can be as the OC in Baton Rouge and Harris will have to undergo a transformation to help LSU reach its full potential; they were extremely conservative with him last season and can’t be again.
Though they’re on their third defensive coordinator in three seasons, they hired Dave Aranda, an up-and-comer from Wisconsin (who the Tigers open the season against, oddly enough) who should find more talent at his disposal than he ever dreamed possible. Their projected starting tackles are Christian LaCouture and Davon Godchaux, which are the most LSU names ever; Arden Key will resemble a 3-4 OLB and he can really get after the passer. Inside linebacker Kendell Beckwith is an All-American candidate. CB Tre’Davious White and SS Jamal Adams anchor perhaps the best position group (behind running back) on the team, and should force plenty of havoc from the back.
With their toughest games – Ole Miss and Alabama – at home, and with the bevy of talented players back on campus, LSU is perhaps the best-positioned to unseat Alabama as the SEC West’s playoff representative. Trips to Florida, Arkansas, and Green Bay (to face the Badgers) could be tricky, but LSU clearly has enough raw talent to win most games. Will it take a little insanity from Les to tie everything together? Doesn’t it always? After dodging a bullet last November, he’s feeling good and that’s bad news for the rest of the division.
Coach Hugh Freeze has a great fit for his system in QB Chad Kelly
After upsetting Alabama early on in the season, Ole Miss looked like a playoff contender – surprisingly they wound up losing three games: an inexplicably uncompetitive loss at Florida, a shock upset at rival Memphis, and a ridiculous overtime thriller against Arkansas (53-52) kept alive by a bizarre pitch play in the waning moments of regulation. That loss kept them from the SEC title game, where they likely would have won a rematch against the Gators. It was somewhat of a peak year for the Rebels, as former 5* juniors WR Laquon Treadwell, DT Robert Nkemdiche, and LT Laremy Tunsil all declared early and were drafted in the first round of the NFL draft.
Hugh Freeze has improved Ole Miss’s win total in each of his seasons in Oxford, though to improve on last year’s 10-3 campaign would probably mean at least a division title and perhaps more. Chad Kelly –
son [ED: nephew] of former NFL QB Jim – is the biggest reason for optimism: the senior threw for just over 4,000 yards and 31 touchdowns while adding 500 yards and ten touchdowns on the ground. Kelly transferred in after spending time at a junior college and quickly became the undisputed starter. Freeze’s offense is mostly a passing spread, but he likes to have a dual-threat QB capable of forcing the defense to play 11-on-11. He has that in Kelly, who should put up similarly good numbers even though he’s not surrounded by many experienced players.
Treadwell was a massive presence on the outside and Kelly will likely struggle to find someone who can approximate his level of production by himself. Washington transfer Damore’ea Stringfellow and the rangy Quincy Adeboyejo are the leading candidates to get heavy targets in the passing game and – in their own right – have plenty of potential. The Rebels will also have to decide which running back – Akeem Judd or Jordan Wilkins – will step into a starting role this season. Only one starter returns on the offensive line and true freshman Greg Little (considered by some to be the best lineman prospect in the country) might have to start at left tackle.
The Rebels return more on defense. Ends Marquis Haynes and Fadol Brown should mitigate the absence of Nkemdiche, though there will be a downgrade at tackle. Outside linebacker DeMarquis Gates is one of the best players on the defense and should be really productive if he starts for the full season; Oregon State transfer (and the leading tackler for the Beavers) Rommel Mageo was brought in to compete for the starting middle linebacker role. Ole Miss runs something resembling a 4-2-5 and their nickel corner is their best defensive back, Tonny Conner. Conner was lost for the season last September and he could be a potential All-American.
An opening weekend matchup against Florida State in Orlando should be a great litmus test for Ole Miss. FSU is a legitimate playoff threat and while either team could recover from a loss to make it in, a win would be definitive proof in either as a contender. Two weeks later, they host Alabama. 0-2 is perhaps the projected result of those two games, but Ole Miss’s two consecutive wins over the Tide show that they definitely have a chance in that game. Whether or not the Rebels contend for the SEC is contingent on if the offensive line can gel and if Kelly can find weapons around him.
