Handicapping The SEC West: Two-Team Race?
The SEC West can be divided into two groups: the Big Three and everyone else. Alabama, LSU, and Texas A&M comprise the Big Three and that’s the exact order in which they finished last season. Ole Miss is probably the leader of the other four teams and the closest, at least from a talent perspective, to making a jump to elite status. Their in-state rivals, Mississippi State, follow, then Arkansas and Auburn.
Starting at the top, Alabama is poised to compete for another national championship to close out the BCS era. They are perhaps the most complete team in the division and also have the most favorable conference schedule. The Crimson Tide miss the SEC East’s Big Three (Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina) and instead play Kentucky and Tennessee. Both teams are breaking in new head coaches. That makes Bama the preseason favorite in the division.
LSU has a lot of great pieces in place to dethrone the Tide: a senior quarterback with a flashy new coordinator to help guide him to the next level, and the overall talent and depth to stay with Alabama. The winner of the LSU/Alabama contest has gone on to represent the West in the SEC Championship Game in five of the last six seasons. This year should be no different. Obstacles to LSU’s path to Atlanta include finding replacements for eight starters on defense. Even with the talent Les Miles has accumulated and the recruiting efforts of his staff, that’s no easy task. Also, LSU has perhaps one of the toughest conference schedules in the country, playing both Florida and Georgia from the East.
Everyone knows about Johnny Football and his abilities, but how will Manziel handle the pressure of being the defending Heisman Trophy winner against defenses that have prepared for him all offseason? Plus, he lost his quarterbacks coach/offensive coordinator when Kliff Kingsbury accepted the head coaching job at Texas Tech. There’s little doubt that Kevin Sumlin’s team will find a way to produce at a high level on offense. They always do, but how will they play on defense? They finished in the middle of the pack last season in the SEC in points allowed. The Aggies lost some key defenders from last year’s squad and may not be able to survive some of the shoot-outs they managed to win in 2012.
Hugh Freeze has brought the excitement back to Oxford and did a phenomenal job with recruiting, landing one of the nation’s top classes. How quickly that talent can adept to his style of play and be competitive against the elite teams in the league will go a long way to determining the path of Ole Miss this year. They are everyone’s trendy pick for a dark-horse team in the league.
Meanwhile, Dan Mullen and his Bulldogs have been consistent if nothing else. They may not have the overall talent of other teams in the conference, but they do have a senior quarterback with plenty of starting experience and they always play competitive defense. The Bulldogs just can’t seem to beat the big boys of the SEC. Mullen has never defeated LSU or Alabama, and that doesn’t appear it's about to change any time soon.
Auburn and Arkansas are in similar situations; both underachieved last season and gave up on their former coaches. Now, they’re both being led by new coaches with proven track records. New Arkansas coach Bret Bielema led Wisconsin to three straight Rose Bowls and the Badgers used a ground-and-pound method on offense, something that should suit the Razorbacks well in the Western Division. Problem is they don’t currently have the personnel to run that system. Gus Malzahn returns to Auburn after just one season as head man at Arkansas State. His presence and tutelage should provide immediate help to an offense that finished last in the league in points scored last season. Auburn scored only 81 points in SEC play during 2012. By comparison, Texas A&M and Alabama both scored more than 300 points in conference play.