Sports handicapper Ian Cameron delivers his SEC West Division Preview for the upcoming College Football season.
Here is a preview of the SEC West Division for the upcoming College Football season:
Alabama Crimson Tide
Another national championship repeat will be the mission for Alabama this season and although there are some immediate questions surrounding the defending champs, they are likely to be right in the mix for another title. The biggest issue is QB where Jake Coker departs after playing strong down the stretch last season for Alabama. Replacing him will be one of either Cooper Bateman, Jalen Hurts or Blake Barnett. Hurts has dual threat capabilities and the freshman is making a push to be the starter. Bateman appears to have the upper hand since he is the QB with the most experience but no starting QB decision has been made as of yet. Both RB's depart from last season including Heisman winner Derrick Henry and it will be up to Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris to step up at that position.
The team is loaded at WR led by Calvin Ridley and the return of Robert Foster should be big after he got injured last season. On defense, only 5 starters return but for a team like Alabama that recruits so damn well at defense, it will only be a matter of time before that new look stop unit becomes as stingy as it usually is. The new DC is Jeremy Pruitt taking over from Kirby Smart who got the head coaching job at Georgia. The defensive line lost some depth but apparently based on pure talent and potential, this could still be one of the best defensive lines in the country and considering that last year's group was tops in the nation at stopping the run and in sacks that could prove to be scary.
Six of the top nine LB's are returning and in the secondary despite losing Cyrus Jones, the pass defense should be fairly strong once again especially with star safety Eddie Jackson turning down the NFL to return to Alabama for another season. The schedule is daunting for Alabama facing 3 very strong SEC teams on the road (LSU, Tennessee and Ole Miss) this season but I wouldn't put it past them to win another national title and anything less than a playoff appearance would be a surprise.
The LSU Tigers had a very complicated season last year as they still had a solid 9-3 campaign yet it almost got Les Miles fired but a late season run saved his job and now the Tigers enter this season with a whopping 17 returning starters and major expectations that they could possibly dethrone Alabama atop the West. LSU seems to be a QB away from being a tremendous team every season and it will be up to junior QB Brandon Harris to improve after the team was a subpar 105th in passing yards last season. LSU will continue to rely on running the football led by RB Leonard Fournette.
The offensive line does lose both starting tackles but they did recruit a lot of quality depth as evidenced by 8 of their top 10 players on the OL returning. If Harris can improve with his passing, there are a couple solid WR's to throw to in Malachi Dupre, Tyron Johnson and Travin Dural. The defense looks exceptional on paper with a very strong defensive line, a solid LB corps and a secondary which should be one of the best in the country.
There is a new defensive coordinator with Dave Arunda coming over from Wisconsin and he did a fine job with the Badgers defense in his years in Madison from 2013-2015 so I expect a very good stop unit from the Tigers. The road through the SEC West is never easy but LSU gets two of their biggest foes at home: Alabama and Ole Miss so the threat is real for this team to emerge in the West but it is largely incumbent on getting something better out of the QB position.
Future college football bets currently have LSU at +800 to win the title.
Ole Miss Rebels
Ole Miss has the talent to contend in the SEC West, as the Rebels have improved their record each year under head coach Hugh Freeze. Ole Miss is 11-5 in SEC play in the last two seasons and they have arguably the best QB in the division if not the conference with the nephew of Buffalo Bills QB legend Jim Kelly, Chad Kelly back for his senior season as the starting QB for Ole Miss. There are question marks though on the offense in terms of all the parts surrounding Kelly. Jaylen Walton is gone at RB so Jordan Wilkins and Akeem Judd must step up to fill that spot. Laquon Treadwell has departed as their star at WR but there are some pieces to replace him with four starters that had 30+ catches returning from last season.
The offensive line is much less experienced but they do have some solid recruits albeit young to step in. They only have 5 starters back on defense but the line should be strong with a pair of dominant pass rushers in Marquis Haynes and Fadol Brown while they should get a good inside presence from senior Isaac Gross at nose tackle. The LB corps has 6 of their top 9 tacklers back and the secondary has a legit potential star in Tony Conner the senior and it is a very upper class heavy pass defense this season for the Rebels.
The schedule is a major obstacle for Ole Miss and their contending hopes as they open the season with a tough September with Florida State, Alabama and Georgia in three of their first four weeks of the season. They also must face both LSU and Texas A&M on the road. The road is a challenging one for Ole Miss and their offensive line gelling quickly will be paramount against some of the tough defenses in this conference.
Arkansas will look to build on a strong finish to last season in which they went 6-1 to finish the regular season but they have a lot of questions offensively which is not always a good starting point in this kind of conference loaded with quality defensive squads. Arkansas breaks in a new QB with Brandon Allen off to the NFL. Brandon's brother, Austin Allen the junior takes the reins of this team at the QB position but there is not much experience around him as the offensive line returns just 2 with only 47 career starts. A pair of freshmen and sophomores are taking over the Bret Bielema ground attack for them at RB.