Bret Bielema is college football’s Wario
Bret Bielema’s tenure at Arkansas hasn’t gone as well as expected, though with increasing win totals in each season (3, 7, 8) and the understanding that rebuilding from the post-Petrino fallout would be difficult, it’s possible to see the Razorbacks as a program to buy stock in despite being part of the nation’s toughest division. 2015 was a bizarre season in Fayetteville. They lost two early non-conference games at home (16-12 against a pretty good Toledo team and 35-24 against a not-very-good Texas Tech team) and started the season 2-4. They played in three overtime games in SEC play: they lost to Texas A&M in Jerryworld, beat Auburn in four overtime periods, and went for two to win the game at Ole Miss to cap a ridiculous comeback. Somehow, they smoked LSU in Death Valley in the evening. They finished the season 6-1 (with the loss to Mississippi State, 51-50) and wound up with an 8-5 record.
Perhaps out of desperation, Bielema tweaked his M.O. and Arkansas threw the ball plenty with senior QB Brandon Allen to close the ceiling – of course, the Hogs still pounded the ball with now-departed Alex Collins behind one of the nation’s biggest lines, but Allen was responsible for airing it out during some of those shootouts and he finished with 3,440 yards passing and 30 touchdowns. Tight end Hunter Henry – who somehow won the Mackey over Jake Butt – is gone, as are three starting offensive linemen, though new quarterback Austin Allen (little brother of Brandon) has some experienced options at wide receiver. The Razorbacks have had the unfortunate tendency of needing some time to get into a groove offensively in a given season under Bielema, and with so many new faces, it could be an issue again.
The defense took a step back in 2015, but with nine returning starters, Arkansas could quickly revert to being a team with a better defense than its offense. The defensive line might be the most talented position group: Deatrich Wise Jr. had a breakout season last year, Tevin Beachum, Jeremiah Ledbetter, and Taiwan Johnson all are key returning contributors, and McTelvin Agim – a rush end – is the best incoming freshman Bielema’s had at Arkansas. Linebacker is the relative weak spot, but MLB Brooks Ellis is a strong presence in run defense. The secondary has plenty of returning contributors, but it was the unit most responsible for last season’s defensive woes.
The Hogs will be tested early with a road game against TCU, a potential playoff contender from the Big 12. Then, in the middle of the season, they have a five-week stretch that includes home games against Alabama, Ole Miss, Florida, and LSU. While Arkansas is perhaps fortunate to get all of those teams in Fayetteville, their schedule is brutal on paper and a nine-win regular season would probably be cause for celebration. Bielema’s blueprint is plenty solid and he’s a good coach, but teams don’t exist in a vacuum and difficult schedules can put a ceiling on their potential.
There are several great pass-rushers in the SEC, and Carl Lawson is one
No program has seen the frequent reversal of fortune as much as Auburn has: Gene Chizik brought Cam Newton, an undefeated season, and a national championship to the Plains, went 3-9 soon after, and was fired. Auburn improved its win total by nine the next season under Gus Malzahn and almost won another championship; over the next two seasons, the Tigers went 6-10 in SEC play and Malzahn finds himself with little job security and further uncertainty at quarterback as he enter his fourth year as the head man at Auburn. The Tigers started 2015 ranked sixth nationally and finished seventh in the SEC West.
While Malzahn is generally considered to be a top spread option guru, the Auburn offense was a mess last season after anointed QB Jeremy Johnson failed spectacularly. There’s not much reason to expect that it will be a whole lot better in 2016: Johnson, sophomore Sean White, and JUCO transfer John Franklin III are battling for the starting job (and there’s no clarity there, especially after how underwhelming Johnson and White were last season), the team’s presumed starting running back – Jovon Robinson – just left the team, and Auburn is tasked with replacing both starting offensive tackles. Malzahn has made it work with spare parts before (most notably with CB-turned-QB Nick Marshall) but the offense needs to improve a lot.
Will Muschamp’s one-year tenure as the Auburn defensive coordinator turned things around and the Tiger defense should be even better in 2016. Carl Lawson is a phenomenal rush end (who battled a ton of injuries last season) and Montravius Adams might be the best nose tackle in the country; the linebacking corps returns Tre’ Williams but loses lots of production from last season’s unit. Carlton Davis is a blossoming star at corner and safeties Johnathan Ford and Tray Matthews keep things stable at the back.