The WR's have the most experience of any unit on the offense but the fact Arkansas runs the ball so much may not make that a big impact for the team. The good news is the defense. While the offense has a lot of new faces and concerns, the defense should be able to keep them in games with 9 starters back and the DL should be formidable led by DT Jeremiah Ledbetter and DE Deatrich Wise. They should be stout against the run. Last year, they had issues against the pass but the fact they return a much more experienced group in the secondary should help their cause in trying to thwart opposing passing attacks led by senior CB Jared Collins. Arkansas has a home friendly schedule in that so many of their games against the better teams are at home as they get Alabama, Ole Miss, Florida and LSU all at home but winning them is another story.
Arkansas has the makings of a pointspread profit producer this season but only if the offense and young QB avoids mistakes because the defense should be good enough to allow them to compete with the better teams in the SEC. This should be a good Under the total team on a weekly basis as well.
Texas A&M Aggies
Texas A&M hasn't been a major factor in SEC West since the Johnny Manziel days and the pressure appears to be turning up on head coach Kevin Sumlin who is bringing in his 4th offensive coordinator in 5 seasons as Noel Mazzone takes over the job after stints with UCLA and Ole Miss. Texas A&M also nabbed former Oklahoma QB Trevor Knight who has transferred from Norman to College Station and will be the starting QB for the Aggies in what is expected to be a very fast paced, uptempo offense once again here at A&M and one they intend on going even faster with although it is expected to be a more run based offense to take some pressure off the shoulders of Knight.
Another Oklahoma transfer will take over at RB in Keith Ford and the deep and talented receiving corps should be solid with Speedy Noil, Christian Kirk, Ricky Seals-Jones and Josh Reynolds all back. The offensive line is retooling a bit with only 2 starters back so how quickly the team's new look offense can hit the ground running will be up in the air. The defense is now in the 2nd year of Jon Chavis (DC) schemes and should improve with a defensive line that is solid and led by a great DE combo including Myles Garrett.
There is more depth and experience at LB and although there are two new starting CB's in the secondary, the talent is there and the safety spot is well positioned and they do get 3 of their top 4 tacklers in the defensive backfield returning. The kicking game could be an area of concern with their All-SEC punter and kicker from last season: Taylor Bertolet and Drew Kaser both gone. A&M is another team with potential in this conference. The defense should improve and the offense will need some time with a rebuilt OL and new QB but Knight does have starting experience and that could lead to a bit more of a rapid development with the new look Aggies offense.
Auburn Tigers are looking to bounce back from a disappointing 7-6 season and one that has landed Gus Malzahn on the hot seat. The competition for the starting QB spot is wide open with Jeremy Johnson, Sean White and John Franklin III all battling to be the starter. Franklin seems to have better skills for this offense as Malzahn prefers a mobile QB and Franklin has that ability. They have a solid RB in senior Jovon Robinson and their receiving corps can't be much worse than the very underwhelming unit they were last season. The defensive line looks deeper and better this season and having Carl Lawson healthy again should help.
The LB corps is an area of concern with 3 of their top 4 from last season departed and the secondary should be improved with 6 of their top 8 in that group returning. Auburn is a team that could sneak up on some if teams aren't fully focused and wired in when playing the Tigers. The offense should be better assuming Franklin is the QB and the defense looks to have some solid pieces that should lead to improvement. However, the schedule is difficult so Auburn will be possibly a solid pointspread team but how much it translates to SU wins is still in doubt for your college football picks.
Mississippi State Bulldogs
Mississippi State is a team in transition heading into the season forced to replace one of the best QB's they've ever had in Dak Prescott. It will be big shoes to fill for either Nick Fitzgerald, Damian Williams or Nick Tiano who are dueling for the starting job. Brandon Holloway will be looked upon to step up at RB. The receiving corps should be good with Fred Ross and Donald Gray who have deep threat potential for them in the passing game. The offensive line has more returning career starts so they should be improved and have more experience. On defense, they have a new coordinator in Peter Sermon who worked as a defensive coach with USC previously and they are undergoing a scheme change from the 4-3 to 3-4.
The defensive line appears to be strong and should be tough to run against with 6 of the top 8 tacklers returning. The pass defense slipped last season but has the potential to be improved this upcoming season if they remain healthier in the secondary which turned out to be a problem for them last season. The team does have a strong pass rush led by DE A.J. Jefferson and in the secondary they have a pair of senior starters which should be a positive situation for the Bulldogs. The good news for this team is schedule wise, they do not have to play any of the top teams from the East Division.
The bad news schedule wise is they must play LSU, Alabama and Ole Miss all on the road. The new QB will need to play at a decent level at least and the defense will need to be good both are questions and while the Bulldogs are being the defacto choice to be a basement finisher in the West this season, it wouldn't be wise to rule out this team or head coach Dan Mullen's ability to maximize the talent on hand.