The defense will need to be outstanding, because Malzahn faces an unforgiving schedule in a make-or-break year. They open the season at home against the defending national runners-up, Clemson, and travel to Ole Miss, Georgia, and Alabama. Gaining traction in this division is exceedingly difficult and it will take a revelation at the QB position – most likely Franklin – to keep competitive against the more difficult teams on the schedule.
DE Myles Garrett is one of the best players in all of college football
The Kevin Sumlin era at Texas A&M sort of fizzled out quickly: a freshman won the Heisman (and the team won 11 games) in his first season in college station, but the Aggies haven’t finished in the top half of the SEC West in the three years since. Perhaps that undersells things – there’s a perception that Sumlin indulges the hype too much and, with the spate of highly-rated QB transfers and a coaching staff that blows up on twitter and hosts offensive women’s football clinics, there might be truth to the idea that he’s not running a tight ship. With a $5 million contract and unreasonably expectant boosters, Sumlin might be looking for work soon.
There’s definitely talent and things could turn around if A&M fixes its inexplicable offensive woes. Oklahoma grad transfer QB Trevor Knight lost his job in Norman but could be the long-awaited answer post-Manziel (at least for a year) and he gets to throw to a ridiculously talented group of receivers – Ricky Seals-Jones is a phenomenal jumbo receiver, Speedy Noil is a strong inside-outside threat, and Christian Kirk is magical in the slot and in the return game. New coordinator Noel Mazzone should be able to build around those talents if Knight and the offensive line cooperate.
On defense, Myles Garrett is the headliner – he’s an explosive rush end that could be the top pick in the next NFL Draft. He’s joined on the line by Daylon Mack and Daeshon Hall; the Aggie DL starters are about as good as they come. Armani Watts is perhaps the best player in the back seven; it’s a little concerning when your free safety racks up 126 tackles over the course of the season. Former LSU coordinator John Chavis turned things around in one season, so A&M will look to take another step forward in 2016.
The schedule is daunting. The Aggies host UCLA in the opener and draw Tennessee from the East; home games late in the season against Ole Miss and LSU could determine Sumlin’s fate. He’s recruited well enough to succeed at A&M and has proven he could win – a lot will depend on how Knight does as a one-year rental. If he’s one of the best QBs in the SEC, A&M could surprise.
WR Fred Ross won’t be catching passes from MSU great Dak Prescott in 2016
Dan Mullen has been in Starkville for seven seasons and after finishing 5-7 in his first campaign, the Bulldogs have finished above .500 and made a bowl every season. He’s 55-35 overall at Mississippi State and has gone 26-30 in SEC play – at the school with the least resources, by far, in the country’s toughest division, that definitely constitutes on-field success. After a breakthrough 2014 season in which they finished with 10 wins, a second-place finish in the West, and an Orange Bowl appearance, the Bulldogs fell back to earth a little bit last year (9-4 (4-4), fifth-place) and have to replace Dak Prescott, one of the best QBs in program history.
There are a few contenders for the quarterback job, and whoever wins it will likely be tasked with taking a heavy amount of carries, which has become customary under Mullen. Mississippi State also doesn’t have an obvious choice at running back, and the offensive line was porous last season – the strength of the offense is in its receiver corps, highlighted by Fred Ross. He caught 88 passes for 1,007 yards, should get a healthy dose of targets in the passing game again, and will be in contention for All-SEC honors.
Peter Sirmon comes in from USC (where he was the linebackers coach) to be State’s new defensive coordinator; MSU will move to a 3-4 scheme that should showcase star senior LB Richie Brown’s tackling ability from an inside linebacker spot. A.J. Jefferson will likely be productive as a 3-4 creating tackles for loss in the running game and Brandon Bryant – a redshirt sophomore playmaker at safety – is potentially the next standout on that side of the ball for the Bulldogs.
MSU gets Kentucky and South Carolina from the East and has three non-conference games that should definitely be wins, so there’s a good chance they’ll be back in a bowl game again – still, 2014 will fall further into the past and could be an anomaly in Mullen’s tenure.